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The Role of Systems Integrators in Electronic Commerce

By Karen Clothier, Director of Business Development, NetQuest Inc.,
San Francisco, California
E-mail: kclothier@netquest1.com
NetQuest Web Site: http://www.netquest1.com
A San Francisco-based firm, NetQuest designs, develops, integrates and deploys custom business applications to increase efficiency throughout their clients’ organizations. They can be reached at 800-440-9054.

What is a Systems Integrator?

A Systems Integrator is a company that assists in merging new hardware and/or software into a company’s current infrastructure. For the purposes of this discussion, the focus will be on the role of a Systems Integrator in installing a new software system.

How do Systems Integrators add value?

Most people would agree that Information Technology (IT) infrastructure is more complex today than ever before. The vast majority of companies are struggling to keep up with changing technology and are unwilling to throw out their previous investments before absolutely necessary. The result is an IT infrastructure littered with discordant systems. A typical IT landscape might include some mainframe legacy applications, client-server applications and Internet, intranet or extranet applications. In order for a company to leverage its investments, all these systems somehow need to operate efficiently together.

A Systems Integrator should be able to understand the big picture. They should be able to understand your business as well as all the pieces of your technology puzzle, and assist you in pulling all the pieces together to run your business most efficiently. To attain this level of efficiency, one solution an Integrator might suggest would be to integrate your mainframe data onto the Internet/intranet so that anyone with a browser (and proper authorization) can access the data. Another solution might be to build an intranet that feeds requisitions into your ERP Purchase Order system. Yet another solution might involve feeding Sales Orders from an Electronic Order form on the Internet through to an ERP Sales Order system, and perform real-time Inventory checks before orders are processed against your Inventory Management system. Because each company starts the integration process with different pieces of the technology in place and different priorities, a Systems Integrator’s advice on the best solution for you will depend on their understanding of your business objectives and processes as well as your technology landscape.

The functional role of a Systems integrator

Project Management

Throughout the entire process the Integrator will be assembling the necessary resources for all phases of the implementation. They will be planning and continually assessing the progress of each phase. The most important aspect of this job is to keep the focus and forward momentum of the project. The Project Manager has to continuously evaluate any new requirements against the priorities, and ensure that all activities are cost-justified. The Project Manager will be the main contact from the systems integrator’s side, providing regular status updates and ensuring unresolved issues are being addressed so the project can proceed as scheduled.

Define scope of project

The first step in the process is to determine what the project will entail (the scope). This is a crucial step as many projects suffer from "scope-creep", which means that the project keeps growing and expanding beyond the initial requirements. This is the principal culprit behind missed deadlines and overrun budgets. It is a fact of life that once users are interviewed and start to assemble their wish-lists, they are going to come up with innumerable features that sound great but many not be cost-effective. This is why it is essential to have an Integrator who understands not only your business but also your current and future business objectives. This knowledge will assist the Integrator in giving you the best advice on allocating your budget to the most beneficial areas first. An effective way to approach the problem of having more wishes than dollars is to phase the development and implementation. This way you get to begin using the most important features first and from the experience gained you can provide the Integrator with specific feedback for later phases.

Design areas of customization

The next step is for the Integrator to gain a more detailed understanding of how your business works and if any changes are required to either the off-the-shelf system being installed or to your business processes. This involves going through the business areas affected and interviewing the users in those areas. These users should be carefully chosen and have an intimate understanding of their functional areas. They should also have some authority to make decisions on how the system will work and get cooperation from other users on that point. A time commitment from users and management will be essential in this phase as the Integrator will be producing documentation and/or prototype screens detailing what they have gleaned from interviews. These documents and screens will need to be approved and there will be an on-going need for resolution of outstanding issues by the users of the system.

Design implementation plan

An Integrator is extremely helpful in this phase due to their experience in implementing systems. Implementations involve careful planning. The plan should specifically lay-out the resources required for tasks such as conversion of existing data, designing and developing the system components, unit testing of components, system testing, user documentation, training, implementation and support. It should also detail whether the implementation will be done gradually (e.g. a limited set of commodity codes) or a big-bang approach where the entire system is implemented at once across all functional areas. Another implementation approach is to parallel test the old system and the new one by running them simultaneously. In this way risk is reduced and the results of both systems can be easily compared. If that is the approach selected, the strategy for temporarily maintaining the data in two systems must be addressed.

Develop customization components

The next step is for the development team to develop the customizations specified in the design phase and perform unit testing on each component as it is completed. Quality Assurance should always be performed by a person other than the developer of the unit to ensure the unit meets the design specifications.

Perform data conversion

The data from your current system will need to be converted and brought into the new system. This may involve an extensive manual data cleanup effort prior to the automated cleanup. This process usually runs concurrently with the development of the customization components.

Release system for system testing by users

A system test plan for the entire phase that is being implemented should be written up before the start of System Testing. The test plan should utilize a wide variety of data, and document the expected results. Users of the system should go through the entire test plan carefully and report any problems back to the development team.

Prepare user documentation and technical documentation

Thorough documentation of the system should be prepared so that in the future users will be able to understand the functionality of the system on their own. It is also imperative to prepare technical documentation on each module of the system, thus simplifying future maintenance. It is especially important to document why certain technical decisions were made so that developers working on the system in the future have the complete history.

Perform user training

Users should be trained as close to the time of implementation as possible so that they can move straight into using the actual system. If a phased implementation is being executed, this makes the training much more manageable as there is a smaller number of people being trained at any one time. Training should include online practical use of the system so that users’ questions can be addressed before the system is used in a live setting.

Implementation of system

This is the phase where a lot of midnight oil is burned. This involves the task of loading all the converted data into the new system and physically moving the components of your new system from a test environment to your production environment. This is usually quite a complicated task as there are thousands of components that all need to come together to make the system work properly. This truly is a team effort and requires a great deal of cooperation from all parties involved.

Post-implementation support

The Systems Integrator should be available for a period of time after implementation to assist users with questions and implementation issues as they arise. Many issues will come up in terms of how to deal with certain cases using the new system, and it is impossible to anticipate all of these situations beforehand. It is, therefore, essential to include some allowance in your budget for handholding time after the system is implemented.

In summary, the implementation of a system is a complex operation involving many diverse tasks. The Systems Integrator should understand all facets of this operation which requires that they posses substantial experience in both the areas of business AND technology. Given that the Integrator is responsible for managing the entire process, which will include many people and procedures throughout the organization, strong project management skills are also a must.