The outward-in business approach and the rise of ecosystem-driven integration

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The term “ecosystem” certainly isn’t a new one – Gartner, Deloitte, McKinsey and Forbes all have given a fair amount of ink to it in recent years – but it’s gaining increased attention today in the context of digital business networks, which consist of a growing number of systems, applications, and people that electronically interact to turn the wheels of modern-day commerce.

A business ecosystem, in the most basic sense, comprises an interconnected community of trading partners – customers, suppliers, vendors, distributors and manufacturers (and their own systems and applications), to name a few – that work together to propel the flow of goods and services. However, the savviest organisations understand just how critical these relationships are, and the most forward-thinking ones have already begun to think critically about the value such interactions provide in a digital business economy.

Now, organisations are shifting focus outward on these business ecosystems to better engage with their community of partners to expedite order-to-cash processes, reduce costs, increase value and improve service. The move to an ecosystem-driven approach to business, however, requires significant change to the processes and technologies that power the organisation, including integration.

In an ecosystem-driven integration approach, organisations prioritise their business processes – the ones that occur at the edges of the ecosystem, wherever multi-enterprise systems connect – because this is where business really happens today.

The importance of integration

The rise of the ecosystem-driven approach is the result of a simple shift in perspective. For decades, organisations have set their focus inward and pieced together a mishmash of technologies and processes that make the business – their businesses – go ‘round. But competitive differentiation today manifests in the form of superior service to customers and partners, and the easier you are to do business with – the easier it is to connect and transact with you – the more you’ll limit customer churn and unlock new revenue.

At the crux of this pivot in ideology is integration, a strategy of connecting and exchanging data with internal and external systems. But many organisations are currently undertaking digital remastering and IT modernisation initiatives as their businesses evolve, and this means integration becomes even more important.

As companies modernise, they delegate non-core capabilities to purchased applications that solve a specific business challenge – i.e., an ERP to manage operations and customer data, a TMS to coordinate logistics and transportation, or a WMS to control inventory and warehousing functions. With so many options in this space fuelled by the cloud and automation techniques like APIs, DevOps and containerisation, several integration-affecting trends are emerging as well. Businesses are increasingly:

  • Adopting cloud and SaaS solutions to effectively differentiate and compete in the marketplace
  • Realising the limitations in current integration technologies being used to integrate SaaS solutions, internal business systems and their broader ecosystems.
  • Understanding the importance of integration between such systems and between themselves and their ecosystem partners.

Proper integration of a business ecosystem, then, requires the right mix of strategy and technology to enable, streamline and integrate external B2B transactions with internal data workflows running through your ERP and other key business applications. This sounds entirely reasonable until you consider the number of on-premise legacy solutions, cloud services and SaaS applications powering the average organisation on any given day.

But existing approaches to integration lack the capabilities to properly deploy an ecosystem-driven strategy:

  • Hand-built, custom integration tools, which cease to be cost-effective as the number of integrations increase, are difficult to manage and actually hinder business growth.
  • Point-to-point technologies coded from the ground up, which require a highly skilled development team to implement and maintain, are usually one-off solutions that actuate data silos and provide little flexibility and scalability.
  • Outsourced ecosystem integration models, such as the use of VANs and cloud service brokers, tend to be inflexible and expensive and come up short on the control, agility and “white glove” service needs modern digital businesses expect.

Additionally, it’s extremely difficult for any of these approaches to enable the compliance and governance so many modern business processes demand.

The more modern approach to integration – the one that support the processes at the edges of your ecosystem – entails a well-aligned business and IT strategy to power all B2B and EDI integration, application integration, big data integration and cloud integration use cases.

The ecosystem integration approach

Supporting an expanding number of systems, applications and trading partners in your business ecosystem also means flexibly supporting all the information flowing through it. The sheer amount of data available for processing by an organisation only continues to grow, and the capabilities needed to process, manipulate and distribute data to the right places in an organisation and its ecosystem partners necessitates a different approach to data handling and transformation.

It requires a combination of advanced data movement protocols, rich transformation capabilities and application connectors to enable organisations to say yes to the integration needs of a modern digital ecosystem. Such capabilities enable:

  • Faster onboarding of new business partners, leading to faster time-to-revenue
  • Easier adoption of new business models, since all the integration tooling is already there
  • Businesses to focus on where the value is, taking an “outside-in” approach to integration driven from the ecosystem inward using modern B2B capabilities

Thus, an ecosystem-driven strategy empowers your business to surgically focus on your value chain. By linking the systems, applications, data stores and big data platforms that really matter to a given process or relationship – instead of connecting everything under the sun -- you can discover better, more creative ways to use data to maximise enterprise value.

Forward-looking organisations are beginning to embrace advanced integration technologies as a core competency because they provide exceptional flexibility in the front end of the business process ecosystem, while adding agility on the back end to proactively respond to changing market needs. It’s something outdated integration models cannot deliver, and it’s why low-friction, automated ecosystem integration solutions are more popular than ever.

Enable the ecosystem, insulate your business

If some variation of the phrase “ecosystem-driven integration” hasn’t already started hijacking your email subject lines, online banner ads and social media feeds, then it soon will. The increased emphasis on ecosystem enablement – the integration and governance capabilities that empower your trading partner communities – highlights the growing importance of the business processes that serve your customers and generate revenue.

With the proliferation of e-commerce and online business models, traditional businesses that lack IT agility, the flexibility to quickly integrate with their ecosystem partners and the ability to say “yes” to new business are at risk of getting left behind. 

The nature of commerce today demands an ecosystem-driven cloud integration approach, a platform that supports traditional EDI, XML and other B2B workflows and offers a host of adapters and API capabilities to enable integration between local databases, files, and on-premise environments with cloud-hosted data and applications, including data warehouses and big data platforms.

Organisations that fully engage and empower their business ecosystems are ones whose integration toolboxes deliver:

  • Complete breadth and depth of integration options – any protocol, any data format, any API, any trading partner location and data of any size
  • A way to modernise legacy systems while connecting to any SaaS application
  • Strong EDI capabilities that evolve with the digital age
  • The ability to stream large data sets with minimal resource consumption
  • Technologies that can embed seamlessly into their own service offerings
  • Elegant data pipelines to feed their data lakes

With an ecosystem-driven cloud integration platform, organisations gain insulation from changes to their digital networks as they modernise IT infrastructures, the ability to enable frictionless digital business by adopting evolving strategies (think omnichannel, POS-driven dynamic pricing and positioning, etc.) and a highly agile set of integration capabilities that enable them to respond at the pace of business.

John Thielens, Chief Technology Officer, Cleo
Image Credit: Rawpixel / Pixabay