Many companies call it "swivel-chair integration" and it is the bane of their employees' working lives - the need to swap feverishly between multiple applications to complete a single business process.
Take, for example, call centre staff handling a customer order. As well as making an entry into an order management system, they may also need to verify the customer's credit status against a finance system and check the product is in stock against an inventory system.
This will involve re-keying the same data into different systems, making multiple telephone calls and managing a slew of hastily scribbled notes.
Such inefficiencies can lead to lost sales and irate customers. According to research commissioned by software tools company Corizon, 66% of call centre agents use three applications or more to serve customers on a typical call and 27% use five or more. More worryingly, 71% claimed time is wasted on or after a call because of switching between different applications and 53% admitted that errors do creep in when entering data into multiple systems.
Swivel-chair integration also leads to unnecessarily high costs, said Martin Percival, principal technologist at infrastructure software company BEA Systems. "In these situations, the cost of doing business is much higher because the company has to train people on different applications. Data gets lost, is inaccurate or is inconsistent," he said.
The answer, according to Percival - and a growing band of software companies, industry analysts and consultants - is a "process portal", a unified user interface that enables end-users to perform a business process, regardless of how many underlying systems that process touches.
The portal concept is by no means new, but has evolved rapidly from its roots in the late 1990s as a means of distributing "read only" information from different sources to employees. In recent years, portals have become more transactional to support a wider variety of business activities, including collaborative processes such as project management.
However, the process portal takes the emphasis on transactions a stage further. Employees can use the portal to co-ordinate the steps involved in a single process. The portal relies on the presence of a sophisticated integration layer, sandwiched between multiple applications and the process portal.
"The integration layer collects business logic components from disparate systems and serves them up to end-users according to the order in which process steps need to be completed, the end-user's profile and what steps they are authorised to make," said Gill Corfield, technology support manager at software tools company Compuware.
In the past, integration has typically been provided by specialist enterprise application integration tools. Increasingly, however, open standards such as web services are making integration far easier.
Web services enable developers to circumvent traditional application interfaces and integrate directly with the internal business logic of applications, regardless of whether they are packaged or bespoke systems.
These chains of business logic components that come from different systems but support a single process are frequently referred to as "composite applications".
"For example, a composite application for looking up customer information might use web services technology to pull account history from a Siebel customer relationship management system and fulfilment history from an SAP system and present the results through a customer web interface - the process portal," said Nate Root, an analyst with IT industry research company Forrester Research.
In this way, each business process is represented by an underlying composite application that has a web services-based interface, presents content and application interfaces in a step-by-step process, and integrates with the services of the underlying portal platform, such as authentication, search and entitlements, said Corfield.
The first step in establishing a process portal is to get the underlying integration infrastructure right. "If you are building a new house, you want to get the plumbing and electricity right first time so you do not end up rewiring or replumbing just because you have bought a new toaster," said Kevin Malone, a senior consultant at IBM software.
Composite applications, however, offer a distinct advantage over older integration approaches: the ability to re-use a particular piece of business logic (such as entering a new order) again and again in different process chains.
"This enables organisations to extend the life of legacy applications by wrapping bits of their code in web services," said Corfield.
The real challenge for most organisations will be cultural, said Root. "You buy the infrastructure architecture upon which to build a process portal, but that is the easy part. The hardest parts include securing funding, building the project team, prioritising which business processes to target and convincing users to migrate to the new, portal-enabled business processes."
Some organisations have already made steps in that direction. Online travel booking service provider Amadeus uses process portal technology from BEA Systems to provide a comprehensive service to its customer base which incorporates airlines, travel agents and corporate travel departments.
Through a process portal these customers can access more than 95% of the world's scheduled airline seats, almost 64,000 different hotels and 25,900 car rental locations, as well as ferry lines, railway operators, cruise lines, travel insurance companies and tour operators.
By using Java standards Amadeus has integrated two process portals - one for travel agents and airlines (Planitgo) and one for corporate travel departments (Aergo) - with the systems of thousands of suppliers. Both reside on the same BEA architecture and share the use of many of the same business logic components, such as creation of passenger profiles and pricing engines, said Denis Lacroix, director of product development at Amadeus.
"Because the platform supports existing and emerging internet standards, we can be flexible. More importantly, we can integrate more simply with third-party databases and applications," he said.
"Not only does this provide long-term investment protection, it gives us complete freedom to make business decisions based on business needs rather than on technical limitations." Which will appeal to a host of companies from every industry.
At a glance
The need to swap feverishly between multiple applications to complete a single business process.
A process portal is a unified user interface that enables end-users to perform an entire business process - for example, booking a business trip with flights, a hotel, car hire and insurance requirements - regardless of how many underlying systems that process touches and without needing to re-key the same information.