Technology advances but IT's aim must still be to provide visibility to the business

Integration platforms will enable business leaders to make better informed decisions

Integration platforms will enable business leaders to make better informed decisions

Over the past decade, the IT industry has experienced some extraordinary ups and downs. From the breakthroughs, revolutions and, to use the dotcom catchphrase, paradigm shifts, there have been major advances as well as some hard lessons.

Although change has been a constant force, what stands out during my 10 years at software company SAP is the consistent focus by businesses using technology to achieve one core goal: visibility.

As the IT industry has evolved from the mainframe to client/ server architecture to the latest services-oriented architecture, there have been parallel advances in the pursuit of greater visibility.

The relentless march towards gathering, integrating and analysing information about business operations has proven a key driver in the dramatic increase in business productivity.

From the back office to the front office, across financial operations, human resources and the supply chain, to new product development and customer services, companies are using information more adeptly to drive growth, reduce costs and ultimately make better business decisions.

In 1979, in the era of the mainframe, systems such as SAP R/2 first began helping companies understand the value of information integration. These early enterprise resource planning software applications demonstrated that technology could organise and integrate functions such as general ledger and accounting, enabling companies to automate many back-office processes and gain a single view of information to which executives could react.

As the client/server model gained acceptance in the late 1980s, it gave companies more computing power to extend the value of integration and gain visibility beyond the back office. The client/server software architecture's versatile, message-based and modular infrastructure helped to improve usability, flexibility, interoperability and scalability, leading to the introduction of an entirely new set of business applications.

Organisations realised their human resources departments, supply chains and customer service centres could all be underpinned by business applications. On top of that, they could better analyse the data from these systems with datawarehousing software that "crunched the numbers" to make sense of it all.

The advent of the internet spurred an even faster pace of evolution, bringing us closer to complete business visibility. Technology innovations helped further integrate disparate business processes such as supply chain and customer services with enterprise resource planning. Integrated information from across the business helped executives achieve greater visibility to react even more quickly.

Today, once again, visibility is the clear driver as we edge closer to achieving our mission. The evolution has taken us from integrating a small set of back-office business operations to integrating many business operations and processes.

Yet to drive further innovation, we are now setting forth a vision of the services-oriented architecture that enables firms to further integrate heterogeneous applications and information sources.

This is possible with new integration and application platforms that embrace internet standards such as HTTP and XML. This new generation of platforms ensures openness and interoperability so organisations can gain a single, unified view of operations across all of the applications they use. These platforms also reduce the costly integration between systems, lowering total cost of ownership and increasing the flexibility to introduce and change business processes.

Integration may lack glamour, but with sound business thinking, it is proving to have a profound effect. From the upheaval in the boom times of the 1990s through to the bursting of the dotcom bubble, successful companies are those that have focused on innovation, integration and visibility. With the confidence of experience and a maturity that only comes through tough lessons learnt, we are moving forward to achieve the mission.

Simon Harrison is chief technology officer at SAP UK

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