The smaller your business, the less you can afford inefficiency or waste. Intuitively, it might seem easier for a smaller business to achieve efficient processes and for management to have a comprehensive view of operations. Surely it’s easier for inefficiency to flourish in the depths of sprawling corporate giants, right? But the fact is that efficiency is often a larger challenge for a smaller business for several reasons. Processes are often informal and knowledge of them is stored primarily in people’s heads. Information may be scattered across computers and among employees, and owners and managers often have to function in “player/coach” roles that leave them little time to spend gathering information and constructing a timely and accurate picture of operations that can aid in informed decision-making.
Integration of processes and information through a technical infrastructure offers small and medium-sized businesses a fairly fast and cost-effective way to meet these challenges. There is business software available to meet a number of integration needs, from customer relationship management (CRM) and sales force automation (SFA) applications that help you leverage customer information throughout your business to enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications that help you keep tighter control on inventory, production and cash flow. Whatever application is most appropriate to your business, the goal is consistent: to achieve consistent, efficient processes and a unified, accurate, timely view of operations. Automating processes helps ensure consistency and reduce errors, saves training time, and mitigates risk during employee absences or through turnover. Integrating business data provides you with an accurate, timely view of operations that aids decision-making and helps you achieve better control over business results.
While the idea of integration is simply, when you consider implementation, the choice of applications (and acronyms) can be confusing. The path you choose should be determined by your business model and objectives. Typical integration choices include:
- Customer Relationship Management (CRM) is the first step to integration for many businesses. CRM software integrates customer information in one database so that sales and customer service, management, and, in some cases, customers themselves can access information. CRM can help service representatives respond more quickly to customer needs or giving them immediate status on pending orders, help sales and marketing people by showing what other products a customer has purchased, and help management track purchasing trends and which customers are the best in terms of sales and service.
- Sales Force Automation (SFA) automates and integrates customer information and the sales process to help make the sales force be more effective and lower costs of sales. SFA may overlap with or be an add-on to a CRM system.
- Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software is used, by manufacturing and retail companies to manage areas such as product planning, inventory management and purchasing, production, customer service, and order tracking. ERP integrates operational data, tasks and processes to streamline operations and enable better real-time decision-making.
- Business intelligence (BI) applications integrate data to give an overall view of operations for better, more informed decision-making at the management/strategic level. BI applications generally include features that allow managers to project profit scenarios with different sets of assumptions, to see which will best maximize cash flow, profits, etc.
- Enterprise Application Integration (EAI) vendors offer software that helps tie together different databases and applications with a common interface or workflow. When you buy these products, the price often includes professional services to implement the software with your systems.
For many businesses, integration is an effective way to leverage information, streamline processes, and lower costs. Whatever your needs, there are available off-the-shelf software packages that are designed for your type of business. Integration also typically requires a corporate network, some kind of relational database and a business server on which to centralize data. Integration gives you big-picture visibility into and control over your business, and it is simpler than you might think. You can get advice from resources at the Small Business Administration, the Small Business Technology Institute, or your local system integrator. The important thing is to choose the approach that best fits your business needs, and then use the information that it provides.