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The Fab Five

The Fab Five

Integration specialist teams - with concentrated expertise and authority - are making over systems integration at more and more companies

Reader ROI

  • How companies are benefiting from integration competency centres
  • Competency centre models and core skill sets
  • How to overcome resistance from IT project teams

It was the crazy holiday season of 2001 that pushed Best Buy's IT department over the edge. Years of allowing different project teams to do their own integration had left the $US24.5 billion retailer's infrastructure plagued by an unstable mass of disparate application programming interfaces. At peak times, disk space filled up and servers crashed. To weather outages caused by the overloads, the IT department was forced to manually transmit messages - prices, product descriptions - over the sales system and baby-sit the network 24 hours a day. "The environment was unstable and unpredictable," says John Schmidt, Best Buy's director of integration. "It put the business at risk."

The upside of that challenging holiday, Schmidt says, is that it pushed the company to finally move its long-simmering idea of building an Integration Competency Centre (ICC) to the front burner. By the end of 2001, then Best Buy CIO Marc Gordon had hired Schmidt, a veteran integration project consultant from American Management Systems, to oversee the ICC's creation.

As happened at Best Buy, ICCs are becoming the go-to groups within companies that need an extreme makeover of their traditional, project-to-project integration approach, and a cure for the proliferation of anarchic, redundant hardware and inefficiencies. ICCs, with their specialized "integration artists", provide reusable, documented integration interfaces; set common integration technology and data definitions; and offer internal integration consulting expertise to project teams. The payoff, CIOs say, comes from lowering the number of staff hours devoted to integration programming by weeks - even months - and increasing the reuse of application interfaces and processes by 30 percent to 50 percent, thereby reducing integration costs by millions of dollars.

ICCs aren't a new idea. Back in the late 1990s, telecomms giant MCI morphed its middleware group into one of the first formal integration teams. Big companies such as Waste Management, Pfizer, Hewlett-Packard and Toyota followed suit. Since then, the integration challenge, fuelled by increasingly complex systems and processes, has become a costly burden for most companies. In CIO's "The State of the CIO 2004" survey, CIOs chose integration as their number-one technology priority, ahead of security and customer relationship management. Today, a third of all corporations with sales over $US1 billion have ICCs, a 25 percent increase from 2002, according to Gartner. About half are expected to have one by 2005, says Gartner. "Enterprises are starting to realize that their integrations efforts are piecemeal," says Gartner analyst Roy Schulte. "The costs of fragmentation are becoming more apparent."

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