One of the most important characteristics of ERP systems is that they are built on a single comprehensive database to share information across the enterprise. ERP system integration, on the internal side, can be assumed to be complete and comprehensive. And as long as the ERP systems covers all of your information management needs, and there are no external systems or applications in place or planned, integration should not be a concern.
ERP system integration with the outside world is another matter entirely. Most companies have more than just an ERP system and many also want to exchange information and documents with trading partners. The good news is that information and document exchange with partners is pretty straightforward these days through web-based application design, included collaboration functionality in most systems, and accepted standards for business document and transaction exchange through EDI (Electronic Data Interchange, a rather dated but still widely used protocol for exchanging purchase orders, acknowledgements, ship notices, etc.) and the newer and more capable Web services / SOA protocols and standards.
Integrating ERP with other enterprise applications is the more problematic area of ERP system integration. In addition to the ERP business information backbone, many companies have other systems for Manufacturing Execution (MES) and data collection, Quality management and process control (may be a part of MES), Warehouse Management (WMS), Transportation Management (TMS), and/or other “outside” systems that could benefit from integration with the ERP backbone.
One of the most frequent requirements is the need to connect to a separate Customer Relationship Management system or CRM. The customer interface is perhaps the most critical aspect of business communication and the areas where companies tend to be the most unique and exhibit their competitive edge (providing excellent customer service). As such, many find that generic ERP customer order fulfillment falls short of their CRM needs, so they seek out a “best-of-breed” or specialty application to handle the marketing and sales support functions of CRM. Integration with the rest of the ERP suite provides the critical link between demand (CRM) and supply (ERP).
There are several approaches to CRM integration (also applies to MES integration, WMS integration, etc.) including the following, in order of increasing cost, delays and risk:
- Single source – buy CRM from the same supplier that provides your ERP solution. It is likely that full integration is already built-in.
- Pre-integrated – find a (third-party) CRM supplier who has already developed an integration with your brand and version of ERP.
- Fourth-party integration – Some independent (or perhaps not-so-independent) software suppliers may have developed a packaged integration between your ERP and your chosen CRM. This may be a rather rare opportunity limited mostly to ERP and CRM products with a large installed base
- Middleware – integration can be accomplished through middleware toolsets, using SOA and Web Services design. This approach is most beneficial when there a number of integrations to be built and maintained since the tools can be expensive.
- Custom programming – best suited for one-to-one integration projects. Relatively expensive. Take the longest to build and test. Often less comprehensive than other approaches because the links are all hand-built. Most expensive and troublesome to maintain.