Don't rush integration of CRM and ERP cloud data

Integrating cloud-based CRM and ERP systems requires clean data.

Once company executives buy the business case for integrating cloud-based CRM and ERP systems, the hard work and heavy lifting is far from over.

A company must now ask how it can begin prepping its CRM data for integration with its ERP data. The good news is it’s not nearly as difficult as in the past.

"We’ve seen cloud integration come a long way in the past few years, and it’s no longer as much of a systems integration challenge as it used to be," according to Rebecca Wettemann, analyst at Nucleus Research in Boston. "In fact, we see many of the systems integration firms using tool kits and repeatable adapters to make integration much more stable and repeatable."

CRM and ERP integration

Read the first story in this two-part series

Still, there’s more to an integration plan than using a tool kit.

"Understanding how timely and accurate your data is also important to successful integration," Wettemann said. "Risks of cloud integration, like any integration project, is that if the data’s bad or unscrubbed, you can negatively impact overall adoption and credibility of the applications. If you’re exposing salespeople to inventory data that’s not up to date or putting bad sales forecast data into inventory planning, it can be very disruptive."

Review security and compliance

What comes after determining CRM and ERP data is clean?

"Determine the systems of record for your primary business objects -- customers, products, pricing -- and configure your other systems to consume data from the system of record," according to David Smith, a principal consultant for Centerstance in Portland, Ore. "Chances are that you'll need a data conversion effort."

According to Benoit Lheureux, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn., when it comes time to integrate a cloud-to-cloud solution, business and IT leaders need to be aware that many common integration tasks still need to be executed properly—and will require some of their involvement.

For example, Lheureux explained, the integration will usually require an initial load of master data from an ERP app to a cloud-based CRM app. Next you’ll need adapters to interface between your middleware communication protocols and use application programming interfaces (APIs) so your cloud-based apps can pass data to each other.

And then there are security issues, which can govern how a business can move its data between applications.

"The bottom line is that any time you integrate two applications that have different security rules, you will need to test that the appropriate access rights are still intact," said Chris Wynder, an analyst for Info-Tech Research Group in London, Ontario. "An ERP application that has customer data in it has specific regulations, and if you can’t customize the access settings of your cloud CRM application, you could breach compliance regulations."

Also, a business may need to bring in its legal and compliance department to help sort out security and compliance requirements before data becomes exposed to the wrong people. 

Automation anyone?

Part of the reason customers move to cloud-based systems is they don’t have in-house resources to manage data and the infrastructure required to hold it safely and securely.

This leads companies to question whether automated tools and specialized integration firms can bridge the gap between cloud CRM and cloud ERP.

The answer, it turns out, is as varied as the types of clouds in the sky.

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"What we do see today is that many integration vendors offer some sort of prebuilt integration templates or maps for popular CRM-ERP combinations to help reduce the time to implementation and help the customer get faster time to value for their integration project," said Mark Walker, vice president of technical services for Scribe Software in Manchester, N.H.

"Some are more complete and automated -- you simply have to configure the source and target to get started—and others are less complete and might require more customization," Walker said. "The thing to remember is that every business has unique business processes, so integration will never be truly fully automated."

For commonly used combinations of cloud services, there is a higher likelihood that a company will be able to tap into a template or use a time-saving tool for CRM-ERP integrations.

Lheureux pointed out that for some integrations -- like synchronizing order master data between, say, Salesforce.com and an on-premises SAP or Oracle system -- there are many examples of prebuilt integration systems. These are sometimes referred to as packaged integrating processes or cloud streams. 

Getting specialized

Integration challenges increase the profiles of cloud services brokerages that help organizations use, maintain and integrate cloud services from multiple providers. Regardless of the category of cloud integration service, organizations looking to integrate existing CRM and ERP in the cloud should look first for experience.

According to Info-Tech’s Wynder, ERP is by its very nature a complex application with many potential stumbling blocks on the path to integration.

"ERP modules can range from order processing to managing professional development. Many ERP consultants specialize in a single vendor’s product so they can have the depth of knowledge to integrate the different ERP modules -- and many of these third parties can integrate the same vendor’s CRM," Wynder said.

Companies that use different vendors to integrate ERP and CRM should review the ERP vendor’s partner list. It will include the names of vendor parties and resellers that perform the needed implementations.

But, Wynder added, when integrating between separate vendors, ease of integration depends on the APIs available and the partnerships for each vendor. "If your CRM vendor has a standing partnership with an ERP vendor, it’s quite likely that you can easily find the expertise to integrate the two products."

This was first published in September 2012

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