Article Series

Retail data integration in the digital age

Retail data integration in the digital age (part 3)

Jul 14, 2016
   |   by 
Rick Boretsky

In part 3 of our series, we’re taking a closer look at interoperability. 

First of all, what exactly does interoperability mean? Simply put, interoperability is the ability of making systems and organizations work together (to interoperate). Successful interoperability means that users only need to perform data maintenance once and the changes are reflected across the enterprise. It also means that operational information from one system is available wherever needed.

The word “interoperability” didn’t really exist until the late 70s after the advent of microcomputers, PCs, distributed networks and embedded chips.  Before then, systems engineering always presumed there would be a monolithic “system” in place. However, for almost 40 years now, IT has struggled to promote harmony between independent and disparate systems. 

In retail, this has been a major challenge. Over the years, as retail needs have changed, new systems have been added for specific business functions. And now, with multiple channels and rampant innovation the challenge has increased. The major issue is that most point systems don’t share common data or a common structure.  As a result, retailers are often bogged down with a tangle of processes just to perform the simplest of tasks such as adding a new product, employee, or location.

So, what can be done?

If you want to achieve the benefits of interoperability there are four possible paths of action:

Option 1) The enterprise solution approach

Replace all of your point solutions/systems with an enterprise solution from companies like Oracle, SAP, or Microsoft. 

These suites claim to provide interoperability within themselves. However, the implementation of such enterprise solutions can be quite disruptive to operations and is often very costly. Another downside to enterprise solutions is that they may not always have all of the business functionality that your company requires.

Option 2) The middleware approach:

Embrace middleware products, such as Informatica or IBM’s WebShere, to connect your disparate systems and provide a center for Master Data Maintenance and workflow driven transformations. 

Larger retailers often adopt this approach. However, this is a heavy approach that brings with it it’s own challenges. Often the overhead and cost is substantial, and not viable for most mid-tier retailers.

Option 3) The data restructure approach:

Revise the data structure of all your systems to a comprehensive standard, like ARTS. 

While many software vendors may subscribe to ARTS, as a logical design, most have not fully implemented it as the physical model. While this direction is good in theory, it has been difficult to implement in practice.

Option 4) The Data Hub approach:

Employ a Data Hub infrastructure. 

At RIBA we use this approach with our clients. With the Data Hub approach, you get to choose the applications that you want to interoperate.  A data hub stores your most commonly shared data. The great thing about this approach is the data flows automatically through the Hub to each destination with all its business transformation rules and full recoverability. Another benefit is that it doesn’t require the use of expensive MDM software.

The Data Hub approach provides retailers with the flexibility, efficiency and confidence that their systems are operating as one cohesive entity. We find this solution to be the ideal approach, especially for retailers with a limited budget, a mix of software vendors and an appetite for rapid innovation.

How has your organization tackled the challenges of interoperability?

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