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Website and back office integration: The Options

Most organisations that we speak to see advantages in integrating their website with their back offices systems, but are often put off by the thought that integration is too expensive. Whilst this may be the case, there are a number of ways of achieving what you want without necessarily having to invest a small fortune. netXtra has significant experience in integrating websites with back office systems. Costs for integration vary enormously depending on the systems used and the level of integration required. From our experience we have split the options into 8 categories, although the boundaries between them are often quite blurred.

1 None at all

Systems are completely independent; there is no shared data and no common data structures and therefore no need to integrate. I mention it in order to make it clear that not all systems are worth integrating even if it can technically be done.

Example: Staff payroll systems and website.
Effort required: NA
Cost: NA

2 Completely manual

The website and back office systems may have data in common, but each system is updated independently and manually, one entry at a time. To achieve this, simply ensure that the website uses similar fields to those used in the back office systems. To ensure that both entries are the same an internal process is essential. If users can update entries on the website, an email should be set to automatically notify the person in charge of updating the CRM system.


Examples:
Contact details of board directors or members stored in a CRM system and displayed in a directory on the website.
Set-up Effort:
A basic understanding of what information is shared, a simple internal process and discipline.
Ongoing Effort: Acceptable for low volumes of changes, but can double the effort required to keep data up to date.
Set-up Cost:
Insignificant and absorbed in overall specification costs.

3 Manual batch process

In the case where significant numbers of entries are changed on a regular basis and where doing so manually, one entry at a time is too time consuming, a batch process can be employed to update dozens, hundreds or even thousands of records at a time. This requires the data structures of the website and back office system to be identical or a mapping function created to convert from one structure to the other.

Examples: Uploading names and emails to the website in order to send an email newsletter. Downloading and importing members who have registered on the website.
Setup Effort:
Understanding of data structure, replication or conversion to that structure.
Ongoing Effort:
Running each batch should only take a few minutes.
Set-up Cost:
Low, typically a days work for each set of data to be imported or exported.

4 Automatic batch process

When the volume of data and the number of data tables is significant i.e. more than two or three and these need to be updated more than once a day, then automating the process makes sense. With an automatic batch process, the systems update each other at preset times each day.

Examples: Updating the accounts systems as to orders processed on the website each day. Updating the website as to who is a fully paid up member each day.
Setup Effort:
Highly dependent on facilities provided by back office systems and type of Internet connection.
Ongoing Effort: Virtually no staff time required, but technical support essential.
Cost: Medium, but highly variable.

5 Automatic batch process with validation

When members can access their own data and amend their own records you may wish to review them before they overwrite your back office data. In this case an intermediate validation stage is required where a member of staff approves changes first.

Examples: Allowing members to update their own records on-line.
Set-up Effort: Highly dependent on the functionality of the existing back office systems.
Ongoing Effort: Significant, but a lot less than calling or sending letters in order to keep records up to date.
Cost: Slightly higher than above due to the additional systems required for validation. Four figure costs are typical, occasionally low 5 figure costs if many modules involved and back office systems are old or crude and therefore require lots of integration work.

6 Install back office web modules

A number of back office systems have developed website integration modules which effectively install a copy of the database and any required functionality on the website. Typically the website module includes related web pages that interact with this database. The back office systems in turn check this data and synchronise it with the main database in your offices. This option is typically used when the back office systems have web modules and is ideal when the modules themselves are very complex. The modules are installed on the web server and effectively work in parallel with the rest of the website.

Examples: Complex event booking systems with multiple options and availability requirements. Provide members with details of their accounts and transactions.
Set-up Effort: Low if your existing systems allow you to simply install an additional module and link it to the related pages.
Ongoing Effort:
Can provide huge savings in time compared to manually processing bookings or providing statements to members by post.
Cost:
Dependent on back office systems supplier. CRM modules and related web module can cost four figures each.

7 As above, but completely integrated

In the above case, the CRM module that sits on the website, is effectively sitting next to the rest of the website. In many cases that is fine, but in some cases the module needs to be aware of what the users have done on the rest of the website, i.e. is the user logged in? Have they added any items to their shopping basket? What kind of member are they? In this case the module needs to be integrated more closely to avoid having to ask the user to log in again. In addition this type of integration ensures that the website is completely consistent from one page to the next, as the design and appearance of the web module can be adjusted to look the same as the rest of the website.

Examples: Subscription payment module or events module/online shop that has discounted prices for members or allows them to add a purchase to their account for invoicing later. Websites that have private areas and third party modules that need to be integrated.
Set-up Effort:
High, this is the most complex type of integration as it addresses all the limitations of the above options.
Ongoing Effort:
As previous case.
Cost:
Higher than above due to the additional integration and testing time involved. Five figure costs are typical and six figure sums are possible on large, complex websites.

8 Use entirely web based systems

If you are unhappy with your current back office systems or they are relatively basic (spreadsheet or access database) you may wish to consider replacing them with web based systems instead of trying to integrate them. This takes a leap of faith, but is growing in popularity as you only have one system or database which does everything. In effect the website and its web based management tools provide all you need in one place. As it sits on a web server, you can access what you need from anywhere in the world, so is ideal for organisations with multiple offices or staff that wish to work from home. Finally all support, backups, upgrades etc can be outsourced as part of your website agreement.

Examples: Association with multiple offices, relatively simple CRM requirements and an existing system that would be expensive to integrate or upgrade.
Set-up Effort:
Significant, but worth considering if options above are more difficult or expensive.
Ongoing Effort:
From your staff point of view, this is probably the most painless option as they simply use their web browser to access everything they need.
Cost:
Varies enormously, but is nearly always less expensive than buying a new back office system and then integrating it with a website.

Conclusions

Hopefully the above point shows that there are many options in terms of how your website and back office systems can be integrated. The choice depends on the benefits of each option in terms of savings versus the costs of implementing them.

Next step

If you would like to find out more about how netXtra could help you integrate your website and back office systems please call us on 01787 319 393 or email your current situation and objectives to info@netxtra.net.

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