Software Integration: The Next GenerationBy Edward Cone | Posted 04-22-2008
Software integration is a familiar challenge for CIOs, but these days it comes in a new flavor: making your installed systems work with those running somewhere else.
As companies begin the long journey toward cloud computing, many will find themselves managing across the firewall, with key applications running both on- and off- site.
Douglas Menefee is CIO of The Schumacher Group, a privately held emergency medical practice management firm based in Lafayette, La. More than half of the company's business processes are handled in a software-as-a-service environment, with the rest managed on-site. Menefee has found the transition to this mixed model relatively painless, and says it allows him to focus more on strategy, while also contributing to a sharp reduction in worker turnover.
"We wanted to refocus our people to become innovators, to leverage software rather than supporting it," he says. "My role now is more at the strategic level. It's less about what I control and more about what business problem I'm trying to solve."
IT staff turnover, meanwhile, has gone from 87 percent three years ago to zero last year. "I'd be ecstatic to have it all run somewhere else," he says.
That won't happen overnight. Schumacher manages patient data, so it needs systems that are compliant with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). For the time being, that means sticking with software from GE that is managed on-premises.
But Menefee is open to migrating that data to a service provider major vendors like Google begin to meet federal standards for patient records. Their expertise in security, he says, should outstrip anything he's able to muster in a 40-person IT shop.
(His logic echoes one of Nick Carr's predictions on the future of cloud computing: "As big companies like Google, Salesforce.com and SAP move into this arena, they will invest a lot of time, money and technological expertise to make sure companies can be confident that data will be safe and secure and isn't going to leak through to other companies' hands. It's going to take time. It comes down to a matter of building trust between supplier and buyer.")
Menefee approached software services as a business-continuity issue after arriving at the company three years ago, in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. "I was interested in redundancy," he says. Menefee switched from a homegrown CRM application to Salesforce.com to manage the 2,500 independent contractors Schumacher uses to staff hospitals in several states. Scheduling and accounts payable for this large group also are delivered as services, but systems for the company's 700 full-time employees are still run on-site.
Getting it all to work together takes some planning. Menefee selects services on the strength of their APIs, to make sure he has access to all the data he needs--and some specialized tools, including an appliance from Cast Iron Systems that helps applications communicate through the firewall.
Menefee says the transition has been easier at a midsize company than it might be at a very large one, but he attributes that more to culture than to technology. "People are harder than technology," he says. "You have to lead people, not just manage them."