10 short cuts to IT interoperability

10 short cuts to IT interoperability

Some interoperability projects just don’t go to plan, and no matter how well you prepare you’re never going to please everyone. So how do you minimise the risks?

A growing challenge

In an ideal world, IT departments would complete interoperability projects by consensus; take everyone’s needs into account; and achieve a seamless information flow, on time and on budget, to a rapturous encore from end users and management. In the real world, glitches, bugs, budget blowouts, time constraints, vested interests and Murphy’s Law apply. Some things just don’t work to plan and no matter how well you prepare you’re never going to please everyone.

Sometimes there’s not the luxury of long-term planning, protracted negotiation with vendors and users or working with known standards. IT staff at Progressive Enterprises were thrown in at the deep end in July 2002 when the go-ahead was given for acquisition of Woolworths.

Progressive – which owns the Foodtown, Big Fresh, Countdown and Price Chopper brands – had little time for philosophising with its interim integration strategy. “We didn’t have time to look for appropriate integration engines or middleware. We had a schedule to meet. There was no room for people to walk or talk, they just had to run,” says Progressive’s general manager of IT, John Donaldson.

He would have preferred more time to document Woolworths’ systems but, given a one-month deadline, had to rely on his knowledge of the former rival’s core systems. He and the other senior executives we interviewed for this MIS New Zealand special report have learned from their experiences. We interviewed the following:

Warwick Sullivan chief technology officer, Defence NZ;

Joanne Bos, information services manager, healthAlliance;

John Donaldson, general manager IT, Progressive Enterprises;

Channa Jayasinha, chief information officer, Department of Conservation;

Phil Wright, information management and technology manager, Christchurch City Council.

1 Clever coding can help

Try interim integration while you work through longer-term strategies.

In a retail situation the core systems are point of sale (PoS) at the sharp end, distribution and warehousing at the back end and in the middle, merchandising and financial systems. Copious coding is required to enable short cuts.

Disparate PoS systems and distribution centres need to talk to each other and, at Progressive, HR departments had to be integrated within a week.

A file transfer process was established across the meat processing, frozen goods and produce distribution centres of both chains. Woolworths’ centres were treated like external clients by generating Progressive purchase orders.

Rationalisation of duplicated distribution centres was required and to open up the lower North Island using Woolworth’s Palmerston North warehouses.

Messing with the disparate PoS environments and numbering codes would have disrupted front-end sales, stock ordering and distribution capabilities. An interim way had to be found to cross-reference and reconcile.

While Progressive has its iPro, internet-based promotional planning and tendering system to manage relationship with suppliers, and a purpose-built merchandising system, most of its core systems define an earlier age, where mainframe and Cobol code dominated and IBM 3720 green screens were the norm.

Moving to a thin client with the latest version of Citrix running on Windows NT was an important key to ensure the various desktops could communicate across both organisations. Thin client is now strategic as the company looks to the future. SAP financials, deployed six months earlier as part of Progressive’s ongoing internal integration will also be a big help.

Donaldson says achieving interoperability is not always about standards – sometime you have to run with what you’ve got, link everything together as best you can then step back and review how you can improve on it.

Now the patchwork of linking key systems together is operational, Progressive is looking at moving to a more flexible environment. It needs a modern, more flexible behind-the-scenes engine to migrate from green screens and take advantage of the latest international retail developments. Considerations include continuing in-house development, outsourcing or a totally new ‘off-the-shelf’ system.

“Our profitability is totally dependent on how efficiently we manage our stock from acquisition to sale. IT systems can impact heavily on the efficiency of this process.”

2 Standard infrastructure eases integration pains

A common network, servers and desktop make it easier to update, manage and integrate back-end systems.

It has been working toward shared systems for a number of years, but healthAlliance is only now closing in on the ultimate goal of having a standardised infrastructure.

Created in July 2000, healthAlliance results from Counties Manukau and Waitemata Health Boards looking to manage their costs more tightly.

Responsibilities for the new services organisation include procurement, supply chain, finance and human resources with information systems the last to migrate in November 2002. The organisation has about 190 staff, with 70 based at Middlemore Hospital and the balance at North Shore Hospital. A common IT environment to provide a single view of information across all services is only now being put in place.

While cost efficiencies are already being realised, the true benefits are not expected to kick in until the infrastructure is completely rationalised, says healthAlliance IS manager Joanne Bos.

“If you don’t have your underlying infrastructure right, your interoperability is going to be an issue for you. If you have everything completely standard, a lot of the issues go away.”

3 Harmonising software reduces TCO

Common operating systems and office software reduce the need for training, maintenance and support.

Procurement, supply chain and finance systems are now integrated at healthAlliance, as is a single Oracle enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. Various iterations of the patient management system are being harmonised and a single open network is about to become reality.

The next step at healthAlliance, under Project Fusion, is designed to “align, rationalise and standardise” the IT infrastructure. This includes a single user log-on, single email system and standard Windows XP desktop. That will replace a potpourri of Windows 95,98, 2000 and NT, which have become expensive to maintain and difficult to manage.

“Standardising desktops, servers and networking means you don’t have issues with systems that will run on one machine and not

on others. You don’t have an issue where network performance effects a particular application or difficulty installing an application on a particular server, because they’re the same,” says Bos.

Having a proven business case is necessary for each step in the process. “We wouldn’t do it otherwise. It goes through a rigorous process and has to be approved by the board – if it’s over a million dollars it has to be approved by the Ministry of Health.”

4 Vendor support is essential for full disclosure

Have your suppliers ensure disparate systems can speak the same language.

Vendors with a proven record and ability in the health industry kept healthAlliance informed about trends and technical capabilities when it introduced its patient information management system (PIMs) from iSoft; Oracle financials; a suite of clinical software from Orion; and online lab reporting and lab results reporting from Delphic.

Although standard messaging was agreed upon the vendors knew it was in their interest to talk with each other to ensure the best result during the integration process, mostly completed by healthAlliance’s 85-strong team. “If you’ve got good middleware, you can make anything talk to anything else,” says Bos. healthAlliance uses an integration engine – a combination of e-Gate from SeeBeyond and Rhapsody from Orion Systems.

“Without them, we’d have spaghetti code – those horrible point-to-point interfaces that so many of us wrote in the 80s – we’d have hundreds of them.”

She says e-Gate acts like middleware enabling legacy systems to be replaced gradually. “If you replace something, the integration functions let you carry on without any changes to the code, using standards such as FTP, XML or server messaging.”

5 Scrub your basic data to avoid information confl

Conduct an inventory of information to ensure it’s accurate and flying in formation.

Accurate, good quality information is essential if organisations are to get the full benefits of integration.

“It takes time, resources and commitment from business units. You have to dedicate resources and use various tools to assist with quality assurance,” says Christchurch City Council information management and technology manager Phil Wright.

He says it is important to establish the key business goals first and then identify or re-engineer the supporting business processes, identify the data and how the business process needs to use it. This assists in the design of the technical integration between systems.

Typically, Wright says, data used by a particular business unit will be accurate for its primary use – for example, names and addresses on invoices – and quickly corrected. However other data used for secondary purposes may not be so accurate unless data validation and business rules have been tight.

If a person’s name is spelled three different ways you might only get a portion of information stored on that individual from your database query. “Get base data accurate and have business rules around it, especially if you are designing a new system. With good, tight management processes you always find the data is more accurate, especially when it comes to spelling names and addresses.”

However, Wright says you can spend years getting data 100 per cent accurate, so you have to decide how accurate you need to be before you can start using it.

Christchurch City Council, which deals with people, places, property and licences has spent the past three years getting data accurate in migrating to its geographic information systems (GIS).

The council is continually looking at the data in its system based on business requirements.

Wright says an architectural overview of systems and how they relate to the business ‘end game’ is required to make sense of integration. “A lot of effort can be wasted integrating systems without assessing what has the greatest benefit to business.”

6 Break large projects into manageable modules

Evaluate projects in steps and stages and re-use code.

Channa Jayasinha, chief information officer with the Department of Conservation (DoC), says interoperability is about creating a standards-based framework and breaking projects into bite-sized chunks.

DoC, which has 2000 users at 145 sites around the country, now runs about 15 SQL database applications. It has standardised its desktop and operating environments and, as one of the country’s first Microsoft .Net users, has migrated away from most of its legacy systems over the past 18 months.

Jayasinha says moving to .Net has helped reduce cost, brought new skill sets into DoC’s software development team and made it easier to achieve interoperability.

One of the first systems developed in .Net was the warning system publishing data from Mount Ruapehu, including the crater lake level. DoC is now building modular systems a lot faster and the underlying code is re-useable. Modular systems reduce the risk of software projects going over budget, over time, or failing to meet user requirements.

He says DoC’s commitment to .Net also fits very well with the e-government’s interoperability framework.

7 User buy-in is essential

If people don't interoperate and co-operate, all the technology changes won't be much help.

Getting user support is also pivotal to the success of the government’s plan to transform three services into one team as it integrates Army, Navy and Air Force into a joint Defence Force, spearheaded by a centralised approach to technology.

The goal is to reduce duplication and get different systems talking to each other through improved communication, increased effectiveness and reduced maintenance and training.

Chief technology officer Warwick Sullivan says there is a need to be more flexible and fleet of foot.

“We don’t know what we’re going to be doing tomorrow. Even in peace time we have to pay bills, feed people and look after data. But tomorrow we could face a war-time situation and we need to react to that dynamically.”

According to Sullivan, there are no short cuts for change management. “It’s no use bringing people into a new way of working if the tools you are using are still focused on the old way of doing things. You have to go through it step by step to avoid improper change.”

Given hindsight, he says, Defence would probably have analysed project requirements more closely and used new mechanisms to communicate more effectively. “It’s essential to overcome the inertia of change and lead people through the benefits that will be derived.”

8 Don’t take change management short cuts

Freeze, make your technology changes, then unfreeze once new systems and vision are in place.

Sullivan says some people get confused by the difference between technology and organisational change. Because they don’t understand the technology they apply that to the organisation by inference, which leads to rumours and misinformation. “Internal dynamics need to be carefully managed. You can never communicate too much.”

He describes the ‘unfreeze, freeze, unfreeze’ process. “Sometimes, people just worry about doing the move and getting things in place. But actually, there’s a pre-condition which I call the ‘unfreeze place’. You can drag them along, but if their feet are still in a block of ice they’ll take that with them.”

The next step is to freeze the new systems and ways of doing things then re-motivate people with a vision of where you’re going. “We have to move at a pace the organisation can accommodate. Too much change too quickly can be very de-stabilising.”

9 Review

Remove duplication, find what can be re-used, simplify, standardise, then expand.

When chief information officer Ron Hooton arrived at Defence two years ago, he looked at everything with fresh eyes. There were 10 separate IT organisations and infrastructures for each of the service camps, and they were proving to be inefficient.

The desktop services commoditisation (DFC) project – devised to improve communications and the delivery of information systems – was given the go-ahead in March 2003, after a year of detailed feasibility, business case and project planning.

After working closely with vendors and carrying out in-house prototyping, the decision was made to go with common servers, deliver software to the desktop with Citrix Metaframe XPE, reconfigure data centres and overhaul the network.

Defence was the first organisation in New Zealand to adopt Citrix back in 1994. It is now standardising on Windows 2000 and Microsoft Office 2000 for its 7000 desktops. Office will be installed on 200 servers over two weekends, once Defence replaces existing servers with blade servers to enable automatic provisioning.

A single nationwide fibre-based ATM network capable of 2Mbit/sec up to 60Mbit/sec is now being created with central responsibility in the hands of the chief information officer.

Logistics and financials, based on SAP, have been common for many years enabling authorised people to drill down and aggregate information across any of the services.

“When it was first introduced there was a lot of angst, with fears that nothing would ever be the same again. However, time has proven that to be false,” says Sullivan.

SAP will remain a solid base for the overall integration, as will the Atlas human resources system.

10 A shared data layer can hide differences

A common approach to data can be achieved through database tables and a directory service.

At Defence, engineering management services – linked back to ERP and logistics systems – are being streamlined, a joint medical system and common database will link all the Defence Forces’ own hospitals, corporate performance reporting is being viewed as a joint activity and catalogues are being put online as part of a new approach to e-procurement.

To achieve the level of interoperability needed for a common organisation, Sullivan was architect of a shared data layer using a set of database tables and a directory service, which acts as a kind of middleware. “Previously, we had to have a large number of interfaces. Now we’ve reduced this to a single interface across systems.”

At the application level, 14 different types of scanner software have been identified, for example, and decisions are being made on which classroom and base camp accommodation booking systems to settle.

Defence is also looking at a common approach to recruitment, taking advantage of what has been learned from the Army’s recruitment website.

“We’re moving into e-recruiting without losing the branding from the various services. Even though they don’t like to admit it, the three services are still competing for the same pool of people, so we’re ensuring the engine room behind the scene is the same.”

Sullivan says it’s hard to quantify direct budget savings but it will be several million across the board. “We’ll deliver more for less, increase the number of services delivered, improve the quality of existing projects and information availability.”

It is important not to panic if milestones get “shot to hell” in the early stages.

“If decision-makers don’t understand, simply explain again without making them feel like you’re forcing their hand. You need to give yourselves time to get approval, acceptance and for change to be assimilated across the organisation.”

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