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The integration nightmare – an inconvenient truth

One of the stranger things about human existence is our need to sleep. Plants don’t sleep. Seemingly dolphins and bullfrogs don’t sleep. But my cat and I need sleep – otherwise we get grumpy. I recently read a great book called “Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker that helped me understand some of the fascinating reasons for sleep. But one of the facts I struggled with was that throughout an average lifespan of 79 years, we spend an enormous 26 years sleeping – and even more surprisingly we also spend 7 years trying to get to sleep – that’s 33 years or 12,045 days spent in bed.

Perhaps it’s just me but I find this hard to get my head around.

And one of the reasons I think I find it hard to get my head around this incredible fact is that sleeping is not something you are aware of, or can control, or remember anything about (with the exception of the occasional dream or nightmare). Perhaps we don’t care to want to admit this underlying necessity of human existence given our complete dependence upon it for life and health.

The integration nightmare – an inconvenient truth

In my career implementing HR systems, it’s probably fair to say that there’s something else I find hard to get my head around – which is the time spent building and maintaining interfaces between systems. The inordinate amount of time spent doing something that really “ought not to be necessary” is, like sleeping, an inconvenient truth (and occasionally an interface can turn into a nightmare). But that’s where the similarities end.

Unlike sleep, interfaces are (mainly) stressful, difficult to test, high effort, multi person, unhealthy initiatives, lacking in standards, structure, documentation and knowledge to build, support and maintain. One of the worst things about interfaces is that they are unseen, under the surface, and just expected to work. It’s difficult to justify business benefits to expensively pass data you already own between expensive systems you already own, applying expensive compliance and data security controls. It’s big business – people can spend their lifetimes building and maintaining interfaces between HR systems.

Interfaces

The word “Interface” derives from inter- (meaning “between”) +‎ face (i.e. “shape, figure, form”). In human existence, we interface with things all the time. Interfaces are also defined as the point of connection between two entities. My head has a certain kind of interface with my pillow at night. But more usefully I interface with my world through my senses, and data flows e.g. from my telly into my eyes into my brain.

In the world of HR systems there are numerous points of connection that need to be considered between systems, and these all need to be designed, built, tested and supported to ensure that an HR process can flow. Have you ever stopped to consider all the different things that have to happen when you take on a new starter into your organisation – e.g. consuming their applicant data from the recruitment system, checking their eligibility to work data; checking their bank details; setting them up in the HR system; checking their address and passing them to Payroll setting up their security (physical badges) and system access; setting them up for time recording, passing their data to finance – the list of interfaces can seem endless.

Our largest client has 43 separate interfaces between elementsuite as their core HR system, and their other HR, payroll and finance systems (for this large client with over 175,000 employees, these interfaces were carefully considered, tested and required for the business to run efficiently).

But, if you’re not careful your HR systems interfaces can become a wild west of interconnectivity, a money pit of unregulated and poorly managed suppliers, and a compliance risk of unregulated and undocumented data.

So how can you reduce costs and navigate this problem of passing data between systems and avoid sleepless nights and integration nightmares. That’s where API’s come in…

Application Programming Interfaces (APIs)

So how is it possible to rationalise and manage this complexity of passing data between systems? In contrast to a user interface, which connects a computer to a person, an application programming interface connects computers or pieces of software to each other. In simple terms, an application programming interface (API) is a way for systems to communicate with each other by a piece of programmed software offering a “service” to other pieces of software. APIs are often described by a standard specification, and system that meets this standard are said to implement or expose an API.

One of the trends over the past few years has been to move away from traditional file-based batch methods of passing data (which can be insecure, and require considerable thinking in relation to handling business logic and timings) to Application Programming Interfaces (APIs). The magic of APIs is that they provide an easy way to for a system (Application) to securely call upon data from another application based upon programming rules, and can be called in real time.

The shift in using APIs for integrations is important for your HR system to ensure that the right data is available at the right time for other systems in your company. A useful analogy is difference between writing a letter (old world, interface files, worrying about the postage, and timings of when the letter will arrive) to Instant Messaging (new world, APIs, real time, chat/conversational style, connected to multiple people)

APIs are a modern way of programming, allowing systems to reveal themselves to the rest of the enterprise (or in the case of a truly “Open” API, to the world). In theory and usually in practice, APIs are easier to setup, maintain and manage, and allow for data to be passed in real time rather than waiting for overnight batch schedules to be run.

So given how useful they are, it’s incredible how few HR systems provide APIs to securely expose the data from their systems as standard.

At elementsuite we pride ourselves on staying ahead of the technology curve. So we decided that every piece of data ought to be extractable as a real time API in any “shape” as defined by calling system, and to similarly absorb any piece of data via a real time API, as if it was being passed in via a data migration script.

Building interfaces for our new clients used to fill me with dread, but with elementsiute’s Integration Builder, clients can actually now build their own integrations themselves. We are of course able to provide guidance and support, but it’s refreshing how our clients have embraced this feature.

So I no longer have integration nightmares. Instead I lay awake at night thinking about data and what you can do with it (geeky I know…), resting in the knowledge that there are no expensive constraints regarding how elementsuite can expose and absorb data.

We’re rapidly entering a new world of data science, business insights, Data Analytics, OpenAI. The jobs market and the nature of work and employment is changing rapidly and immeasurably. So the flexibility of your HR system to expose, absorb, manage and govern your HR data is potentially the key to success and failure of your business. Sharing rich data across your applications… looking for hidden correlations… plugging in new system easily… finding competitive advantage…

Embracing APIs might just help your HR dreams come true.

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