Data Integration: A Balancing Act

Arnold Leap, CIO, 1-800-Flowers.com Inc. [NASDAQ:FLWS]
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Data Integration is a true balance between art and science. Creativity and discipline have to find a harmonic balance. Combining data from dissimilar systems, databases and processes can be a daunting and complex task, from an IT operations point of view. Disparate systems challenge business teams on a daily basis. The 1-800-Flowers.com, Inc. team applies data integration as the primary fuel in the company’s transformational journey.  

Over the past decade, 1-800-Flowers.com, Inc. has successfully grown its floral and gifting business through strategic acquisitions and developing new business, which added to the amount of data that is relevant to the business on a daily basis. In this scenario, data integration complexity grows at an accelerated rate. This is where discipline has to step up. The ability to reduce the day to day noise by applying discipline affords the business the levels of creativity that they strive for. The harmonic balance between creativity and discipline is a very delicate line. Too much discipline starves creativity and too much creativity can create chaotic moments.  

The lessons learned during this balancing act can be very different by organization. It is imperative that the senior executive team understands where the business team is on the harmonic scale, the CIO or senior IT executive has to recognize where the business is and provide guidance on the direction of the journey. The ability to incrementally achieve simple milestones is job one in transforming a business, after all its crucial and clear that business productivity cannot stop.

​ Enabling a continuous improvement culture is the key 

Innovation and complexity of systems

1-800-Flowers.com, Inc. has multiple back office systems, Oracles, SAP, 20-year-old order management systems, etc. This landscape has afforded the company significant growth over the same time frame. What has changed over the past five years is the velocity in which business must operate and adapt. Two decades ago, systems were built as though they would be the only system used. Very tightly coupled systems to business process afforded a level of operational excellence that 1-800-Flowers.com, Inc. suite of brands is known for. A change here, a change there, an acquisition and partner applications versioning up creates a whirlwind of inflexibility that forces significant changes to the business platforms. The application portfolio of 1-800-Flowers.com is quite sophisticated. Acronyms abound, WMS, TMS, OMS, CRM, etc.—all of these systems have to be integrated in order for them to work together to effectively run the business. These systems are integrated to a degree at the data element level using file based integration.

File based data integration

This technique has been around since the very first two computer systems needed pass data to one another. Batch processing was the first attempt at loosely coupling systems together.  The challenge with batch data integration is always timing and reliability. This adds a level of operational overhead when the file integration deteriorates because of one of those changes or the partner versioning up—truly a predictable chain reaction. Application Services is a more recent technique that affords much more flexibility. SOAP, JSON, JAVA, MS Framework are all newer technologies that when applied can provide much more flexibility. With flexibility comes a level of discipline and data governance that must be applied—it has to be in balance.

Data integration: transformation

As the CIO of 1-800-Flowers.com, Inc., my role is to transform. Taking the potentially best IT innovations and transforming them into competitive advantages that enable the business to create new products and services. A harmonic balance between IT discipline and business creativity is requisite.

Transformation is fueled by data integration. One definition of data integration involves combining data residing in different sources and providing users with a unified view of these data. To take on this challenge directly, we need to have a strategy. This “Platform Design Strategy” embraces a true services oriented architecture with an operational event driven messaging system.

There are many choices in the “service bus” market.  1-800-Flowers.com, Inc. decisions were made relatively quickly two years ago factoring in current systems, platforms and initiatives the company had in place. We wanted to leverage and pivot quickly to demonstrate the design strategy and its ability to be deployed to clear a significant challenge at the time. Applying a general design strategy allowed the teams to not only solve for the immediate but also look long term. This sparked the data integration plans and full transformation of the Enterprise moving forward.

Data integration takes on more than just internal systems. Partners have to be integrated as well and truly become the definition of loosely coupled systems. Security, identification and authentication are all areas of concern when communicating with external partners. There are many choices again to choose edge devices that provide the security as well as the data integration capabilities that all organizations require.

Complex data integration efforts are truly a journey and every day we look to improve on yesterday’s efforts. Enabling a continuous improvement culture is the key.

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