You’ve probably heard this message on repeat: businesses need timely, accurate information to carry out their data-driven business processes, operations, and tasks. The reason this message has echoed is simple—it’s true.

Today’s businesses are fueled by data to function; it’s an essential resource for all departments. Whether it’s tracking invoices in accounts payable to optimize finance, or up-to-the-minute recruiting data in human resources to make the best hiring decisions, successful businesses run on information.

But here’s something maybe you haven’t heard: without a data integration strategy, businesses waste time and resources attempting to bring together disparate data sources. To run our companies more efficiently, make better decisions with a unified view of all information, and leverage insight to outperform competitors with data-driven tactics—a data integration strategy is essential.

This article talks about why implementing a data integration strategy in small businesses is a sound idea, and recommends using data integration tools to help roll out an effective strategy. You’ll find answers to the following questions:

  1. What is data integration?
  2. Why do small businesses—not just large enterprises—need a data integration strategy?
  3. What solutions can help you implement a data integration strategy?

To best understand the nuances of data integration, it’s helpful to play-it-back through a different context. On that note, we turn to rock stars.

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What Is Data Integration?

The Beatles. Kanye West. Adele. Prince. What can these music superstars teach us about data integration? The answer is in our earbuds. A lot of us enjoy listening to music via application software (apps) like iTunes, Apple Music, or Spotify, but of course, like this year’s hit songs, popular Apps in any domain may not necessarily be next year’s headliners. It might be hard to believe, but one day iTunes, Apple Music, and Spotify may not be our music overlords—another competitor could take their place.

This is how it will happen: as legacy apps like iTunes become obsolete or unpopular, new apps emerge, causing our music data to fragment to different systems and places. The newly emerged apps attain popularity, and begin to evolve independently—selfishly—apart from one another. The result is old files and legacy apps no longer being compatible without integration.

Imagine if iTunes suddenly shut down, all services and support ceased, everyone’s music files released to the wild and—you heard it here first— GetApp launched its own app, “GetApp Music,” and went on to usurp iTune’s throne but without native support for iTunes media files. Believe me: GetApp has no plans to enter the music business—so far—but still, if iTunes was to fade away and something else took its place, how would you then find, use, combine, and create valuable insight from your splintered data?

Whether we’re talking about music files or business information, data integration is needed to solve this problem.

In the world of business, data integration is the process of gathering data from disparate sources and transforming that data into useful information, so we then can analyze it to create insight to make better business decisions.

Unintegrated business data is a major threat; as mentioned, without a data integration strategy businesses waste time and resources attempting to bring together disparate data sources. When data can’t be quickly reconciled across business channels (e.g.,email, data repositories, or process management systems like enterprise resource planning (ERP), problems occur:

  • Data quality suffers when leaders lose confidence in the accuracy and timeliness of retrieved data.
  • Processes fail when information cannot be routed to the right place at the right time.
  • Data security is compromised when unintegrated data is not well accounted for, therefore vulnerable to negligent staff exposure or security breach.
  • Businesses lose competitive advantage when employees aren’t given the information they need to make sound, well-informed decisions based on data.

Why Your Small Business Needs a Data Integration Strategy

The amount of data piling up in all organizations is growing exponentially, which means small businesses, just as much as large corporations, need to be thinking about employing a data integration strategy to compete with rival companies.

All SMBs—in fact all businesses—can stand to gain from a data integration strategy and gain a competitive advantage through the following benefits:

  • Deliver a unified view of all information assets.
  • Create actionable insight to make informed decisions.
  • Improve processes to run more smoothly and cost-effectively.
  • Integrate better with customers outside the internal network and firewall to improve customer experience.
  • Create a “single source of truth” to ensure that all users use the same data when making business decisions.

To better understand how a data integration strategy can help your business, consider this: Imagine you work in human resources for a small business and need to urgently fill a new management position. Your company is staffed by less than 100 employees, but even so, keeping tabs on the internal talent pool is a challenge, even with healthy employee turnover and hiring cycles.

Your human resource management system maintains a plethora of valuable employee data, but its valuable insights are not integrated in an interpretable way with your talent management systems, workflow, or data. Two “ready-now” employees exist in your company, but due to the lack of a data integration strategy to combine your human resource management data with your talent acquisition data, you’re never informed.

A data integration strategy and supporting tools would have granted a unified view of both of these data sets to help make that internal hire, save recruiting costs, and quickly onboard a rising star and top contributor.

What to Look for in a Data Integration Solution

Although businesses of all sizes can benefit from unifying under a data integration strategy, the requirements and priorities for data integration are unique between small and enterprise businesses.

For instance, SMBs have the following special considerations to keep in mind:

  • SMBs are not backed by large corporate budgets
  • Less staff means each role, from IT directors to CTOs, carry amplified responsibility
  • Employee bandwidth and labor are much more limited resources

For these reasons, opportunity cost must be more carefully managed. One business-wide IT project could be that year’s entire budget allocation, or remove a large percentage of the company’s labor force for an “all-hands-on-deck” project.

Small businesses in particular should not focus heavily on setting up data integration themselves, but instead align with data integration solution providers to deploy software to integrate separate systems for them and help facilitate data integration strategy. There are a range of data integration software solutions available to fit any budget and functional requirements. SMBs should seek out data integration tools that allow them to focus on their core business, knowing that their integration challenges are taken care of.

With this in mind, here is a list of qualities a data integration solution most suitable for a SMB should have:

  • Affordable options
  • Low learning curve and high out-of-the-box usability
  • Data visualizations to aid users without technical background
  • Real-time data delivery to promote flexible data integration
  • Ability to scale with expansion and adapt to change
  • Multiple deployment options from on-premise to cloud services
  • Fast time to return on investment (ROI)—be sure to rely on use cases, industry figures, or request authentication from the solution provider to validate a product’s ROI claims; this way you can get proof that your unique business needs will be met with similar success.

Greatest Hits: Data Integration Products

It’s important to point out that data integration tools fall under the blanket category of business intelligence (BI), which encompasses the technology, tools, and platforms needed to transform raw data into meaningful, usable information. For a crash course in business intelligence, check out this helpful beginner guide here.

Now that we have an understanding of what data integration is, which SMBs can most benefit, and how SMBs’ data integration needs differ from large corporations, it’s time to check out some data integration/BI products that harmonize with an SMB environment:

Domo: typically, SMBs possess smaller IT resources, and therefore out-of-the-box functionality and results are important. Domo, a cloud-based business intelligence tool, leverages a number of connectors to sync with third-party and multiple data sources and devices. Domo’s designed dashboards and visualization tools aim to create a central place to view this data in real-time—providing a vantage point that requires little technical knowledge.

Reviews frequently highlight Domo’s appealing visualization tools, ease of use, and expanding roadmap of updated capabilities.

Drag-and-drop visualization tools in Domo

Drag-and-drop visualization tools in Domo

Dundas BI: As an SMB, it’s vital to find an integration solution with flexibility. As you grow you will need something to scale and adapt to business change. Dundas BI is a business intelligence solution offering integrated dashboards, reporting tools, and data analytics. There are multiple deployment options available for either on-premise or cloud delivery.

Reviews attest to Dundas BI’s customization, rapid setup, and power to deal with large volumes of information.

Sales dashboard in Dundas BI

Sales dashboard in Dundas BI

Sisense: With smaller investment budgets, SMB’s care about value and need data integration solutions that achieve fast ROI. Sisense promises easy-to-learn data analytics, aggregation, and reporting tools at an SMB price point. The tools are also mobile-friendly; mobile access is becoming important for the next generation of workers and companies who employ and collaborate across vast geographies.

ElastiCube feature demo in Sisense

ElastiCube feature demo in Sisense

Reviews praise Sisense’s onboarding support and low learning curve; benefits which resonate with SMBs.

The Future of Data Integration Solutions

It is important for small businesses to stay informed of industry trends. SMBs are rocked by the waves of industry change more acutely than larger corporations, so it’s important to stay informed. Using market forecasts to tune data integration strategies to market changes, SMBs can prepare and ready their data integration strategy for the future.

Important market shifts are happening now that SMBs should be aware of. As gleaned in a recent Gartner report (available to Gartner clients), the data integration tools market was worth approximately $2.5 billion at the end of 2016—a 3.3% jump from 2015.

However, 2016 gains were more muted, suggesting a deceleration in the rate of growth. Gartner attributes 2016’s slowed growth to “significant changes in demand,” affecting data integration products. Here’s how these changes have taken shape:

“[Businesses pursuing data integration] are increasingly favoring tools that are flexible in that they can be designed once for delivery across multiple platforms, mixed architectural and broad deployment without significant rework. The market is splitting between these newer expectations and more traditional integration needs.” – Market Share Analysis: Data Integration Tools, Worldwide, 2016 (Available to Gartner clients)

This is an opportunity for SMBs as the data integration market is tilting toward solutions that better speak to major SMB priorities: flexibility, scalability, and agility. What this means is that lightweight solutions that can be scaled up or down to meet business need are growing in popularity—and these solutions tend to better fit the needs of SMBs. Solution sellers are pivoting to supply the shifting demand, which means this is the opportune time for SMBs to get started with a data integration strategy and the tools to support it.

Press Play on Data Integration: Additional Resources and Reading

Data integration strategy needs to be in your small business playlist for the future. To help your business move forward with data integration strategies and tools, check out these helpful resources: