What is application integration? Here’s what you should know

A guide to application integration

The average employee moves between apps more than 1,000 times a day.

Clearly, this harms an employee’s productivity and their satisfaction with their job. And yet, the issue of app-hopping appears to be worsening, as organizations small and large continue to adopt more and more apps

Fortunately, application integration can help mitigate app-hopping, among other negative outcomes that come with adopting a broad set of technologies.

We’ll review what this integration method entails, how it can be applied, the benefits it can bring to your organization, and  a whole lot more.

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What is application integration?

Application integration, or enterprise application integration (EAI), is the process of enabling cloud or on-prem applications to communicate with one another, typically via their application programming interfaces (APIs).

Related: Everything you need to know about enterprise application integration

Application integration examples

To give you a better sense of how application integration can work, let’s walk through a couple of use cases.

1. Notify reps when prospects are ready to be contacted

As your marketers execute drip campaigns that build interest among prospects, your sales reps will want to know the moment when a prospect qualifies for a sales conversation. 

Connecting the customer relationship management (CRM) your sales reps work on and the marketing automation tool your marketers leverage can help you do just that.

For example, once the apps are integrated and lead data is synced between the two, a sales rep can learn when a prospect’s lead score reaches a level at which they’re sales-ready. That rep can then contact the prospect quickly, and in doing so, be more successful in their outreach.

A one-way sync between Marketo and Salesforce, whereby any time a lead is updated in the former application (such as their lead score), the appropriate changes get made to the associated lead in the latter application.
A one-way sync between Marketo and Salesforce, whereby any time a lead is updated in the former application (such as their lead score), the appropriate changes get made to the associated lead in the latter application

2. Create profiles for new hires in your HRIS seamlessly

Once a candidate signs their offer letter, your organization will want to move quickly in setting them up with the appropriate tools and equipment. Why? Because it ensures that the new hire can hit the ground running on their first day, and it can leave them with a positive first impression of your organization. 

To help facilitate a high-performing onboarding experience, you can integrate a human resources information system (HRIS) and a recruiting tool, and then build a data flow where once a candidate is marked as hired in the recruiting tool, their profile gets created in the HRIS. 

Obviously, there are several more steps that need to be taken once the new hire’s profile gets created in your HRIS—and an end-to-end workflow automation can help tackle them. But this, in and of itself, saves your team time and it moves you one step closer to onboarding the new hire successfully.

3. Manage client invoices more easily

As your organization grows its client base, it can become more difficult to keep tabs on individual invoices. 

You can help your colleagues in finance manage each invoice more easily over time by syncing your enterprise resource planning system (e.g. NetSuite) with your organization’s business communications platform (e.g. Slack)  and then setting up the following workflow: Any time a client is late on a payment, the appropriate employees in finance get notified via a message in a specific channel within your business communications platform. These employees can then move quickly in taking whatever steps are necessary to collect the payment in full.

Application integration benefits 

There’s a number of reasons why application integration is valuable for your organization. Here are just a few that are worth highlighting:

Fosters healthy collaboration across lines of business

By providing accurate, matching data across your applications, lines of business can collaborate more effectively and deliver better bottom-line results for the business. 

In more concrete terms:

  • Sales reps and marketers can access the same information on prospects, allowing them to work in tandem throughout the prospect’s lifecycle. 
  • Customer success managers (CSMs) and engineers can view escalated tickets and check on the status of any. This prevents each party from constantly asking the other for information, and it allows CSMs to provide accurate status updates to clients. 
  • CSMs and employees in accounts receivable can access the same invoicing data, enabling the latter to avoid reminding CSMs when one of their accounts is late on paying an invoice or hasn’t paid it in full.

Related: A framework for establishing an application integration strategy

Prevents costly errors

The process of manually re-entering data across apps can quickly lead to human errors that negatively impact clients, prospects, employees, and job candidates. 

Here are just a few examples:

  • An employee in finance puts the incorrect contract value in the ERP system, leading to an invoice that charges the customer by the wrong amount 
  • An employee in customer success copies a customer issue from the CRM platform to the ITSM tool, but accidentally inputs the wrong client
  • An employee in HR creates an offer letter that includes a lower salary and a different job title than what’s in the candidate’s profile in the recruiting app

With application integration, employees by and large don’t have to worry about making these mistakes, as the data they put into one app can instantly carry over to others with complete accuracy.

Boosts employee productivity 

Integrating your apps removes the need to constantly switch between them, as employees can access the data they need within the platforms they use every day. 

This not only goes a long way in helping employees get meaningful time back, but it also allows them to focus more on thoughtful, strategic work that can deliver value to the business.

Lifts the employee experience

It’s little surprise that allowing employees to focus on more thought-provoking work isn’t just good for the business, but also for your employees’ satisfaction. 

The vast majority of employees would go so far as to give up some of their salary just to feel like they’re doing important work; while nearly half of employees who are actively looking to switch jobs believe that their employer isn’t making full use of their skills and expertise.

In short, helping employees focus more of their time on thought-provoking work can help you retain them and keep them engaged.

Lets you hold onto valuable legacy systems and adopt new technologies

Certain legacy, on-prem systems offer unique value that newer cloud apps simply can’t address. Moreover, the prospect of replacing one of these legacy systems can be an expensive, time-consuming proposition, as it might involve training employees on using the replacement.

With application integration, you can hold on to these legacy systems, as well as use their data in new ways via the apps they’ve integrated with.

Related: How to integrate legacy systems with the rest of your tech stack

Popular types of application integration

Generally speaking, you can either build integrations in-house via custom code (otherwise known as point-to-point integrations), or use a 3rd-party tool, which often takes the form of an integration platform as a service (iPaaS) or a legacy, on-prem middleware platform (e.g. enterprise service bus, or ESB).  

Despite their inherent differences, both approaches share many of the same pros and cons.

Pros:

  • Data silos get eliminated, allowing employees to avoid app-hopping, data entry, and potential misalignment with colleagues
  • Employee satisfaction is likely to improve, as enabling employees to focus less on tedious tasks (like those outlined in the previous bullet) and more on strategic, meaningful work is proven to improve the employee experience
  • Employees are less likely to make costly human errors, as they no longer need to perform as many manual, error-prone tasks

Cons:

  • It can take precious time away from your dev team, when they can be focused, instead, on other critical tasks
  • As integration requests increase, your team’s integration backlog can quickly balloon 
  • Your organization is left vulnerable when the developers who understand specific integrations leave your company (remaining employees may not know how to fix or improve the integrations)
  • The timeline for building the integrations can be long, which causes data silos to persist and business partners to be disappointed

At this point, you might be wondering if there’s a better way to integrate your apps. 

As it turns out, there’s an option that not only allows your team to implement integrations more easily, but also build powerful automations that work across your apps and streamline your business processes.

How to evaluate application integration solutions

Despite many platforms having a common set of pros and cons, they often differ in notable ways. To help you find the one that’s best for your business, you can use the following criteria when reviewing them.

Ease of use and governance 

A low-code/no-code application integration tool can enable employees across lines of business to build impactful integrations and give IT and engineering some time back. That said, to ensure that your data, business applications, and processes remain secure as additional builders participate, you’ll also need the platform to offer enterprise-grade security through features like activity audit logs and role-based access control. 

AI and machine learning 

The platform should leverage the latest in AI and machine learning to help builders implement intelligent, high-performing integrations.

For example, if you’re looking to integrate an application like Salesforce with an ITSM tool like Zendesk in order to keep their accounts in sync, the platform can intelligently suggest the fields that can be mapped between them.

An animated walkthrough of someone mapping organizations in Zendesk with accounts in Salesforce within Workato's recipe builder interface

Workflow automations

While application integration, in and of itself, is useful, your path to digital transformation shouldn’t stop there. One of the key use cases it enables (and that the platform you select should offer) is end-to-end workflow automations for critical business processes. 

These workflow automations can be triggered by specific business events in real-time and can be utilized across any number of business processes, whether it’s lead routing, quote-to-cash, incident management, etc.

Enterprise platform bots for business communications platforms

Your employees likely spend a significant chunk of their time working from a business communications platform like Slack or Microsoft Teams. With that in mind, you should look for a solution that offers platform bots that can bring data from 3rd-party applications and automations directly to employees in your business comms platform.

Say you’ve built an automation around referring candidates. To kick start the automation, an employee can access the platform bot you’ve built within your business comms platform and fill out a form that includes all of the required information.

The pop-up form that “RecruiterBot” displays to employees and the confirmation message it shows in the next step
The pop-up form that “RecruiterBot” displays to employees and the confirmation message it shows in the next step

Pre-built connectors and automation templates

While many integration solutions provide pre-built connectors for SaaS applications, databases, or on-premises systems, their connectors will vary by breadth (i.e. the connectors they’ve made available) and depth (i.e. each connector’s scope of functionality). With this in mind, you’ll need to do some research on the connectors each platform provides, their plans for enhancing them, and their roadmap for launching new ones.

Similarly, many platforms offer a library of automation templates to help you brainstorm and implement automations more easily. Take some time to review the ones each vendor has made available, and if possible, try to also find out about the templates they plan to release over the coming months.

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Application integration FAQ

In case you still have any questions on application integration, we’ve answered several more below.

What are some important concepts within application integration?

While it’s hard to list all of them down, we’ll define some that you should be aware of and understand before you start integrating your applications. 

  • Application programming interface (API): Depending on who you ask, it’s either all of the endpoints or an individual endpoint that an organization has made available for accessing specific data or functionality.
  • Data mapping: It’s the process of mapping the data model of one application with the data model of another.
  • Webhooks (or “reverse API”): It’s an integration technique that allows you to handle events or event-based actions in near real-time. 

What is data integration?

It’s the process of extracting data from a multitude of sources, transforming that data to a common data model, cleansing it, and then uploading it to a single place, such as your data warehouse. The data can then get added to BI and analytics tools, allowing your analysts to uncover actionable business insights on time.

What are the differences between application integration and data integration?

While the two approaches are merging over time, a key difference is that the downstream applications involved in each approach will likely differ. More specifically, data integration is geared towards analytics and BI tools, while application integration can apply to any other type of application.

About the author
Jon Gitlin Content Strategist @ Workato
Jon Gitlin is the Managing Editor of The Connector, where you can get the latest news on Workato and uncover tips, examples, and frameworks for implementing powerful integrations and automations. In his free time, he loves to run outside, watch soccer (er...football) matches, and explore local restaurants.