Data dominance the prize in Salesforce ERP integration moves

Following the MuleSoft acquisition in March, the Dreamforce conference reinforces the cloud CRM leader's ambition to become the front end to enterprise data.

At first blush, Salesforce's $6.5 billion acquisition of integration software-maker MuleSoft earlier this year would appear to be purely about Salesforce ERP integration -- bringing pertinent customer-related information into a company's Salesforce environment from non-Salesforce applications.

But what became clear at the company's huge Dreamforce conference in San Francisco in September was that MuleSoft's potential value to Salesforce runs deeper than customer information. In fact, it positions Salesforce to potentially become the de facto interface for legacy enterprise systems -- most notably, ERP.

Even the theme of this year's Dreamforce -- the idea that we're in a fourth Industrial Revolution, one that revolves around connectedness -- felt like a nod to the big plans Salesforce Chairman and Co-CEO Marc Benioff has for making Salesforce the center of all things business. But, for that to happen, the vendor needs Salesforce ERP integration that is more complete and seamless than ever before.

Benefits of improved Salesforce ERP integration

Advocates claim MuleSoft lets Salesforce users do what was once considered an IT pipe dream: Reach into pretty much any other application, and bring in data without having to clean it. There's no need to establish a data warehouse or use middleware or any other layer of enabling technology. Once an API is established, it's as simple as pointing and clicking.

"Companies need more and more visibility into everything that has to do with the customer," said Uri Sarid, CTO of MuleSoft, during an interview the week after Dreamforce, noting that this could mean needing access from everything from order details and inventory status to production updates. "But you don't have to consolidate all of the data in one place. That's what's changed."

What the combination of Salesforce and MuleSoft puts in the hands of its customers hits on all sorts of today's IT hot button objectives, such as simplifying integration, enabling self-service and freeing up IT staff to focus on revenue-producing tasks and innovation.

"By leaving data where it is, in the host systems, Salesforce can bypass a lot of difficult and convoluted issues," Denis Pombriant, managing principal at Beagle Research Group, said via email. "Legacy system owners can go about their work almost as if nothing has changed, but users get big benefits."

The ability to reach beyond the confines of a company's Salesforce environment and "integrate" data from ERP and other systems to make better decisions while engaged with customers positions Salesforce to become much more than it has been.

The company's software rose to fame by providing marketers and salespeople with a measure of control they'd never had. Suddenly, they could provision their own alternative to the cumbersome CRM systems of yesteryear, which were often built by the same companies building ERP systems.

But whereas serving the customer then only meant having to know the history of that relationship and other questions could be deferred, today's customer interactions must be informed by every aspect of the business that affects those customers.

That's the thinking behind the pending Customer 360, a new set of services announced at Dreamforce that are designed to correlate a customer's record across all of the pieces of the Salesforce ecosystem. It's easy to see the power of putting that together with the capabilities of Mulesoft through improved Salesforce ERP integration.

"It seems they have a definite strategy to provide systems of engagement in areas now served by systems of record," Pombriant said. "The net effect is to bring more data to users to enable better decision-making."

Users tout Salesforce as data front end

When you get down to it, companies had already been trying anything and everything to expose and manage transactions end to end in Salesforce in this way. The vendor's moves are simply a reflection of what its customers want.

For instance, Errol Levin, COO of Auction Nation, which salvages vehicles for insurance companies, said during a Dreamforce session that he attended the show the previous year specifically to find out more about Einstein, the set of business intelligence services that bring AI to Salesforce apps.

A year later, Auction Nation is using Einstein to perform near-real-time image classification of photos of damaged vehicles. Claims adjusters then use that knowledge to generate immediate estimates of repair costs and make quicker decisions about whether to salvage vehicles, all from within Salesforce.

Other companies, like Pearson Education, got started on trying to achieve this goal of integrating enterprise data into Salesforce much earlier. The provider of textbooks and other educational materials has spent more than four years building a master data management (MDM)-centric approach to the issue, and Gabriele Bauman, vice president of global CRM delivery at Pearson, was at Dreamforce to share that story during a well-attended session.

By establishing a central "system of authority" that matches up customer records that might otherwise be seen as separate records, Bauman said during a post-conference interview, the company hopes to create a truly seamless customer experience in which every bit of data needed to address a customer's needs is there, regardless of channel.

"We're not there yet, but we're getting there," said Bauman, who previously oversaw ERP implementations for Bay Networks in the 1990s and Nortel Networks in the 2000s.

Sales shouldn't have to go look in the ERP system for their customer's order status.
Gabriele BaumanVice president, Pearson Education

Bauman said she sees a lot of value in having Salesforce as the front end-facing platform for all types of data. And it just so happens that Pearson built its integrated environment with Salesforce as the de facto interface into all the other systems that feed MDM, such as ERP, royalty management, e-commerce and telephony.

"All I'm doing is creating a place where Salesforce can go and get it and display it however I want it to," Bauman said. "Sales shouldn't have to go look in the ERP system for their customer's order status. They need to be able to do that from their system."

As the project wraps up all these years later, Bauman looks at the combination of Salesforce's sizable lineup of ERP partners on AppExchange, its MuleSoft acquisition and now the Customer 360 announcement and she sees how an ERP cloud might make a logical addition to the Salesforce stack down the line. Before that happens, she'd like to see the company strengthen its mobile offerings, particularly its offline functionality.

For now, however, Bauman feels comfortable that, with Salesforce serving as a window into more ERP and enterprise data than ever before, Pearson is better positioned to meet the needs of an increasingly impatient customer base.

"Instant knowledge is wanted," she said. "You used to be able to say, 'Let me get back to you tomorrow.' Now, everyone feels that you've got technology in your back pocket, so why can't you get it for me today?"

Without the data that comes from stronger Salesforce ERP integration, there simply isn't any way to satisfy this emerging expectation. Salesforce knows this, and given that it bills itself as the customer  experience company, it's likely that Benioff and team have a long-term strategy to tackle the opportunity.

Next Steps

Learn more about ERP integration strategy

Dig Deeper on ERP administration and management

Data Management
Business Analytics
Content Management