If there were one fleet software tool that could handle every aspect of fleet management, everyone would own it. But no one magic solution exists.

For instance, one system may handle accounting, while an entirely different system stores user information. Both are the best at what they do, but what happens when accounting data and user records all need to be accessed in the same place? Fortunately, database integration can connect the “best of the best” in fleet management tools, saving time, energy, and dollars.

What is Integration?

In simple terms, database integration means sharing information between two different computer systems. For example, at Indiana University, the risk management department keeps a record of all drivers approved to use a university vehicle.

This is valuable information for those who oversee the motor pool, since drivers must have a valid driver’s license and have been approved by the university to use a motor pool vehicle. Rather than maintaining their own database of approved drivers and duplicating the steps risk management has already taken to keep accurate records, the motor pool simply accesses risk management’s information about approved drivers.

The motor pool saves the time and cost associated with maintaining a duplicate record. Furthermore, the motor pool receives daily database update alerts via e-mail. Mike Hardesty, director of Indiana University’s motor pool, says this alert helps them provide better service to customers.

“When we have new drivers for whom we’re waiting for approval, it’s good to know the system has been updated,” he said. Rather than calling ahead to the risk management department to check a driver’s status, Hardesty has the data at his fingertips. “When a person is standing in front of you, waiting to find out they’ve been approved and ready for a vehicle, seconds seem like minutes and minutes seems like hours, so skipping a step helps a lot.”

Integration Improves Processes

Ed Smith, president of Agile Access Control, provides another example of how integration can have a significant impact on fleet management.

A maintenance software program issues reminders when vehicles reach a certain mileage, yet, the system cannot access the actual fleet vehicle mileage data. However, a separate motor pool management system does have this information — it records mileage every time a vehicle leaves and returns to the motor pool. Smith noted that much can be gained by sharing this information.

“A productive integration project would be for the motor pool management system to send mileage data to the maintenance software so that the latest and most accurate mileage data is available for planning maintenance tasks,” he said. “This is a fairly straightforward example of an integration project, which can be valuable to the fleet manager.”

Smith is no stranger to fleet integration projects. His company created FleetCommander — a fleet and motor pool management system.

“I am always surprised at the lack of data-sharing that occurs in the fleet environment,” he said. “When done properly, integration projects eliminate duplicate data entry and generate valuable reports that reflect the most current data found across all fleet software systems.”

Eighteen years ago, King County’s Fleet Administration Department in Washington integrated its fleet maintenance, fuel management, and financial systems, and staff members are still seeing results. Data integration gives their fleet administration real-time information on fleet vehicle status, which allows for appropriate business decisions.

In addition, when county officials have questions about the fleet, administrators can quickly produce supporting documentation. “This integration has been a major factor in allowing King County Fleet Administration to be a leader in the industry,” said Windell Mitchell, director of fleet administration.

How to Get Started

How does a fleet get started with a data integration project? The following are five top tips to consider when contemplating fleet integration.

Work with software vendors or technology staff.

Cooperative fleet software vendors generally are happy to help plan a fleet integration effort. They should be able to help prioritize needs, assess risks, and estimate the project’s time, cost, and benefits. In nearly all cases, data can be shared in several ways. A vendor can explain the pros and cons of each approach.

Hardesty, who uses FleetCommander to integrate his systems, said “Our integration project was easy because we had people on board who were willing to take the time to do it, and we had a software company that was amenable to working with us. Everyone was anxious to get it up and running.”

Perform an audit of fleet functions and document integration priorities.

Tackling all aspects of an integration effort at once is sometimes called the “big bang” approach. Rarely is this cost effective or wise.

Smith said, “Take your integration ‘meal’ one bite at a time. Make a list of where you can benefit most from sharing data, where you are spending the most time doing double data entry, where you have delays in your business because you are waiting for data to show up from some external source, and what reports cannot be run in a timely manner because the data is not available. Commit your opportunities to paper; then prioritize them.”

When first integrating systems, Mitchell did just that. “Our first step was to perform a detailed analysis of all relevant business activities, along with flow charts to document in detail how fleet worked,” Mitchell said. By combining the planning efforts of its financial, IT, and fleet administration departments, King County set the stage for success. Smith suggested some key questions to ask when prioritizing integration needs:

  • Is this integration task absolutely required, e.g., because staff positions are being eliminated or the data must exist in a particular system?
  • Is integration completion bound by any time constraints?
  • In a perfect world, how frequently would data be shared?
  • What are the cost/time savings of the integration task?
  • What are the benefits of integration? Perhaps counter-intuitively, tackling the highest priority first may not be the most technically prudent. For example, it may be best to do the third priority first because the highest priority task may depend on data related to another integration project.

Don’t underestimate the task. Plan it out before jumping in.

  • Most fleet managers want software integrations completed immediately. They don’t want to talk about it, they just want it done. System integrators are the same way, but they must deal with the realities of sharing data between systems. No system integration effort will succeed without a detailed specification. A specification document captures all aspects of the integration plan, including:
  • Whether the interface is one-way or two-way.
  • The specific data to be shared.
  • Data transfer frequency.
  • The rules for determining the most current data. (For example, a maintenance system may post more up-to-date mileage than a fuel system. Data should be retrieved from the maintenance system so as not to avoid overwriting newer data with older.)
  • The rules for determining “good” data. It is wise to document rules for error-checking and procedures to handle bad data-sharing.
  • Tools to review and/or approve data shared across an interface.
  • Reports or tools to monitor or administer the integration processes.
  • Data transfer format.
  • Data format transformation instruction required by integrating systems.
  • Required system changes. (For example, a system may require a “last updated” date for each field transferred across the interface to help determine the most current data.) “Be sure to clearly identify your needs and make sure that everyone involved in the process understands what you want to do and why you want it,” Hardesty said. Determining specifications and properly planning an approach are upfront investments that help an integration project hit the ground running. Mitchell also sees including the input of others during the planning stage as a secret to success. His advice: “Include all stakeholders in the beginning and throughout the process to guarantee full support and success of the final integration.”

Select the right interface medium — not the easiest.

Computer systems can share information in several ways. While each method has merits, choosing the right approach potentially can save money and help in future upgrades to fleet systems. Some popular interface options include e-mail, XML, comma-delimited, and Excel.

Give the topic of security the attention it deserves.

Data should never be shared with unauthorized outsiders. Nor should it be possible for others to opportunistically steal it. To ensure that data is kept private, pay particular attention to security issues. Many easy, low-cost methods are available to encrypt data or otherwise prevent unauthorized access.

Smith suggested planning security details according to risk. For example, when transferring mileage and VIN data, the same resources need not be spent on security than when transferring a driver’s name, license number, birth date, or social security number.

Plan security accordingly.

For Hardesty, because Indiana University’s system stores driver’s license numbers, security is important. To keep the information secure, the FleetCommander system operates on a secure Web site. Only individuals with university usernames can log on to the site. Security is a priority at King County as well.

“Our primary goal was to minimize the number of people involved in entering and transferring data,” Mitchell said. “The integration allowed for single data input, usually at point of transaction, with the information then transferred directly to the financial system without any secondary data re-entry.”

Smith underscored the importance of planning for security when launching an integration project. “The easiest way to get someone within your organization to stop a data integration project is to give them the perception that you have not placed an importance on the topic of security. Trust me; once they’ve stopped a project, getting it restarted is next to impossible.”

Save Time, Effort, and Money

Although beginning an integration project may involve initial time and effort, the yields can be phenomenal. “Any time you can eliminate steps in the process and duplication of entry, there’s a savings,” Hardesty said. “And we know we have the most up-to-date information every day. Integrating our data has streamlined the process, and saved time, effort, and money. We found the process very helpful, and we certainly want to do more of it down the road.” According to Mitchell, “the earlier you integrate, the better.”