Develop a master data management (MDM) strategy in seven steps

Learn how to get started on developing an MDM strategy and project plan for your organisation, with guidance from analysts and experienced users.

UK-based organisations are increasingly recognising that they need to create a single trusted view of their core data. Many are identifying master data management (MDM) as a useful strategy for ensuring that data consistency. But where to begin on an MDM project?

You aren’t alone if you’re unsure. Consulting firm Forrester Research has found that most people are still asking basic questions about MDM – commonly, ‘What is it?’, and ’How do I get started?’.

To help you develop an MDM strategy and an MDM project plan, here, in no particular order, are seven starting points for an MDM implementation:

Strengthen your data quality process. Rob Karel, a Forrester analyst, cautions that an organisation must achieve a strong level of data quality before it even attempts to implement an MDM strategy or deploy MDM technologies. “You can’t really deliver MDM without data quality,” he said.

Underpinning data quality, according to Karel, is: “Data governance, data governance, data governance.” Ultimately, he said, the success or failure of any MDM system deployment will be determined by the strength of internal processes for developing common data definitions, policies, business rules and quality measurements, and then making sure people adhere to them.

Find a quick win on your MDM project. Rachel See, head of e-commerce at the UK unit of Wolseley, a distributor of heating and plumbing products, initiated an MDM strategy after she found that different teams at the company were maintaining multiple data sets for different sales channels, such as its catalogue and website. In addition, they were often using separate instances of the same data.

Wolseley UK has multiple operating companies and various groups oversee different stages of the data sourcing, maintenance and publishing process. See noted that the MDM initiative started with a small pilot project before a broad deployment was approved. “The strategy was to test the solution in an isolated area of the business first in order to prove the benefits and refine the processes,” she said.

After the pilot project was successful, See added, the MDM system was rolled out across the organisation in stages, with priority being given to business units with ‘the largest potential commercial benefit’ or opportunities for efficiency improvements.

Karel concurred with Wolseley’s approach, saying: “With MDM, the squeaky wheel really should get the grease.” He recommended that MDM project teams identify the business stakeholders who can best articulate how poor data quality is affecting their operations, “and address their needs first.”

Charles Blyth, head of business intelligence (BI) at marketing services firm CPP Group, launched an MDM programme to try to address issues with inconsistent data resulting from a lack of data governance procedures and limited control over the creation and standardisation of new data.

Blyth advocates taking care with the ‘quick win’ approach: Use it, but don’t forget the bigger picture. At CPP Group, the initial business case for MDM was primarily based on bringing in-house an outsourced customer data integration (CDI) system that was costly and ineffective.

“This got our foot in the door with the board,” he said.” However, to make MDM a success, you need to have buy-in to the entire vision, or you risk losing sponsorship once the first delivery is complete.”

Decide who ‘owns’ master data. Chris Daniels, an information management consultant at Bath-based IT services firm IPL, points out that it’s essential to understand the needs of the business in relation to master data, especially with regard to deciding who inside a company needs to be able to access and control the information. That will affect the amount of technology and internal processes required as part of an MDM project, according to Daniels.

In an organisation with about 100 customers, it might be feasible to give one individual responsibility for maintaining the entire customer data domain, Daniels said.

In a retail bank, on the other hand, it's likely that a much larger number of users will have to be able to amend master customer data. In such cases, he said, “system processes and data quality routines may be needed in order to ensure consistency.”

Align your MDM project with the business vision. Gartner analyst John Radcliffe, author of a March 2009 research note on creating an MDM strategy and roadmap, thinks it should be fairly straightforward to make the case for MDM as an enabler of an organisation’s business vision.

“If the business vision is very much about being customer-centric, then it will be very difficult to deliver on that promise if there is no single view of the customer,” Radcliffe said. “Equally, if it is all about operational efficiency, then it will be difficult to do that without single views of the product, customer and supplier.”

By following that premise, he added, a programme manager should be able to create an MDM project plan that aligns directly with the organisation's business strategy.

Hone your MDM vendor RFPs. The market for MDM technologies is extremely confusing, with MDM vendors offering mixed messages and very different solutions to similar problems. If companies have a good idea of what they want to achieve upfront, they can narrow the field more quickly and avoid possible missteps when they evaluate and buy MDM tools.

For its MDM deployment, Wolseley UK went with software from Stibo Systems. See said that in the company’s request for proposals (RFP), “we were very specific about our needs.” Wolseley wanted a best-of-breed product with “the technical capability to support our current needs, the operational support to ensure a successful initial implementation and ongoing continuous improvement,” she added.

The company also was looking for a vendor that had a stated vision for staying ahead of the curve on product development in the evolving MDM market, according to See.

Show how the business will suffer without an MDM strategy. Radcliffe recommends demonstrating that business success is unachievable without MDM – for example, by showing that an organisation lacking an MDM strategy could fail to recognise who its best customers are and have trouble retaining them.

Other potential business problems include losing out on revenue opportunities and facing fines or worse as a result of not meeting regulatory compliance requirements. Linking those possible outcomes to a lack of investment in MDM “should gain the attention and sponsorship of executive-level management,” Radcliffe said.

Define your MDM utopia. Decide what you would like to achieve with MDM in an ideal world before taking the first steps towards adopting it. Blyth’s utopian model for CPP Group’s deployment was real-time enterprise MDM integrated with a service-oriented architecture (SOA).

Before proposing the MDM project, he discussed his vision with key executives in the organisation to get a feel for how much compromise might be needed. Doing so “provided us with an understanding of the field we had to play in, how much selling was required and how far we could go with our initial MDM pitch,” Blyth said.

Next, he added, his team conducted a gap analysis between the green-field version of the MDM vision and CPP’s existing data quality capabilities in order to help it develop a viable MDM strategy “that was relevant to our business at the time.”

Tracey Caldwell is a freelance writer based in the UK.

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