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CDI initiative: Where to begin?

Our expert offers some advice on various approaches to launching a customer data integration (CDI) project.

One of the goals for my business in 2007 is to focus our efforts on customer data integration (CDI). Do you have any suggestions about where I should begin? Who should be involved in this process with me? What are some of the obstacles that I might face while pursuing this initiative?

First off, congratulations on your decision to move forward with customer data integration (CDI). We find the early adopters being IT types with the business vision to understand the need, and the political clout to enlist the business to help pull it off. From your question, you seem to be one of those people, which bodes well for you and your company's customer-focused future.

As far as beginning your CDI initiative, there are several potential "on ramps." At the risk of sounding like a consultant I have to ask: What's the need, pain, or problem you're trying to solve? The ability to answer this question, and to gain consensus that the problem does indeed exist, is the first big step to customer data integration success. So perhaps you're in the health care industry and you need to begin tracking a patient across the continuum of care using newly digitized electronic patient records? That's a different problem than being a hotel chain with franchised properties—many of whom have built or purchased their own reservations systems—and recognizing a loyal customer at the time of registration. Or perhaps you need an automated way to conform the dimensions across your company's heterogeneous analytics databases, or match incoming customer records with existing ones at an operational level? All of these fall under the rubric of customer data integration, but each of them involves different business rules, and most likely different technology solutions, too.

In the assessments we do, we distinguish between need and readiness. That is, there may be a bona-fide need for CDI, yet an organizational reluctance to move forward, either because of bias toward incumbent technologies, ongoing data ownership debates, or funding. Conversely, there might be a high degree of agreement about CDI but a lack of awareness about existing technologies that might solve the problem. It's important to identify the risks and barriers to launching CDI before you enlist support for it. We also look for gaps in existing capabilities. CDI relies on solid data modeling, data management and governance. How does your organization tackle these activities today? What holes need to be "filled in" so you can launch CDI as a deliberate and rigorous program, ensuring that it evolves and scales along with your customer master data?

In terms of the obstacles, the main one is education. People make assumptions about CDI and MDM, often prematurely, and need to understand where it fits and what problems it solves. Avoid making CDI a marketing issue or a customer support issue, and instead make sure to enlist customer data stakeholders across business units. Often this is as simple as doing a CDI workshop for folks as a way of getting everyone on the same page. People will usually show up to these workshops if they think they'll learn something new. But, and here are my final words of advice, that are as apt as ever: When in doubt, serve a hot lunch!


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