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Microsoft tackles its own CDI project

It takes more than just CEO Steve Ballmer's say-so to get a customer data integration project done right at Microsoft. It takes a lengthy commitment and organizational CDI support.

Customer Data Integration (CDI) projects are a challenge for even the world's largest software vendor. When Microsoft took on a massive internal CDI project, building organizational support and excitement was an essential part of its plan.

The CDI project at Microsoft will completely reform its global data infrastructure, so that information about an individual or organization is mastered once in a central hub, according to Jeff Medenhall, director of customer data management. The Microsoft Individual and Organization (MIO) project is expected to last five years, cost "tens of millions of dollars," and touch every aspect of the business, he said. Technically, the project represents an innovative approach to CDI, utilizing Microsoft's own SQL Server, BizTalk and .NET Web services to build a real-time, global system, Medenhall said. The immense size and company-wide impact of the project required the team to develop organization-wide support and excitement for CDI. It's an ongoing task.

"Maintaining momentum is the toughest thing in a five-year program," Medenhall said. "I can build some excitement up front, but how do you keep that going?"

The project is now midway through its first year.

In addition to managing the long-term technical roadmap, the team also works to keep the organization educated and excited about the CDI system. Here is what they've learned so far.

Request organizational feedback early on and use it for planning

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The CDI project started with a 100-day planning process, Medenhall said. IT and business groups worked together to understand the potential business benefits of CDI. Departments learned how CDI could affect activities and shared unique concerns. During this process, the team would offer examples of pain points and benefits, then open up discussion to the specifics of the department in question. The examples helped users consider how the project would uniquely affect their own groups, said Megan O'Leary, Microsoft's group manager of customer data management.

"With a CDI implementation, you'll have different pain points depending on which side of the process you're looking at," O'Leary said.

This process provided the team with important feedback for the business case for CDI funding. Educating people about CDI also started a groundswell of organizational support for the project, O'Leary said, even before it was officially funded.

Get executive support -- but don't use it as a "stick"

After building the business case, the team ultimately boiled their request down to one page for CEO Steve Ballmer's approval. His executive support was a powerful endorsement. The team requested departmental support for CDI based on its business value, however, not on its executive sponsors.

"This isn't a project where you want to use a stick to get people on board; we really didn't leverage our executive support for that," Medenhall clarified. "Truly, when people saw the value of what we could do with [CDI], they came on board."

Plan for interactive, continuous education

The team embraces "continuous, interactive learning," Medenhall said. Most communication is face-to-face and the team uses language and visual aids appropriate for each group. When talking to a technical team, they use the logical data models of the existing and planned systems. When working with business groups, they discuss how the new system will affect day-to-day activities.

"We try to make it interactive and show them something to get a reaction or some feedback rather than just doing canned presentations. We're really trying to make it a learning and listening discussion," Medenhall said.

Have a long-term vision, but plan short-term quick wins

The organization is excited that Microsoft is doing something cutting-edge with CDI, Medenhall commented. The real-time integration, synchronization and global rollout push the envelope of CDI, he said, and that inspires the technically oriented organization. But even those who bought into the long-term vision need to see regular progress. Part of the team's strategy is quick wins, which Medenhall defines as driving some value, efficiency or increased benefit in less than three months. One of the team's first wins was a proof-of-concept tool for demonstrations.

"Seeing is believing," Medenhall said. "It's key to get beyond the theoretical into something tangible."

When people see progress, they get more excited about their own deliverables, O'Leary added. She said that the demonstration tool helped generate a lot of excitement, because people could physically see what the project could do for them.

Develop a CDI roadmap and learn from incremental releases

Microsoft's CDI project has a roadmap -- similar to a software development project – and the team has beta users, whom they regularly tap for feedback, O'Leary said. They rolled out a first release to a small group to educate them and get some feedback, Medenhall said, and they'll soon be rolling out a second release to a broader audience. Given the large scale and long timeline of the project, incremental releases are essential to get feedback and, if necessary, modify the plan.

"We have to keep the quick wins, keep the continuous learning, and keep the innovation going as well," Medenhall said. "Incremental releases keep the learning and growth going."

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