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TDWI Solution Summit: Business users increasingly driving MDM projects

Attendees and speakers at a TDWI event in Savannah, Ga., said that more business execs are pushing for master data management, even if they don’t realize that MDM is what they want.

SAVANNAH, Ga. -- It’s difficult to fit most of today’s master data management (MDM) programs into an easily described bundle, because they come in so many shapes and sizes, according to speakers and attendees at this week’s TDWI Solution Summit.

Many MDM programs place a strong emphasis on the data governance processes that go into ensuring the consistency of information about products, customers, suppliers and other business entities. Others stress the middleware technology that allows organizations to create MDM hubs, where approved data definitions are housed for all to share. At many other organizations, it might be difficult to tell where the data quality program ends and the MDM program begins, according to Philip Russom, the director of research at TDWI.

A definition of master data management (MDM)

Master data management (MDM) combines data governance with technological tools in an effort to ensure higher levels of data quality and data consistency throughout an organization. MDM programs typically make use of middleware to create a master data hub that becomes the single source for all of an organization’s approved data definitions. The data governance aspect of MDM focuses on aligning business and IT in an effort to identify and fix the flawed business processes that lead to inconsistent data.

“More and more we’re seeing people coordinating a variety of related data management practices in general,” said Russom, who took to the stage with a panel of software vendors to discuss the evolution of MDM. “But there are certain combinations that we see more often than others.”

More than half of large organizations have some kind of MDM program in place, added Russom, citing several TDWI surveys. And while many MDM initiatives remain immature and departmentally focused, conference speakers and attendees reported that a growing number of organizations are beginning to attack MDM on an enterprise-wide scale.

That is certainly what’s happening in Kansas City, Mo. at the offices of Hallmark Cards Inc., said Janet Nickel, a principal enterprise architect with the popular greeting card company.

“I’ve been at Hallmark for 32 years and we’ve done MDM the whole time, but I think we’ve done it in pieces. It’s been siloed,” she said. “Now we’re trying to do it completely across the company.”

Hallmark, which owns several companies, including crayon giant Crayola LLC, currently runs an MDM program that covers multiple domains. Nickel said one of the benefits of achieving enterprise-wide MDM will be a clearer view into end-to-end business processes. But getting business users to agree on the official definitions of terms can be a challenge.

“Every time you talk to a business person you have to interrogate him,” she quipped. “Don’t let them get by with just saying, ‘It’s a customer.’ Ask them what they mean. Are you talking about somebody you’re trying to sell to? Are you talking about somebody you’ve already sold to? Are you talking about somebody that’s using it?”

Attendees also agreed that, more than ever, the need for high-quality MDM practices is being driven by the business sides of organizations -- even if the business users do not exactly realize that MDM is what they’re after.

Brian Vile, a product marketing manager with IBM, summed up the situation by saying that any time a business worker needs a 360-degree view of a customer, product, supplier or other business entity -- that worker is actually asking for MDM in some form.

For example, when Billy Beane -- the general manager of the Oakland A’s baseball club who was depicted in 2011’s Moneyball with Brad Pitt -- wanted to find undervalued players, he needed a 360-degree view of those players. MDM helped him achieve that visibility.

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“I think we really have moved from MDM and data quality being an IT-led initiative to now being business user driven,” Vile said. “It’s being driven by the business and they’re not calling it MDM.”

Conference speakers and attendees also spent some time talking about some of the “killer apps” for MDM -- the places where MDM really shines in organizations. One example of a company that got a great deal of mileage out of MDM came from Ron Agresta, the technical director for master data management and data governance solutions at DataFlux.

A retail organization with multiple stores throughout the United States approached DataFlux for help building an MDM hub, because the company could not tell if its customers were buying product warranties at one store and then having those warranties serviced at another, Agresta explained. After going live with MDM, the company found many more glaring blind spots in its view of customers.

“They were capturing all the customer information but it wasn’t being distributed across the different operational systems,” Agresta said. “For us, it was really eye opening to see that if you get some master data management processes in there you can make great improvements to systems that are already running.”

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