Looking for the right view

IBM's Paraic Sweeney explains why master data management represents one of the best ways to manage an enterprise.

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By  Paraic Sweeney Published  October 13, 2008

The only constant in business data management today is change. People move to new homes every day, rendering customer information in countless databases obsolete.

And those same customers change phone numbers and jobs, acquire new credit cards, open new bank accounts, make purchases, make payments and get married. If changes like these are not recorded in an organisation's data records and shared with all the systems and processes that depend on those data records, that organisation can pay a high price or miss out on new business opportunities.

As a result, organisations around the world are clamouring for a single view of their "master" data, the data on which their businesses and their business decisions are based. This includes a mix of information on customers, products, agreements, accounts, vendors, suppliers, and inventory all typically stored in application silos that can be found across the length and breadth of a typical organisation.

Further complicating things are the limitations inherent in legacy IT infrastructures.

Given the organic way in which most organisations' information systems have been built, not to mention the reality of information silos, legacy systems and multiple architectures, a single view of master data has thus far been impossible to achieve. But as organisations reorganise, merge, acquire new business units and grapple with new security and compliance regulations, the need for master data management is becoming more pressing.

For many organisations, the answer does not lie solely in the "single" view. Instead, they should really be focusing their efforts on finding the "right" single view of their master data.

This type of solution does not seek to replace existing data silos with a single data view. Instead, it employs special technologies and processes to break down the barriers between data silos allowing existing information to be presented in multiple views so that the right view is available in the right place at the right time.

Data warehouses, transaction systems, customer information files, and operational data stores have their place in a comprehensive data management solution, but they have not been really designed for master data management or enabling a single view. In fact, as master data becomes even more heterogeneous and complex in the future, these solutions may face the very real possibility of falling farther behind the times.

Further complicating things are the limitations inherent in most organisations' existing legacy IT infrastructures and systems.

After all, most solutions are designed to manage low-velocity customer and product data in a single mode, either in batch mode or online and are not built to be flexible enough to accommodate new channels and sources of information as they appear.

In addition, because the methods and processes associated with master data management operate separately from an organisation's traditional line-of-business and other systems, they have the ability to go beyond the basic retrieval, updating and dissemination of data present in any organisation; they also need to address all the different uses of master data.

Master data management supports operational uses by integrating data with the operational applications in real time. It supports collaborative use of master data by providing an authorising process to create, define, and synchronise data. And finally, master data management supports analytical use of master data by proactively pushing data to analytical applications via an event management tool.

With a single, integrated master data management solution, an organisation can provide its business units with a complete overview of master data that is up-to-date, accurate and customised to the particular needs of the person who is viewing the data.

For example if a shipping clerk is using a logistics application, the right view will allow her to see a customer's address and other relevant details. The right view for the customer tracking her purchase on the web will be - on the other hand - completely different.

A single view master data management solution can provide all the benefits of traditional data management solutions and has the potential for improving overall enterprise-wide efficiency and organisational competitiveness.

The prospect of putting a master data management solution in place may seem to be a daunting prospect, especially for larger organisations or those who might have somewhat limited IT resources. But with the right approach, this does not always have to be the case.

That's because at its heart, a single view solution to master data management is really a straightforward business strategy, implemented via a traditional system of IT deliverables.

Once the business strategy is in place, organisations can implement the IT enablers one domain at a time, as their overall business priorities call for them. The staged implementation process can also be coordinated with and enhanced by other initiatives such as looking at implementation of a full service-oriented architecture.

For the bottom line, this staged implementation approach allows the financial impact of a new solution - instead of being a single severe hit - to be absorbed over a much longer period of time and tied directly to specific business benefits and a system of achievements.

Staged implementation also has the advantage of allowing an organisation to see the real-world benefits of master data management more quickly, which in the end is a good thing. Without an effective master data management system in place, organisations will continue to be at the mercy of their burgeoning information silos.

Paraic Sweeney is vice president for information platform and solutions at IBM.

Key Attributes of a Master Data Management Solution

• Consolidation of customer and other knowledge and insight from existing silos to an enterprise level.

• Sharing of data across all systems as a set of customer-centric business processes and services.

• Common master for customers, products and suppliers to speed data entry, retrieval and analysis.

• Support for multiple users of data, including the option to limit certain users' ability to add, update or view processes which maintain the master data.

• Integration of product information management, customer relationship management, customer data integration and other solutions that provide access to analysis of master data.

What Is Master Data Management?

Master data management describes a set of disciplines, technologies and solutions used to create and maintain consistent, complete, contextual and accurate business data for all stakeholders (users, applications, data warehouses, processes, and trading partners). The key to master data management is "management." Master data management does not create new data or new data silos. Rather, it provides the method by which an organisation can effectively manage the data already resident in disparate systems.

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