NEW YORK – Not just the faltered economy, but the shifting priorities of business and technology have made most everyone suddenly more aware of their work roles and how viable they will remain in a prolonged downturn. Coupled with decreasing real estate values and shrinking retirement accounts, it’s no surprise that the short-term view of job prospects is weighing on many minds.


At our just-completed MDM Summit at New York’s Hilton Hotel, I moderated a panel looking at the state of corporate programs, particularly MDM, but generally applicable to business intelligence and information management. Our three panelists – Aaron Zornes, conference chair and chief research officer at the MDM Institute; Jill Dyché, partner and co-founder of Baseline Consulting; and Dan Power, president of Hub Design Solutions – each consult with a variety of businesses large and small, and have a good line of sight to where we are today.


The good news to come out of this is that MDM and other information-related programs remain a priority if not a requirement at most corporations. It’s clear however, that there’s a good deal of belt tightening underway, including hiring freezes and managing the direction of fixed and busier staffs.


Zornes’ clients are primarily Global 5000 companies, $1 billion and up. “They’re not de-emphasizing MDM because it’s not a short-term view in their minds, it’s a long-term project,” he says. “They’re not throwing more budget at it. They’re saying they have to make do with the people they already have. But organizations that are looking to get economies of scale out of their mergers, among banks, among insurers, among retailers or airlines, continue to invest because they want to come out of the chute and be competitively leveraged when things hopefully clear up.” Zornes says the predicted time frame for that is 18 to 24 months – for now.


The panelists agreed that medium-sized businesses are facing a tougher short-term path. “A lot of our [MDM] clients have been doing readiness assessments and functional requirements. We see that falling two ways, they’re either going to get something to move forward fairly quickly because they can’t afford to be perceived as doing research in a down economy or they’re going to have their projects ‘de-scoped’ in the near term,” Dyché says. “I just heard that term for the first time from a client who said, ‘we have six weeks before we get de-scoped, can you help us?’ So they’re either going to move forward quickly with actual tactics around MDM or they’re going to get de-scoped.”


Power is working with a retailer that is suffering on the sales front but remains committed. “They’re hurting, just like their biggest competitor, but they’re purposely investing into the downturn so when things turn around they can hope to quickly grab some market share,” he says. “But I think that’s somewhat of an exception. I’m not seeing things being canceled, though the ‘big bang’ approaches are being stretched out. I think there’s a lot of doing more with less but these things still have to get done and in some cases are critical to the underlying company strategy. Even with directives to cut or freeze spending and hiring, some companies are getting very creative.”


Safety in (Owning) Numbers


So where are the safe havens in information management? Though the titles vary, the answer might be found in job descriptions that include ownership or stewardship of information.


“I think he who knows the data wins and that transcends MDM and is true for data warehousing, CRM [customer relationship management], business intelligence and other programs,” Dyché says. “We have a major Japanese car company as a client that is embracing MDM. The data warehouse people have been jockeying and everyone wants to pad their resume and own the hub. The one smart guy said, ‘you guys can all own the platforms and technology and I’ll be the data steward.’ Guess who the star of the show is now? It’s the guy who owns the information and manages the data back to the context of its usage. He’s the one with a direct line of communication back to the data governance council. He made the right choice.”


“People’s titles don’t necessarily reflect what they’re doing,” Power says. “We have a project involving an employee with the title ‘AR Project Manager 2,’ but in reality she is the de facto data steward for the company. There are certain attributes to these roles in soft skills and political skills. The types of people who take it on really enjoy that almost overwhelming challenge, they dig in and climb the mountain. It’s very rewarding to work with them.”


I’ve also noticed this trend at midsized businesses like Burlington Coat or Pitt Ohio Express, roles that have morphed out of mid-management into data stewardship. I am coming to call these important people information brokers, and I’ve wondered whether senior management is even aware of the importance of these jobs to company success.


But job safety can be largely self-determined. “If you’re really concerned about your career you don’t get into the product-specific skills of testing and coding, you get into the soft skills by being communication and politically oriented, which means data steward, enterprise architect, data governance,” says Zornes. “You don’t want to be a coder, tester or implementer because those roles are [analogous to] offshore.”


The words “enterprise architect” stuck out to me given what we were discussing, but Zornes said it all gets back to the soft skills everyone seemed to agree on. “It is different now, I can remember back to 1991 and other recession periods where anybody who had ‘enterprise’ in their title was at risk. That was because programs were considered long-term planning that didn’t go direct to the bottom line. Today I don’t see that as much as it applies to enterprise architects, that role now seems to be a relatively safe domain in terms of compensation and even being able to choose where you want to live and work.”


Whether the business or the manager creates the role, successful data stewards are finding their way forward through value creation, Power says. “They’re tying everything they do back to an ROI and business benefit, quantifying it and tracking it. I have been a proponent of that for a long time, but now that’s pretty much the only way to get things done and get things funded.”

(Editor's note: The panel was only a snippet of the value presented at our latest MDM Summit conference. Check for upcoming postings and valuable content from end-user presenters at the conference.)

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