This is an area that's close to my heart. I started working intensively with customer and product information more than 20 years ago and was one of the first consultants to integrate Dun & Bradstreet data with Oracle's applications suite (about seven years ago).

I eventually joined D&B to manage its strategic alliance with Oracle, and during my three years there, I worked closely with a number of D&B's customers who were implementing Oracle's Customer Hub.

I left D&B to get back into consulting, feeling that master data management was poised for rapid growth and brought together many disciplines I enjoyed: enterprise applications, customer and product data, state-of-the-art integration, data quality, data governance and enrichment with third-party content. (Full disclosure: my consulting firm, Hub Solution Designs, is an authorized reseller of D&B information.)

Where to Start

The question of how best to leverage third-party content in MDM has several dimensions. The first is whether you sell primarily on a business-to-business or business-to-consumer basis.
For B2B, the biggest player in third-party content continues to be D&B. As of May 2008, D&B's global database contained information on 130 million companies. Other providers of business data include Austin-Tetra/Equifax, Experian and Cortera (formerly eCredit).

For B2C, Acxiom provides detailed demographic and lifestyle profiles of 200 million U.S. consumers. And the three credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) provide data on consumer creditworthiness.

Another important dimension is your industry. For example, in the financial services industry, there are specialized content providers, such as:

  • CounterpartyLink: global legal entity and counterparty reference data;
  • Reuters: counterparty and security master; and
  • Standard & Poor's: counterparty data through S&P's partnership with D&B, offering a view of the relationships between securities, issuers, parents and subsidiaries.

In the pharmaceutical and health care industries, there's a different set of content providers, including:

  • IMS Health: data from drug manufacturers, wholesalers, retail pharmacies, hospitals, long-term care facilities and health care professionals;
  • Health Market Science: health care provider data, integrating more than 2,500 data sources, with information on more than 4.5 million individual providers and one million health care organizations; and
  • SearchAmerica (Experian): data on patient demographics and credit risk assessment.

What Does the Business Need?

Spend some time working with different functional areas, like marketing, sales, finance and customer service. Determine what their business requirements are, and find out what external data providers they might already be using.

Work backward from what your completed MDM hub should look like. What's important to the users around the enterprise? Are they interested in using the information from the hub for sales and marketing purposes, credit risk management, supply management or spend analysis?

Knowing exactly how people expect to be able to use the hub will give you a good idea where the gaps in your internal information are that will need to be filled with data from a third-party content provider.

Potential Value from Third-Party Content

External information can help you with areas such as:

  • Fighting data decay. A study called "Data Cleansing: First Step to Knowledge" conducted by D&B revealed that (on average), business data decays between 1 to 3 percent per month. The average decay rate for U.S. business addresses is about 27 percent (including business moves and failures), meaning that more than one in four business addresses in your database will be incorrect within a year. Content providers can be very helpful in improving and maintaining the overall level of data quality in your MDM hub.
  • Entity matching and numbering. Information services such as D&B (with its DUNS number) and Austin-Tetra (with its A-T Number) provide a unique identifier which tracks businesses over time. These can be a great way to identify potential duplicates and will help you link data from multiple source systems back to the "golden record" you're building in your hub.
  • Corporate hierarchy. D&B and other information providers can help you build corporate family trees that reveal non-obvious relationships. Staples, Inc. is a good example. Unless you follow the office supply industry, you probably wouldn't know that Quill Corporation and Medical Arts Press are both wholly owned subsidiaries of Staples.
  • Extended attributes. There's a wealth of attribute information available from providers. Identity-related attributes for businesses include legal name and up to five alternative names or "tradestyles." Demographic attributes include year founded, number of employees, revenue and SIC code. Consumer attributes from providers like Acxiom include standard demographics like age, gender, income and education. But consumer data providers are going beyond that to "psychographics," attributes relating to personality, values, interests, attitudes or opinions. 
  • Credit information. Many MDM initiatives include a credit risk analysis component. If your marketing, sales and finance functions will use the customer and prospect data in the hub, they'll be interested in knowing some things about your current customers' credit limits (how much more could they buy from us), and your potential customers' creditworthiness (how well do they pay their bills). This credit risk management component can range from descriptive credit ratings (calculated internally or purchased from a third-party content provider) to predictive scores using complex internal or external scorecards. Demand estimation or propensity to buy can also help group customers and prospects and determine the best next offer for them.

There's more art than science to working with external data providers. Many will start with a hard-sell approach. But look for people on the content provider's team that can really provide you with a consultative approach, and realize that it may take more than a few weeks to come up to speed on what third-party content can bring to your MDM initiative.
It might take some time to incorporate external information into your continuous, repeatable data governance process. But it's worth the effort, because there are some business questions you'll never be able to answer with internal data alone.