It's finally done! You've gained consensus from everyone in the C-suite, and you've secured commitment and - more importantly - funding from the IT steering committee to implement a master data management (MDM) initiative at your company. Arduous as that task was, it is only going to become more difficult because now you need to worry about spending your hard-won dollars effectively and getting the desired ROI.

Do you go it alone, knowing that your IT resources, talented though they are, have little experience with MDM projects? Probably not. If you are like many CIOs, you will bring in outside help. But how do you choose a vendor with the appropriate skills, talent and experience? How can you be confident that the firm you choose to help in your efforts to plan and implement your MDM project is going to do an effective job?

Because of numerous uncertainties, you may not be completely confident in making your decision. Moreover, there may be snags and unexpected problems, no matter which vendor you ultimately choose. However, you can make a more informed decision by asking some difficult questions up front and by knowing the answers that will make you comfortable. To that end, I'm proposing a list of five questions - with the appropriate answers - to help make your evaluation and selection process a little less stressful.

Question #1: Do you have a comprehensive methodology coupled with experience in planning and implementing MDM projects? No one likes to be a guinea pig - especially when millions of dollars and years of hard work are on the line. I would recommend selecting a firm with a solid track record in implementing both MDM and enterprise data management (EDM) projects. Look for a vendor who can demonstrate a well-developed methodology, including a detailed project plan that is implemented in phases, complete with milestones, resource estimates and definitive cost structures. You should have a seasoned firm with a time-tested methodology, extensive project experience, skilled resources and a capable project management team.

Question #2: Can you clearly articulate the tangible benefits of the project? The vendor under consideration should be able to show you and your management team a cost/benefit analysis complete with a tangible estimate of ROI that takes into account the projected cost of capital, event drivers, technology and resource requirements. Balance these costs against an estimate of costs that can be avoided through the elimination of redundancies and manual data processes as well as an estimate of actual savings from increased operational efficiencies. The result should yield the net present value of the project as well as a fairly accurate estimate of the payback year and percentage of ROI.

Question #3: How will the MDM project integrate with my company's EDM strategy? Any vendor you choose should make the effort to thoroughly understand your company's EDM strategy and demonstrate that the MDM initiative fits that strategy. That being said, however, a vendor with your company's interests in mind should make sound, objective recommendations based on its experience about how to help improve your EDM strategy to most effectively employ your company's valuable data assets. Upon implementing the firm's recommendations, the MDM project should integrate very well with your overall EDM strategy.

Question #4: How important is the role of data governance in the overall MDM project? This is an adjunct to question three. An MDM project needs to provide a business solution, not merely a technical one. As a result, the MDM product should be designed to effectively meet the requirements of the company by facilitating the standardization and management of your company's most critical data. It is not that you want to skimp on the technical side by not employing top-notch technology, but your focus should be on putting a sound data governance structure in place. This way, the technology tools that you purchase to implement your MDM initiative will most likely operate in a well-designed environment effectively and help provide better ROI. This is an important question to ask any vendor because data governance is the linchpin of any MDM solution.

Question #5: Is the MDM product that you are proposing extensible? In other words, can it change as the company's business requirements change, and can it grow as the company grows? This question comes back to methodology. The methodology provided by the consultant for the design and implementation the MDM product should not only account for but also facilitate change management and organizational growth. This is most effectively accomplished by designing a flexible data governance structure as well as data standards that can be updated as the company changes. Technology selection can be key here, as well. The technology you choose should be scalable.

Answering these questions doesn't necessarily mean that your MDM project will go off without a hitch; most IT projects don't. However, if you are satisfied with the answers from the vendor you choose, it will likely indicate a relationship based on honesty and open communication as well as help you to determine whether you've hired a skilled and effective firm for the job. That should help you sleep a little better at night. 

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