There is an increasing realization that master data is something enterprises must take control of if they are to share data effectively in applications, ranging from data warehouses to straight-through processing. A fundamental problem of master data is what identifies it. This is a major headache that places limits on how an enterprise can use master data as a corporate asset.

Before looking more closely at this problem, it is necessary to define master data. Master data is the data that represents the parties to the transactions that record the operations of an enterprise. Common examples include customer and product. Customer and product data must be established before a transaction to sell a product to a customer can be fired. IT has traditionally focused on the transactions and the data in them rather than on the data at higher levels of abstraction, such as master data, reference data and metadata. This is fine for stovepipe systems whose data is never shared, but it is a problem when any kind of data sharing or integration is attempted. It is even more of a problem when nobody knows what to call a particular item of master data.

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