The technology is the easy part. Understanding what drives people - individuals, societies, what makes cultures clash - all of those questions are way, way harder to answer than how to solve any particular technical problem.
– Dean Kamen, inventor/entrepreneur1

The field of master data management (MDM) is developing quickly. MDM hubs from large technology vendors, such as Oracle, IBM and SAP, and smaller vendors, such as Siperian, Initiate Systems and D&B/Purisma, are maturing rapidly. Because MDM is growing so quickly, systems integrators have been piling into the space, repurposing their other methodologies and rebranding their resources. But getting the technology right - selecting the right software products and implementing them well - is only part of the challenge.

MDM is a set of disciplines and processes for ensuring the accuracy, completeness, timeliness and consistency of the most important types (or domains) of enterprise data across different applications, systems and databases, multiple business processes, functional areas, organizations, geographies and channels.

Whenever a business activity crosses so many boundaries within a large organization, there are going to be political issues. Experience shows that to be successful, your MDM strategy needs to take that into account and to embrace it.

Just as a good program management office (PMO) needs experienced project managers, a successful MDM initiative needs a politically savvy leader within the organization who can drive the project, keep senior management engaged and supportive, allow the business to “own” the initiative but keep IT involved as a supporter and facilitator, address the cultural issues and, most importantly, balance the need for quick wins and securing and keeping the funding while maintaining the longer-term vision and architectural integrity that will keep the MDM program from becoming just another island of data.

One big mistake to avoid is not to realize how political the whole MDM process really is. Ambrose Bierce, a U.S. author and satirist, wrote: “Politics, n. Strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles.”

In other words, you’ll see the same jockeying for position, the same personality conflicts and the same turf wars in an MDM initiative that you’d see on any large project involving both business and IT. In fact, MDM projects can be worse, because they typically involve marketing, sales, finance, customer service and potentially other powerful groups within the company.

The very nature of MDM is responsible for the degree of its political difficulty. Take an important domain of master data that is critical to the success of the business, such as customers or products. Then go across all of the different business processes and functional areas that touch or own the data in that domain. Then go down into each and every important “silo” of data - applications, systems and databases - in that domain. Then throw in the implementation of new, potentially disruptive technology, the redesigning of a large number of business processes, and having to change the organization’s culture and attitude toward the importance of managing information as a corporate asset. It should be no surprise that an MDM initiative has the potential to be the most politically charged project your organization has seen in quite a while.

What To Do About It

Start by understanding the landscape and having a plan. Now that you realize how important the political dimension of MDM is going to be to your project, think it through. Map out the important constituencies involved in your project - sales, finance, operations, etc. If your company is large enough, make sure to include all of the important geographies where you operate.

Take the current organization chart (if you can find it or create it) and diagram the leaders of each area and their important direct reports. Indicate in your map their attitudes toward one another, both personally and politically. It doesn’t have to be very elaborate, but the goal is to avoid being surprised later by political issues or animosities you could have anticipated.

In planning for the political dimension of your MDM project, keep in mind that you’re going to have to deal with both the initial phase - securing the funding and then actually doing the implementation - and the ongoing phase. There are still many companies out there who think that when their MDM implementation goes live that the initiative is over. In reality, it’s just beginning.

Organizational Change Management

The need for data governance sets MDM apart. The continuing political framework takes ownership of the data, manages it proactively, resolves issues and disputes that arise over time and sets policies within the organization for information management, security and privacy, data quality, etc.

Two key disciplines to apply during the initial and ongoing phases are education and communication. Best practices here include electronic newsletters, internal portals, “lunch and learn” sessions and attending internal departmental meetings.

In many ways, these are the same tools and techniques used on large customer relationship management (CRM) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) initiatives - because they work! An organized approach to organizational change management can make the difference between a challenging but successful implementation and a morass of political wrangling and internecine warfare.

Become an internal evangelist for MDM in your organization. Have your 30-second elevator pitch down cold, and then develop a five-minute version of the strategy as well as a 15-minute, 30-minute and 60-minute version. Use every opportunity you get to educate people within the organization on what MDM is and what your company’s MDM strategy is, then use all of the communications tools at your disposal to keep people involved.

MDM can sound like plumbing to a lot of people, so go out of your way to find the business wins that you are generating - increased revenue, better alignment with strategy, cost reduction, improved customer service, more efficient compliance, etc. - and document, quantify and publicize them.

Although it’s more work to “do and publicize” than simply to “do,” down the road, you’ll be glad you did. Politically, it’s harder to argue with or cut the budget of a program that’s visibly solving problems for the enterprise, increasing revenue, etc.

One of the most successful MDM and data governance programs I’ve heard of documented every win they had, and over time it reached a total of $70 million. The leader of that program had built up quite a bit of political capital and “career durability insurance,” and the program’s funding was never threatened.

Importance of Data Governance

Now that you’re warmed up on the political dimension, start thinking about your data governance approach. Companies that have implemented MDM successfully give credit to a strong data governance program to accompany the implementation of an MDM hub and related technology.

While the names may differ, most companies create a three-layered structure for data governance: an executive-level data governance steering committee, a midlevel data governance council and a set of business and IT data stewards. The data stewards are represented on the council, and members of the council are also members of the steering committee.

While this structure may or may not fit your situation, it should get you thinking about how to get executive ownership and involvement at the steering committee level, who are the “champions” that will drive the data governance council and help to set policy, and where to find the business and IT data stewards that will carry out those policies and do the day-to-day work.

The steering committee is employed to resolve issues that cannot be settled by the data governance council. It will probably meet infrequently (quarterly or monthly), although it may meet more often at first. It will deal with foundation issues such as “who owns the data” and “who gets to make decisions about the data.”

The data governance council will typically be led by someone who is responsible for aligning the steering committee’s projects between the business and IT. That person will manage and oversee the data stewards and work with the data owners to implement data governance policies. There may be several different types of data stewards - business and IT, as well as corporate and line of business.

One major political challenge is that you will almost never be given a mandate to go out and hire new people. You’ll have to identify resources in place, people who are already doing data stewardship, although perhaps in a limited way or in a specific application or functional area. Look for the qualities you need in existing personnel, and plan for redeploying those existing people (at least partially) into the new data governance organization you’ll be creating.

Strategic Alignment

Another critical success factor is the degree to which you can line up your entire MDM and data governance program behind the company’s already-announced strategic priorities. Work with the senior executives you have access to and take the time to understand the company’s top-five strategic drivers. Find a way to tell how your MDM vision directly supports your overreaching corporate objectives, whether they’re “grow market share,” “improve productivity,” “comply with Basel II,” “revenue enhancement” or “support mergers and acquisitions.”

If you can do that - if you can work backward from those objectives to your program in an unbroken line, you should be able to find the political backing and funding for your project. If your project is a solution in search of a problem, you could be in for a hard time. I’ve seen initiatives at major companies where the IT folks went off and implemented a customer hub without involving the business and without tying the hub project back to the company’s strategic objectives. Even when you succeed in getting your initial funding, the implementation is going to be rocky, and getting funding in subsequent years can be difficult.

Mastering The Political Aspects

The rewards for “going over to the dark side” - delving into and mastering the political aspects of a complex business and IT project - are many. It may be against your instincts. You don’t have to become a slick corporate political animal. But knowing your company’s strategic objectives, making sure your MDM vision and strategy aligns with them, mapping the political landscape and planning for how to handle it, using organizational change management techniques and including a data governance structure from the beginning should make your life and your MDM initiative smoother and more successful.


  1. Dean Kamen. Iconoclasts Season 2 Episode 4: Isabella Rosellini + Dean Kamen. Sundance Channel, 2006.

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