I've just returned from our MDM Summit in Toronto where more than 150 people shared experiences and ideas with conference chairman Aaron Zornes and where I was fortunate to co-host a number of sessions.

It’s harder than you think to meet people who have delivered an MDM project, and one of the best sessions came from Ed Unrau, information manager at Canadian Tire Financial Services.

There was a degree of detail in Ed’s presentation I’m not allowed to share (because of lawyers and such) but I hope to follow up through proper channels for a larger story when I can. 

Sorry about that. But I think it’s worthy to share a few quotes from this session that won’t apply to everyone reading this but should shine light on their merit. My advice is to read this and put it in your pocket.

Unrau's back story at Canadian Tire evolves from an initial IT presentation on customer-centricity at Canadian Tire that was turned down two and a half years ago. It fell to him to refine and actually discover the business case. He wanted a detailed document to describe exactly what was going to be done differently at the business. Not easy, but he worked with a credit risk manager in his own department over a few months to get good numbers together.

What follows are bits of the rest of his story.

On a realistic business case for CDI and customer-centricity:

“In general, the benefits are small. Think about it, if you’re making a thousand decisions of a certain type, how many times will you have additional information and how many times will you make a different decision and how many times will it be a better decision? If you treat a customer exceptionally today it doesn’t mean they’re going to run back in our store and buy twice as much stuff tomorrow. But if you do it over time the benefits will have a cumulative effect and will apply across the business, to compliance, customer service, marketing and credit risk.”

“The fourth year is going to pay a lot more than the first year. Part of the business case said we’d spend two dollars to save three dollars in four years. That’s not exactly overwhelming when you calculate net present value. But we had a specific idea of how we were going to do it. We focused on the areas we knew well and it [the business case] was accepted.”

On gathering requirements:

“It started top down, you're all aware there’s no shortage of verbiage in your mission statements that says we'll treat customers fairly and well and have a complete view of them and such. [In our case] each VP had a pretty good idea of what they wanted out of customer-centricity but each was slightly different as to how it would solve their problems. I was getting worried about some huge project that couldn't possibly succeed, so I started talking to the managers of the company with the question, ‘What would you do better or differently if you had a more complete view of the customer and what [goes] in that view?’ That was the beginning of the business case.”

On a key success factor:

“I think having one business owner at a fairly low level of the organization who really wanted it and really understood the problem was important. I think the fact that the rest of the organization trusted him to not cut them off from this really helped, because once people saw this working, they wanted in. They weren’t there sign up for the benefits initially but they want in now.”

On playing the middleman between IT and business:

“Having somebody in the middle between IT and business is important and that was my role. What surprised me was I thought I was there to ‘whip’ IT. In the end I was there to hold the business back and say, 'trust me, simple requirements, we just need to get this thing started.' Their response was, ‘there’ll never be a Phase II, we have to ask for everything now.’ And I was saying, ‘if there ever is going to be a project that’s going to have Phase II, this is it.’ We had to start small and start simple.”

On dealing with data quality errors:

“We don’t do a lot of sophisticated analysis up front, but we are able to say, ‘sorry, it won’t happen again.’ That’s significant because it’s frustrating when [an error] happens again and again. We track the data quality errors and fix them at the source. We make a business case for preventing a type of error if that’s appropriate but we don’t spend a lot of money if it’s only happening once a month. Sometimes these data quality problems get blown out of proportion so we’re getting a handle on how big they really are.”

On competing with other projects and the role of the steering committee:

“The role of the steering committee is very important. We’d built an on-ramp, gotten into the Batmobile, merged onto the highway and got steamrolled from behind by a bus. There was a favored project that was important and urgent to somebody else. Rather than worry about that, we regrouped to figure out how we could help this project succeed. We fixed the car, got back on the onramp, got up to 200 km/hr and ran into a whole bunch of people riding tricycles at random on the highway. Those people were actually our supporters by the way. The people who really wanted our help were some of the people who weren’t so excited about us being there. The organization always wanted us to succeed but it’s always difficult to play the role of, ‘hi, I’m here to make your job better.’ It’s a difficult situation to be in and that’s where the steering committee comes in. To me the steering committee and higher level executive support is about managing polarities, managing the tradeoff between product and customer, between customer and functional objectives, like the handle time in a call center versus customer satisfaction. The point is, you can’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. When you become a billion-dollar organization you have a separation of duties that occurs and people have their goals, whether it’s product sales or share of market or credit-risk writeoffs, they have to try to achieve those goals and you need somebody to manage that balance. That’s the role of the steering committee."

Susan Kirk, an independent consultant with Integre8 MDM Services spent years working with Unrau under her former employer, IBM’s services division to develop Canadian Tire's customer-data integration model. Says Kirk, "I have a tremendous amount of respect for Ed and those other champions on the forefront of trying to do this, and bring it forward in the organization, who have a passion for the problems and how to solve problems within an organization.”

Nimbleness, the ability to make decisions quickly and grow consensus is all about what people with feet on the ground like Unruh do and I listen closely when they share their thoughts. The consulting and systems integration folks may hold the core expertise, but it’s the internal champions like Ed who are central to success and follow through to get the job done.