I'm just back from a couple of master data management events this month sponsored by Information Management magazine and the MDM Institute. These last two sessions in Toronto and San Francisco taught me a lot and added a few new questions to my list.

First comes the good news. Over time we've gained a much clearer understanding of what MDM is and why it exists. Almost all attendees are pretty well able to articulate what they want the business to accomplish with MDM and how it justifies expensive plans for customer, product, supplier or other masters. (That last sentence deserves an exclamation point!)

Also, data governance is finally understood well enough that it has moved ahead of the software discussion -- in that everyone gets it  -- and no one is happier about this than the tool providers (and consultants of course). It takes unjustified heat off vendors for companies to realize that MDM is a bunch of products, and governance is a framework of policies, controls, politics and discipline.

To paraphrase, 'It's the culture of the organization, stupid.' With that mindset, I'm surprised as ever at the number of companies struggling to get ahead constructively with MDM programs.

On a scale of one to four, most companies are at the bottom, the "anarchy" or unresolved stage of maturity. And where it's working, MDM is mostly driven by some compliance or regulatory deadline and not by business opportunity. It's not to say MDM is easy because it's not. Yes, there are enterprises at our conferences measuring success with master data. That's almost worth another exclamation point.

But then there is the great divide of most companies by far unable to conjure their operational inefficiencies importantly enough to bring coordinated attention to tangible benefits of MDM.

It's hard to remember we're just a couple years separated from cycles of large infrastructure capital investment and the marching orders that come with those dollars. With apologies, I'll make the point: captains and lieutenants listen to noncommissioned sergeants when the boss's objective is clear and fighting gets tough.

We have the objective and we have the weapons to take on MDM, but the fiefdoms of middle management are often distracted, too busy or not under orders to make it happen. It's never as easy as it looks, but where MDM is working, there is a vision, short-term direction and a business cause that allows self-funding requirements to be set aside, at least momentarily.

The irony of these conferences is that the MDM shortfalls mentioned here are counter to intense but uneven market demand. Again and again I have seen and heard that MDM talent is hard to come by. Our conference co-chairman Aaron Zornes warns that companies must protect native MDM talents, lest they be poached by systems integrators and sold back to customers at a higher rate. He also notes that SIs are likely to bait and switch MDM staffing competency until the talent curve improves, and that is not immediately happening.

Somewhere between the big picture of an enterprise architect and the self-funding project mandate to the middle manager is where MDM talent finds itself right now. Many of you already know this game: business owns the data; IT owns the tools. Where you want to be is the point where MDM and a credible financial output intersect.  

It can verge on the coincidental: one day you're a talented pawn, and the next you're the missing game piece from the family chess set.

Short-term success in MDM looks very good right now. If MDM is what you do and your immediate objective is clear, you are possibly or likely in the right place. If you understand MDM and your mission is unclear or your sponsorship feels vague or surreptitious, gather your CV, promote yourself -- and prepare to move on to better things.

You're in demand.