by Abbie Lundberg

Truth and Meaning

Jan 04, 20082 mins
Data CenterIT Leadership

When it comes to running a business, it helps to know what you're talking about

There are times when I just know I’m in a time warp. I had that experience as I was reading Senior Writer Tom Wailgum’s cover story, “One Truth”, about the latest hot thing in the information management field: master data management.

MDM, as Wailgum describes it, is a set of processes and technologies that helps organizations enforce data policies and definitions on an enterprise scale. By creating a “single version of the truth,” companies can do better trend analysis and forecasting, and enjoy more robust budgeting, reporting and accounting processes.

As I read Wailgum’s account of how Nationwide Insurance approached the challenge, I recalled a series of articles we published on data warehousing in the ’90s—an earlier attempt to arrive at a single version of the truth (though without the ability to engage in the operational environment). The main issue then was getting people to agree to common data definitions and processes. We profiled companies building data warehouses, with managers sequestered in conference rooms for months to hash out the best terms and definitions for things like “customer” or “sale” and fight over who had to change the way they did business.

Compare that to Wailgum’s article today: “Good master data governance can happen only when the various constituencies that own the data sources agree on a common set of definitions, rules and synchronized procedures, which requires a degree of political maneuvering that’s not for the faint of heart.”

Despite the significant technological advances that have happened in those intervening years (did I mention that MDM lets you extend your single version of the truth beyond the data warehouse out into the operational environment?), the fact is that the hardest part will always be getting people to negotiate and agree on what things mean. There are, I’m sure, equally good arguments to be made for why “customer” should mean an individual making a purchase and why it should mean a household (for instance, my husband and I don’t both need our very own copy of the Eddie Bauer catalog, but since we’re viewed as two separate customers, we get them anyway). Maybe someday a computer program will be able to make those calls for us, but I’m not going to hold my breath. In the meantime, someone’s got to facilitate all this. Yet another example of why technical proficiency is not the sine qua non for today’s CIOs.