In a recent post here at the INN site, Ben Moreland talked about how insurance companies have been inundated with data from all directions, and that efforts at master data management (MDM) have fallen flat: “They spent tens of millions of dollars to try and get the uber insurance data model correct, and consolidated (and of course cleansed and migrated to a data warehouse) before they could produce any meaningful reports that provided business insight. Basically, they were trying to 'boil the ocean,' and many programs failed under their own weight.”

Indeed, MDM is not something that can be entered into lightly, since it involves identifying and marshaling people and resources from across the enterprise. That's why a well-governed approach is essential.

I recently explored some of the issues in managing MDM efforts for an article on the subject for the latest edition of INN, and industry practitioners and consultants alike agree that MDM has a lot of value, but must be entered into with both eyes open, lest you end up with just as much data chaos and inter-departmental squabbling than before you started.

Good governance was an imperative for Mark Underwood, second VP of business intelligence at Birmingham, Ala.-based Protective Life Corp.  I had the opportunity to speak with Mark about his company's MDM initiative, which has been evolving over several years. The important thing was bringing a business context to the data being mastered, he emphasized. At the same time, bringing groups together within the business to agree on data standards was no easy task—the IT or data manager needs to act as a facilitator and catalyst to the process.

“You can lose a lot of time trying to get two people to reconcile data,” he says. “What two people are saying is the same thing: 'should the white roses be red? Or should they be shaded to pink?' What we do is work with each of the lines of business themselves, and use our business intelligence groups and the business analytics groups as a way of taking each group's view of their data and blending that together to give us the enterprise solution.”

The company established two councils to keep MDM initiatives on track, Mark adds. “And by councils were not talking about having everybody come to one big round table and sing 'Kumbaya,'” he relates. “We found early on that's not going to work. Not only because it’s hard to schedule these folks to come in and do these things, but also because everybody still has their own implicit view of their own information and how they describe it.” At regular council meetings, business and IT managers “sit down and go through all those data elements that that need to be described, mapped, or quantified and qualified.” 

At a typical meeting, Mark continues, his team may say to the business managers that are present: “'We understand you have a new product coming out. Help us describe that product.” The MDM governance process also plays a key role in new acquisitions as well. “We sit down with the owners of acquired systems and say, ‘all right, there are standard and common attributes to the kind of data we get from bringing from your legacy systems into our systems. Help us map from what you got today to what we’re doing.”

“The IT folks understand that, and the business folks understand that,” he says. “That gives them a way of being able to articulate without everyone understanding everyone else's interpretation of the data.”


Joe McKendrick is an author, consultant, blogger and frequent INN contributor specializing in information technology.

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