The right stuff

Corporate data consistency has been one of the most popular topics at this year’s series of Information Age dining debates. Each event has been well attended, and the discussions have been lively and informed. However, the consensus view that has emerged at each event is a worrying one: modern businesses are awash with data, but they are still thirsting for hard information.

The latest Information Age roundtable debate was no exception. The evening began with a confession from an IT executive with a major supplier of consumer services: “Our data isn’t fit for purpose. At least 10% of our customer data is wrong,” he said, “and that means there are several million people getting the wrong thing.”

The Chatham House rule that governs Information Age’s debates makes it possible for attendees to share experiences they would normally prefer not to, and having heard one ‘confession’, others weren’t slow in sharing similarly worrying experiences of their own. Indeed, it seemed some attendees were intent on ‘competing’ to relate the bloodiest war story. A representative from another large supplier of consumer services claimed to suffer what he considered to be the “worst customer data” of any company in the country.

While there was an element of humour in each of these revelations, both were underpinned by serious problems with serious consequences. In both cases, the ability of each company to meet their customers’ requirements was seriously impaired by their inability to create a clear and accurate picture of who those customers are. To some extent, the fault for this lay with the customer, few of whom “understand” the value of their own data or feel incentivised to ensure the information they provide to their suppliers is flawless.

The problem is even worse for organisations that rely heavily on channel partners to capture customer data. As one delegate noted: “He that benefits most from customer data, is not always the one that that collects it,” – and it is not uncommon for those at the sharp end of a retail transaction to cut data capture corners that might otherwise impede a successful sale,

Curing the customer data capture issue is now a key priority and for some, the most likely solution lies in enlisting the support of customers themselves. This may mean, as one diner noted “defining your business in a way that makes people type sensible things into a box,” or, as another remarked “making it worth [the customers’] while to make an effort.”

Alternatively, if the ‘customer’ is also an employee, a more direct approach may be possible. A senior executive from the public sector, for instance, discussed how he is preparing an experiment that will oblige staff to maintain the accuracy of their own personnel data via a corporate employee portal. It is hoped that this transfer of the responsibility for accurate HR record keeping, from the organisation to the staff, will create ‘clean’ records and a ‘truer’ picture. Time will tell.

However, time is not on anyone’s side when it comes to solving the corporate data consistency issue. Legislation, from the Data Protection Act to Sarbanes-Oxley has added new urgency to a long-standing problem, and increased the pressure on IT to find a solution to yet another business ill. This is not altogether a bad thing. One delegate, from the banking IT community, believes this has created a “compliance dividend” by helping to win the attention of senior business managers on the issue.

Without business management buy-in, IT organisations will struggle to acquire the investment desperately needed to plan and deploy software-driven master data management solutions. Even if not all attendees were convinced that MDM technology – which attempts to harmonise corporate data by centralising and automating its management and categorisation – deployment is an urgent priority.

Yet, as is so often the case, even as momentum grows behind technology-driven solutions such as MDM, IT professionals seem increasingly aware that the data consistency issue is not exclusively a technology problem. In the same way that corporate data-processing management has historically been hampered by internal functional and cultural divisions that have lead to “siloed” application environments, so today those same divisions are being manifested in ‘siloed’ corporate data repositories.

Resolving this – the issue of who really owns corporate data – is likely to be the key to finally realising a single view of business.

Information age roundtable debates

This article is based on a recent Information Age diner debate, sponsored by DataFlux, the data quality and integration tool maker.

To encourage open discussion, the debates are held under the so-called Chatham House rule, ensuring that none of the participants are named.

Each month, a select group of readers is invited to participate in the debates, covering the day’s most pressing technology issues. If you would be interested is becoming involved, please email our events manager, Imogen Craig:

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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