Friday, August 15, 2014

The What, Why, and How of Master Data Management - Part 1 - By Microsoft


The pain that organizations are experiencing around consistent reporting, regulatory compliance, strong interest in Service-Oriented Architecture (SOA), and Software as a Service (SaaS) has prompted a great deal of interest in Master Data Management (MDM). This paper explains what MDM is, why it is important, and how to manage it, while identifying some of the key MDM management patterns and best practices that are emerging. This paper is a high-level treatment of the problem space. In subsequent papers, we will drill down into the technical and procedural issues involved in Master Data Management.

What Is Master Data?

Most software systems have lists of data that are shared and used by several of the applications that make up the system. For example, a typical ERP system as a minimum will have a Customer Master, an Item Master, and an Account Master. This master data is often one of the key assets of a company. It's not unusual for a company to be acquired primarily for access to its Customer Master data.

Rudimentary Definitions

There are some very well-understood and easily identified master-data items, such as "customer" and "product." In fact, many define master data by simply reciting a commonly agreed upon master-data item list, such as: customer, product, location, employee, and asset. But how you identify elements of data that should be managed by a master-data management system is much more complex and defies such rudimentary definitions. In fact, there is a lot of confusion around what master data is and how it is qualified, necessitating a more comprehensive treatment.

There are essentially five types of data in corporations:

  • Unstructured - This is data found in e-mail, white papers like this, magazine articles, corporate intranet portals, product specifications, marketing collateral, and PDF files.
  • Transactional - This is data related to sales, deliveries, invoices, trouble tickets, claims, and other monetary and non-monetary interactions.
  • Metadata - This is data about other data and may reside in a formal repository or in various other forms such as XML documents, report definitions, column descriptions in a database, log files, connections, and configuration files.
  • Hierarchical - Hierarchical data stores the relationships between other data. It may be stored as part of an accounting system or separately as descriptions of real-world relationships, such as company organizational structures or product lines. Hierarchical data is sometimes considered a super MDM domain, because it is critical to understanding and sometimes discovering the relationships between master data.
  • Master - Master data are the critical nouns of a business and fall generally into four groupings: people, things, places, and concepts. Further categorizations within those groupings are called subject areas, domain areas, or entity types. For example, within people, there are customer, employee, and salesperson. Within things, there are product, part, store, and asset. Within concepts, there are things like contract, warrantee, and licenses. Finally, within places, there are office locations and geographic divisions. Some of these domain areas may be further divided. Customer may be further segmented, based on incentives and history. A company may have normal customers, as well as premiere and executive customers. Product may be further segmented by sector and industry. The requirements, life cycle, and CRUD cycle for a product in the Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) sector is likely very different from those of the clothing industry. The granularity of domains is essentially determined by the magnitude of differences between the attributes of the entities within them.

Deciding What to Manage

While identifying master data entities is pretty straightforward, not all data that fits the definition for master data should necessarily be managed as such. This paper narrows the definition of master data to the following criteria, all of which should be considered together when deciding if a given entity should be treated as master data.


Master data can be described by the way that it interacts with other data. For example, in transaction systems, master data is almost always involved with transactional data. A customer buys a product. A vendor sells a part, and a partner delivers a crate of materials to a location. An employee is hierarchically related to their manager, who reports up through a manager (another employee). A product may be a part of multiple hierarchies describing their placement within a store. This relationship between master data and transactional data may be fundamentally viewed as a noun/verb relationship. Transactional data capture the verbs, such as sale, delivery, purchase, email, and revocation; master data are the nouns. This is the same relationship data-warehouse facts and dimensions share.

Life Cycle

Master data can be described by the way that it is created, read, updated, deleted, and searched. This life cycle is called the CRUD cycle and is different for different master-data element types and companies. For example, how a customer is created depends largely upon a company's business rules, industry segment, and data systems. One company may have multiple customer-creation vectors, such as through the Internet, directly through account representatives, or through outlet stores. Another company may only allow customers to be created through direct contact over the phone with its call center. Further, how a customer element is created is certainly different from how a vendor element is created. The following table illustrates the differing CRUD cycles for four common master-data subject areas.


As cardinality (the number of elements in a set) decreases, the likelihood of an element being treated as a master-data element—even a commonly accepted subject area, such as customer—decreases. For example, if a company has only three customers, most likely they would not consider those customers master data—at least, not in the context of supporting them with a master-data management solution, simply because there is no benefit to managing those customers with a master-data infrastructure. Yet, a company with thousands of customers would consider Customer an important subject area, because of the concomitant issues and benefits around managing such a large set of entities. The customer value to each of these companies is the same. Both rely upon their customers for business. One needs a customer master-data solution; the other does not. Cardinality does not change the classification of a given entity type; however, the importance of having a solution for managing an entity type increases as the cardinality of the entity type increases.


Master data tends to be less volatile than transactional data. As it becomes more volatile, it typically is considered more transactional. For example, some might consider "contract" a master-data element. Others might consider it a transaction. Depending on the lifespan of a contract, it can go either way. An agency promoting professional athletes might consider their contracts as master data. Each is different from the other and typically has a lifetime of greater than a year. It may be tempting to simply have one master-data item called "athlete." However, athletes tend to have more than one contract at any given time: one with their teams and others with companies for endorsing products. The agency would need to manage all those contracts over time, as elements of the contract are renegotiated or athletes traded. Other contracts—for example, contracts for detailing cars or painting a house—are more like a transaction. They are one-time, short-lived agreements to provide services for payment and are typically fulfilled and destroyed within hours.


Simple entities, even valuable entities, are rarely a challenge to manage and are rarely considered master-data elements. The less complex an element, the less likely the need to manage change for that element. Typically, such assets are simply collected and tallied. For example, Fort Knox likely would not track information on each individual gold bar stored there, but rather only keep a count of them. The value of each gold bar is substantial, the cardinality high, and the lifespan long; yet, the complexity is low.


The more valuable the data element is to the company, the more likely it will be considered a master data element. Value and complexity work together.


While master data is typically less volatile than transactional data, entities with attributes that do not change at all typically do not require a master-data solution. For example, rare coins would seem to meet many of the criteria for a master-data treatment. A rare-coin collector would likely have many rare coins. So, cardinality is high. They are valuable. They are also complex. For example, rare coins have a history and description. There are attributes, such as condition of obverse, reverse, legend, inscription, rim, and field. There are other attributes, such as designer initials, edge design, layers, and portrait.

Yet, rare coins do not need to be managed as a master-data item, because they don't change over time—or, at least, they don't change enough. There may need to be more information added, as the history of a particular coin is revealed or if certain attributes must be corrected. But, generally speaking, rare coins would not be managed through a master-data management system, because they are not volatile enough to warrant a solution.


One of the primary drivers of master-data management is reuse. For example, in a simple world, the CRM system would manage everything about a customer and never need to share any information about the customer with other systems. However, in today's complex environments, customer information needs to be shared across multiple applications. That's where the trouble begins. Because—for a number of reasons—access to a master datum is not always available, people start storing master data in various locations, such as spreadsheets and application private stores. There are still reasons, such as data-quality degradation and decay, to manage master data that is not reused across the enterprise. However, if a master-data entity is reused in multiple systems, it's a sure bet that it should be managed with a master-data management system.

To summarize, while it is simple to enumerate the various master-data entity types, it is sometimes more challenging to decide which data items in a company should be treated as master data. Often, data that does not normally comply with the definition for master data may need to be managed as such, and data that does comply with the definition may not. Ultimately, when deciding on what entity types should be treated as master data, it is better to categorize them in terms of their behavior and attributes within the context of the business needs than to rely on simple lists of entity types.

Why Should I Manage Master Data?

Because it is used by multiple applications, an error in master data can cause errors in all the applications that use it. For example, an incorrect address in the customer master might mean orders, bills, and marketing literature are all sent to the wrong address. Similarly, an incorrect price on an item master can be a marketing disaster, and an incorrect account number in an Account Master can lead to huge fines or even jail time for the CEO—a career-limiting move for the person who made the mistake!

Here is a typical master-data horror story: A credit-card customer moves from 2847 North 9th St. to 1001 11th St. North. The customer changed his billing address immediately, but did not receive a bill for several months. One day, the customer received a threatening phone call from the credit-card billing department, asking why the bill has not been paid. The customer verifies that they have the new address, and the billing department verifies that the address on file is 1001 11th St. N. The customer asks for a copy of the bill, to settle the account. After two more weeks without a bill, the customer calls back and finds the account has been turned over to a collection agency. This time, they find out that even though the address in the file was 1001 11th St. N, the billing address is 101 11th St. N. After a bunch of phone calls and letters between lawyers, the bill finally gets resolved and the credit-card company has lost a customer for life. In this case, the master copy of the data was accurate, but another copy of it was flawed. Master data must be both correct and consistent.

Even if the master data has no errors, few organizations have just one set of master data. Many companies grow through mergers and acquisitions. Each company you acquire comes with its own customer master, item master, and so forth. This would not be bad if you could just Union the new master data with your current master data, but unless the company you acquire is in a completely different business in a faraway country, there's a very good chance that some customers and products will appear in both sets of master data—usually, with different formats and different database keys. If both companies use the Dun & Bradstreet number or Social Security number as the customer identifier, discovering which customer records are for the same customer is a straightforward issue; but that seldom happens. In most cases, customer numbers and part numbers are assigned by the software that creates the master records, so the chances of the same customer or the same product having the same identifier in both databases is pretty remote. Item masters can be even harder to reconcile, if equivalent parts are purchased from different vendors with different vendor numbers.

Merging master lists together can be very difficult. The same customer may have different names, customer numbers, addresses, and phone numbers in different databases. For example, William Smith might appear as Bill Smith, Wm. Smith, and William Smithe. Normal database joins and searches will not be able to resolve these differences. A very sophisticated tool that understands nicknames, alternate spellings, and typing errors will be required. The tool will probably also have to recognize that different name variations can be resolved, if they all live at the same address or have the same phone number. While creating a clean master list can be a daunting challenge, there are many positive benefits to your bottom line from a common master list:

  • A single, consolidated bill saves money and improves customer satisfaction.
  • Sending the same marketing literature to a customer from multiple customer lists wastes money and irritates the customer.
  • Before you turn a customer account over to a collection agency, it would be good to know if they owe other parts of your company money or, more importantly, that they are another division's biggest customer.
  • Stocking the same item under different part numbers is not only a waste of money and shelf space, but can potentially lead to artificial shortages.
The recent movements toward SOA and SaaS make Master Data Management a critical issue. For example, if you create a single customer service that communicates through well-defined XML messages, you may think you have defined a single view of your customers. But if the same customer is stored in five databases with three different addresses and four different phone numbers, what will your customer service return? Similarly, if you decide to subscribe to a CRM service provided through SaaS, the service provider will need a list of customers for their database. Which one will you send them?

For all these reasons, maintaining a high-quality, consistent set of master data for your organization is rapidly becoming a necessity. The systems and processes required to maintain this data are known as Master Data Management.

Continue : Part 2 - What is Master Data Management? & Conclusion

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