Specialists, Scrutiny and SI Selection: 8 Questions to Ask When Implementing MDM (Part 1)

I’d like to start right off the bat by making it clear I’m writing from a somewhat biased perspective: as the CTO and one of the co-founders of a company operating within the MDM system integration sphere, my feelings on what makes for a strong partnership between an organization and their SI are obviously grounded in my personal and professional practices.

That said, I feel confident that my admittedly not-quite-impartial perspective is still one with a few nuggets of wisdom worth imparting. I’ve been working in the MDM space for over a decade now and I’ve seen my fair share of successful as well as botched MDM projects. It hurts everybody in the information management industry when an organization’s investment doesn’t provide them with the results they were assured would eventually manifest. The client’s time and money is wasted, the promise of the value of better data management loses credibility, and at the end of the day nobody wins.

My hope is simply this: that by providing a few insider tips on what questions you should be asking when deciding on which SI to select for your implementation, you’ll be better positioned to navigate the different choices available to you and to plan for the highest level of success right from the beginning.

I’ve divided these eight questions up into two subsections: four questions you should be asking yourself and four that you should be asking a potential SI. I’ve broken the two sections into two different articles and I’ve saved the most important question of all for last, so make sure you see both part one and part two.

 1.      MDM is a big investment – should you get a big SI Vendor to implement it?

System Integrators come in all shapes and sizes. When it comes to implementing a Master Data Management program, bigger isn’t necessarily better.

Based on my years of experience working in the industry (often times working with a client to help recover from a failed or failing MDM project) I’ve found that the bigger the SI, the lower the odds of a successful implementation. MDM programs don’t benefit from having armies of people involved in their implementation; the best implementations I’ve seen done have been at the hands of an experienced MDM SWAT team with a smaller number of highly specialized members.

For the overwhelming majority of MDM programs, the ideal number of people assigned to the project never goes above twenty-five people, and for small- and medium-sized programs you’re looking at somewhere between ten and fifteen team members.

So be warned if you’re in discussion with a potential SI and they’re proposing team sizes much bigger than this – armies are inefficient by their very nature, and an army of people all working on one MDM implementation will generate more meaningless churn than actual productivity.

2.      Have you been led to believe you’ll have to compromise on either expertise or flexibility?

MDM solutions are not silos. The entire vision behind MDM as a way to improve and enhance a business is to bring down those silos and unify an organization’s data across all of its systems.

In order to accomplish this, you’re going to need some serious integration – sometimes several different types of integrations just to make one MDM implementation work. The vendors you’re looking at should be capable of end-to-end solution, which means having the proper balance of skills that encompass integration ability. Bigger system integrators will tend to have better coverage across multiple tools, but a lack of core MDM tool-specific skills can play a big role in adding to your overall project risks. On the other hand, some small niche SIs lack the range and flexibility of these bigger vendors, meaning that they don’t have the capabilities to staff the wide range of necessary roles. This can even result in a vendor dictating their client’s tool choice based on their own skill-set rather than on the needs of the client.

In a quick example of this, we saw one client that already had an ETL tool in place and a large in-house team supporting it, but (at the urging of the vendor) was considering using a competing tool for their MDM implementation that would have left the client’s established team completely out of the work stream, wasting a huge amount of valuable human resources.

A vendor limited in either their range of skills or their level of experience will produce less than optimal results; if you set out expecting to have to compromise, you will, to nobody’s surprise, end up compromising somewhere.

As a client, you have every right to expect a breadth and depth of expertise encompassing multiple integration tools.

In order to make full use of your MDM investment, you should be trying to make sure that not only is your MDM rightly configured and implemented, the various integrations into and out of MDM are properly implemented as well. To accomplish that, you really need a team that has expertise in both core MDM and the other technologies that form part of the MDM ecosystem.

3.       Are you prepared to hire a generalist in order to work with a company that you have a pre-established relationship with?

The inclination to work with someone already familiar to you is a tough habit to break yourself of. We all do it in our day-to-day lives, and sometimes it’s a perfectly reasonable impulse to turn to whoever you’ve known the longest or worked with the closest for something you think they should be able to do. Unfortunately, for MDM this isn’t the case – just because a company has been working with you on other projects doesn’t automatically make them the vendor best suited to an MDM implementation.

Let me put it this way: while your family doctor who has known you for many years might be the right person to diagnose a heart condition, the surgical procedure itself is best performed by a specialist.

MDM is a large and impactful investment – a tier-1 system in most companies. Having acquired costly licenses for the software, it seems illogical to trust your implementation to anybody who doesn’t have established expertise with that software.

Push yourself outside of your comfort zone and look beyond your immediate contacts for a true specialist; you’ll be thankful for it later when your MDM program is running beautifully and your trust in your other IT vendors, who likely specialize in very different areas, remains intact.

4.       Are you calculating costs by unit price or by overall cost?

As in any large purchase, cost will always be a factor in MDM SI selection. When you’re stacking up the potential costs of one SI against another, you should ensure you’re comparing the total cost of implementation and ownership and not the unit cost per resource. You’d be amazed how many clients fall into this trap.

Shopping for your MDM implementation partner is not like shopping for groceries. Going by the unit cost of paper towels or laundry detergent can be a great way to make sure you’re getting the best deal and the most value for your money. The reason this works is because you will always need more of this product, it’s not going to go bad if you buy in bulk, and the difference in quality between products doesn’t have much of an impact. Approaching your MDM vendor selection with this philosophy is wasteful and dangerous – it’s easy to be fooled into thinking you’re getting the cheaper deal when in reality the vendors with the lowest resource unit costs are often the ones that need to employ a far bigger team and take more time to get the same job done.

Lower unit cost doesn’t mean lower project cost. Your expenditures on the implementation can balloon quickly when you add the multipliers of larger teams, longer project duration, and – worst of all – a combination of the two.

Other aspects of cost that can be hard to determine at the front-end include rework due to bad design decisions, unnecessary customizations to the MDM tool, and expensive support work due to incorrect or inconsistent implementations, just to name a few. The absolute worst case scenario is that all the millions of dollars invested in a MDM program end up in the garbage when the solution can’t be stabilized, the client team feels unable to trust the MDM hub, and the whole program gets shelved or discarded.

It’s also worth noting that the sooner you get your MDM system in production the sooner you can start increasing your revenue and decreasing your marketing costs. As you’re making cost comparisons, try to factor in the opportunity cost of having a system in place sooner rather than later.

So you’ve asked yourself these essential questions and you’re ready to move on to grilling your potential SI partners. Stay tuned for the other half of the eight questions that you should be asking, these ones directed at the SIs.

Integration, Master Data Management, MDM, MDM Implementation, SI Selection

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