Defining Data: Adapt the Technology, Not the Business

Loraine Lawson

Creating IT/business alignment has always seemed like a bit of a no-brainer to me, but then again, I only have to write about it-I don't actually have to do it. But recently Kalido's Vice President of Strategy and Chief Technology Officer Winston Chen pointed out a common data integration problem that I think really speaks to how gosh darn hard it can be to reconcile smart IT practices with business practices.


The problem sounds simple enough: Define "customer." It seems straightforward, until you start to talk to different departments and you learn there's a world of nuances to that question. Just one example: Is a customer someone who's actually bought something from you-or is a customer someone who's interested in buying something from you? Could you even stretch the definition to include a certain demographic that reflects your typical buyer?


It just goes to show how much things have changed since "Are You Being Served?"


Now, along comes IT with a data integration project or possibly a master data management project, and there's this challenge of defining "customer." It only makes sense that the business should step in, man up and come up with one working definition so IT can move on with the integration work, right?




Wrong-or, at least completely unrealistic, argues Chen:

... to accomplish this feat, you need to change the meanings of words that've been in use for years and decades. You need everyone in finance to change their understanding of the word 'customer.' You need everyone in marketing to do the same. You need to change language, which is no easy feat even for a ruthless dictator. With all due respect, I don't think a data architect stands a chance.

As my eight-year-old daughter likes to say, "You make a good point there."


I admit that defining customers sounds like a small thing. In fact, you may even feel like you're doing the business a favor by asking them to be more precise, more logical and even smarter. But it's a great example of IT trying to force the business to fit the technology, rather than starting with the business need and adjusting the technology to that. As Chen notes:

Let's think through why we need to have a single definition of customer, product, or other widely shared data, in the first place. The end goal is data integration. The idea is, if sales, marketing, service and finance can all agree on a single definition of customer, then all the associated transactions could be easily integrated.

The end results of the integration may be good for business, but you're already fighting against years of business traditions and language and, worse, already placing IT-focused constraints on the data.


But you can achieve the same goal-data integration-by using a different approach, Chen points out. You can build a semantic model that reflects all the definitions of customer:

This semantic model may be complex, but accept it. Don't try to overly simplify it. The world is complex. Unless we have the power to change language and meaning, we need to deal with the world as it is, not how we wish it to be.

This is one of those IT/business alignment traps that would be easy to overlook if you're knee-deep in the day-to-day work of IT and a new project. I guess that's why consultants get the big bucks. They should be able to bring a bit of detachment and perspective to the situation, but there's no reason IT can't do the same. True, the business approach may not be "logical" but is it any more logical to expect everyone else to change to accommodate the data architect or even the IT team?

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Apr 29, 2011 8:43 AM Stijn Christiaens Stijn Christiaens  says:

Hi Loraine,

I can do little here but agree - meaning, and the language we use to express that meaning is fundamental.

In the end, it's all about choice: how Sales and Marketing chooses to look at Customer, how Finance looks at it, and what the differences and commonalities are. Social interactions in those communities are the breeding ground for those choices.

For example, take a look at http://www.collibra.com/products-and-solutions/data-governance/define

Kind regards,


May 5, 2011 9:27 AM John Mullen John Mullen  says:


IT needs to refrain from thinking about solutions in terms of what IT can do and change to thinking about improving the overall service to the customer (or in some cases, the customer's customer).  Thinking in terms of services reduces that whole IT scope creep that tends to blind the business from making the right decisions and achieving their objectives.


May 6, 2011 10:06 AM Jim English Jim English  says: in response to Bob Woods

Your comments are so general in nature that the article had no relevance at least to me.  Nothing actionable nothing concrete.

May 6, 2011 11:18 AM Alan Semple Alan Semple  says:

I agree that it is OK for different parts of the organisation to use the term 'customer' to mean different things - but in terms of data integration, unless you get common agreement on a definition of the customer entity, you risk integrating apples with oranges - no?

May 6, 2011 5:26 PM Bob Woods Bob Woods  says:

From my years employed in the private sector, I have found that everyone is a customer. You have the actual customer, those who have purchased your goods and/or services or the potential customer, those who have not purchased your goods and/or services


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