A tangled knot

Once upon a time, according to Greek legend, a lowly peasant named Gordius entered the public square of Phrygia in an oxcart.

Unknown to ol’ Gordius, the town’s oracle had predicted that their future king would arrive in such a manner. Upon seeing him, the populace immediately crowned Gordius king. In appreciation, Gordius dedicated his wagon to the Greek god Zeus, and hitched the yoke to a pole using an exceedingly intricate knot — the Gordian Knot. Legend had it that he who untied the complex knot would rule all of Asia. Many tried. Many failed.

Most organizations do not have their sights set on world domination. Conquering their IT environment is another matter. And when it comes to easy access to customer records and data, untying that enterprise knot of poorly integrated ERP products, mainframes, databases and legacy systems has proved to be just like the fabled Gordian Knot — a seemingly unsolvable undertaking.

Enterprises have long known that deep within various administration, sales, billing and contract management databases lies a rich vein of customer data just waiting to be mined. The use of customer data integration (CDI) tools may be the cure for ROI-challenged enterprise software deployments. CDI technology consolidates and manages customer data from a variety of enterprise sources, including contact details, customer valuation data and information collected via direct marketing. It is a data management process where both existing and fresh customer data can be distributed across the enterprise in a timely and accurate manner.

CDI defined

In simple terms, CDI technology acts as a core (or hub) and is “layered” on top of the existing heterogeneous IT architecture. Each piece of customer information is given a data link to a client name and address. This is then tested for accuracy via verification from the various data sources within a massive database of accumulated data. When these links are established, matching the links across all the databases makes obtaining a single view of the customer possible.

Peter Chan, a senior technical consultant (telecom sector) at Toronto-based IT services firm CGI Group Inc., said his clients are realizing that CDI technology and a clear business case go hand in hand. Particularly in the telecom sector, Chan noted, the biggest challenges are in the area of consolidations and mergers, and include dealing with disparate and duplicated data inventories.

Insurance and financial services provider Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. (MetLife) interacts with an estimated nine million households and institutions in the U.S. After a recent spate of mergers and acquisitions, the decision was made to make its systems and business processes more customer-focused to deal with the more than 100 million customer records.

New York-based Bob Marzulli, vice-president of IT for individual lines at MetLife, said the idea was to tie customer information from across the enterprise into a unified, consolidated portfolio. Creating an enterprise-wide customer hub, according to MetLife, would help ensure consistent and differentiated customer service across all channels, identify cross and up-sell opportunities and reduce costs by making customer processes more efficient.

Customer data was spread out across three different organizations. Specifically, customer information from more than 30 separate back office and CRM systems needed to be unified and elevated to an enterprise level, Marzulli said.

A lot of this information tends to overlap, CGI’s Chan said, adding that CDI technology appears to be a way to match this data effectively. Using real-time Web services, organizations can quickly access additional data which can then be immediately added to their records simply by corresponding the previously established links.

CDI attempts to do what many believed that customer relationship management (CRM) technology was supposed to do.

Over-reliance on the technology-as-cure-all dream of CRM has led to implementation failure. Return on investment in the form of cross-selling initiatives and customer retention management didn’t materialize. Disparate sales force automation and other CRM systems characteristically use different keys and multiple points of view. Connecting the dots to create that 360-degree view of the customer not only becomes tricky, but hampers the customer relationship.

Untangling the enterprise silos

According to Elizabeth Roche, enterprise applications strategies vice-president at Stamford, Conn.-based Meta Group Inc., as it stands today, many organizations have over-invested in technology and in CRM software deployments.

A 360-degree view of the customer isn’t good enough, particularly in a heterogeneous IT environment. It’s about laying down a level of master control over all that customer information, says Justin LaFayette, chairman and founder of Toronto-based enterprise software provider DWL Inc. Coordinating and synchronizing the data ensures that there is a cohesive method in how it’s used, LaFayette said. Early adopters of CDI technology include the financial services and telecommunications sectors, which are using the technology to improve their CRM, data warehousing and enterprise resource management products. LaFayette noted the fact that the larger vendors are entering the space points towards CDI’s usefulness to the enterprise.

nterest in CDI is growing due to organizations having typically invested in operational CRM solutions (marketing, sales, and service) early in their multiyear initiatives. There is increasing pressure on CIOs to realize the ROI promised by the mega application vendors of CRM suites (such as Oracle, PeopleSoft, SAP, and Siebel).

DWL, Acxiom and Siebel are currently the vendors making headway in this space, Roche said. According to Meta, during 2004 and 2005, offerings from vendors such as SAP and Oracle are expected as vendors grasp the strategic and tactical importance of a full-blown CDI solution in the mega application package vendor marketing wars.

The CDI challenge is not just about integrating different CRM applications, Roche said, because customer information also resides in the in ERP (such as supply chain) application systems. Traditionally active CDI vendors (Experian, Innovative Systems, IBM) have refocused as nascent vendors such as Initiate, Journee, Siperian, and SRD all jockey for market position.

CDI advocates argue that technological advances, coupled with a maturing business software market has put the goal to quickly and cost-effectively obtain and integrate this information into an accurate and single unified view within reach. Versus traditional enterprises, these companies can better integrate customer data to streamline planning, marketing and sales efforts. A strong business case and processes need to be employed as well. The dot-com boom meant enterprises often adopted a “buy now, worry about deployment later” strategy.

Ron Martin, director of product strategy for Chicago-based CDI vendor Initiate Systems Inc. said the technology offers a trusted system of record on top of an organization’s disparate systems. In using CDI to match customer data, silos and information compartmentalization is minimized. It’s about increasing data integrity in each data source, Martin noted. Customer data that was formerly tied up within a particular business units’ database can now be shared and compared with customer data across the enterprise.

To do it effectively it has to be a real-time process and “not a batch/match or merge/purge,” Martin said. And from the client’s point of view, interacting with the organization is vastly improved. Customers begin to feel that the company values them and their individual business.

“It needs to be in one place so there’s not a question as to [the validity] of the data, no matter the use,” MetLife’s Marzulli said. There are no concerns of whether or not the data is accurate or authentic — it is in one place to make a decision, he added. At MetLife, the process began in April of 2002. Using a product (Customer Hub) from DWL, Metlife began the task of data cleansing and consolidation.

“With systems that have been around 10 years or longer, you can imagine the state of the data,” Marzulli said. The core hub along with the data integration and cleansing utilities were the first part of the initiative. After implementing the CDI technology, the next step was to build the necessary infrastructure around the core, Marzulli said.

MetLife developed applications that integrated with the hub. This infrastructure component was key so that “no matter who accesses the customer file, they had to go through the integration point of hub,” Marzulli said, which provided a consistent means of access and Web services to access that data at any time.

But don’t be fooled. This isn’t a simple undertaking. The societal, marketing and technology drivers all must be in alignment to evolve into a more customer-centric enterprise. And this also needs to be done in real-time.

For Mike Minear, senior vice-president and CIO, University of Maryland Medical System (UMMS), coping with copious amounts of client data is a heady task. An Intiate Systems customer, Minear is responsible for developing the IT strategy for the UMMS, a regional health care system comprised of University of Maryland Medical Center, Kernan Hospital, Deaton Specialty Hospital, Maryland General Hospital, North Arundel Hospital, and Mt. Washington Pediatric Hospital.

Particularly for the UMMS, having the correct matching data is paramount. If a drug is ordered for the wrong “Mr. Smith,” there’s a big problem, Minear said.

Using enterprise master person index (EMPI) software along with customer hub software from Initiate, the UMMS is currently in the planning stages, or “passive mode” in adopting a CDI strategy. The UMMS recently signed additional licence agreements and expanded the use of the Initiate Identity Hub software to three additional locations.

Eating the elephant

The UMMS expended a lot of energy on training and raising awareness. “We had a lot of people who struggled to understand what the tool could do and tried to force fit it into a traditional view of silo system mentality,” according to Minear.

CDI implementation is very much a journey. Indeed, MetLife took a “practical implementation” approach — the priority was to break the seemingly large and difficult task of transforming an enterprise into manageable projects.

MetLife developed an initial proof of concept and then conducted a benchmark against it. This was done to make sure the system could scale and support the data and thousands of access points involved. “We have millions of contracts and where a customer owns many contracts…we don’t need to keep multiple instances or references on different systems,” Marzulli said.

It took close to two years to get all everything in place before MetLife actually started migrating data, Marzulli said. MetLife had a “tremendous number” of systems to integrate and recently migrated the first two legacy admin system into the client file last year, Marzulli said, with plans to migrate more this year. And as MetLife continues to add new product systems with new product launches these must be added as well, he continued.

The value is in taking on CDI in incremental steps. The technology is important but the business strategy is crucial, said LaFayette. Key is forming a new corporate hierarchy structure just to deal with the new business functionality.

There is a specific start and stop time to implementing the software but using it and figuring out more systems to plug into the hub and designed business rules to take advantage of it takes time, Marzulli said.

The challenge is in getting organizations to move from a product-focused view of the world to a customer-focused view. A lot of effort needs to go towards getting senior management to buy into the concept, UMMS’s Minear said.

Marzulli agrees. “Culturally we knew that this was going to be a big transition from where we were as a corporation,” he said. The fact that upper management believed in and sponsored the initiative allowed MetLife to move forward.

Gordian Redux

Remember that Gordian knot from Greek lore? The legend goes on to say that the knot remained unsolvable for centuries until Alexander the Great stepped onto the scene.

Alexander didn’t try to unravel the rope as those before him had attempted. He simply cut through it with his sword.

Alexander was able to determine that untying the knot wasn’t a case of simply manipulating the rope. Rather, it was a case of using the best tool available to solve the specific problem. “To cut the Gordian knot,” means to solve a confounding dilemma with a single bold action.

And in the case of the average IT environment and its associated collection of disparate data sources, it appears that CDI technology just may be enough the make the cut.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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