The tech industry just wouldn’t be the same without conflicting acronyms, useless vendor “marketectures,” and the industry analyst bread and butter: buzzwords (Anyone interested in investing in my new company? It’s called “Social eWebCloud” Just make the checks out to cash!)

But my favorite weapon in the tech business leader’s armory is the overused and meaningless cliché. In reality, many of these clichés are simply metaphors that have been so overused that they lose their punch. I’m the first to admit, they are near impossible to avoid, and I use many of them time and time again. Why? Because they are familiar, and they can effectively help a speaker communicate a potentially complex idea in a simple, concise way. For example, which is easier to say?

  • “There are a large number of potential projects or deliverables we can consider for our organization, but if we attempt to do them all, we run the risk of overextending our budget and resources and in the end will not deliver effective business value.”

Or . . .

  • Don’t “boil the ocean”.

The problem with the average cliché is that it doesn’t actually solve anyone’s problems or answer anyone’s questions. So I asked myself which clichés I found myself using too often when discussing master data management (MDM) and data governance strategies and challenged myself to see if there actually was a valuable lesson to be learned from them.

You are now entering the Data Management Cliché Zone.

One of the biggest challenges for data management professionals is figuring out how to build a business case and effectively scope and prioritize an MDM or data governance strategy. Where should you begin? How can you better engage business stakeholders and senior leaders to sponsor and fund these efforts? How do I calculate an ROI, and how long must I wait to start seeing that return?

So here are my three favorite clichés that I overuse when helping clients to answer these questions:

Rob’s cliché recommendation No. 1: Tackle the “low-hanging fruit” first. I often recommend and write that MDM and data governance strategies must be considered multiyear, multiphase initiatives. And as I’ve previously written, data management is not at all about the data. It’s about the critical business processes and decisions that data enables. So when looking to identify which business processes and decisions within your organization to target, you should select the ones that will help deliver benefit back to the business the fastest to prove the value of your data strategy and build momentum for future investment. In other words, you should target the easiest, most attainable goals.  In other words, you should reach for the lowest-hanging fruit.

Rob’s cliché recommendation No. 2: When needed, create a “burning platform”. It’s one thing to have your senior management talk the talk and say how enterprise data is one of your organization’s most critical assets. It’s quite another to have them walk the walk and prioritize limited funding and resources to do something to ensure the quality and trustworthiness of that data. The “burning platform” metaphor used is: How do you convince someone working on an oil drilling platform in the middle of the ocean to jump into the water? Clearly the comfort zone is maintaining the status quo and staying warm and dry on the drilling platform (aka, "do nothing about the data").  But what happens when a fire erupts on the platform and it’s getting mighty hot? This burning platform cliché is most effective and required when you’re really dealing with senior management that doesn’t “get it” when it comes to the value of data management investments, so they need to be hit over the head (figuratively, please) with a significant business impact from doing nothing. In these scenarios, your business case must provide a compelling incentive to convince business leaders that a lack of focus on data management could significantly increase compliance risk (leading to legal or financial penalties) or have a strong negative impact to the top or bottom line. 

Rob’s cliché recommendation No. 3: The “squeaky wheel should always get the grease”. When discussing data management strategies, this last cliché assumes that poor quality data, a lack of master data, or a lack of data governance has likely already caused significant pain to individuals, teams, or departments within certain functional organizations or lines of business throughout your organization. For example, you might have some BI super users in your marketing organization complaining to all who will listen about how the inconsistent, incomplete, and conflicting customer data available in their marketing data warehouse makes it impossible for them to perform effective customer analytics and design targeted campaigns with a decent response rate. The cliché “the squeaky wheel always gets the grease” is often used in a negative context, implying that those who complain the loudest often get the most attention, no matter if their problem is actually the most severe or not. But when building your business case for MDM or data governance, it’s often extremely difficult to get the business: 1) to accept that data quality should be a priority, and 2) to actively collaborate and participate in actually solving data problems. This is why I recommend that these “squeaky wheel” business stakeholders be given special attention. Their passion and ability to articulate the negative impact of bad data on the business processes they own can be strong input into your final business case.

I do believe that the messages behind these overused clichés are valuable to consider when designing your MDM and data governance strategies, but I feel strongly that you must consider all three together. For example, if you just focus on the “squeaky wheel,” these stakeholders might introduce a business problem that is way too complicated and politically charged to realistically solve as a first step in your program – and actually result in a failed effort. If you just focus on the “burning platform,” you may find a significant risk like privacy compliance that scares management into playing the data management game, but they may limit the scope of the effort to a one-off project addressing only that risk as opposed to considering cross-enterprise benefits. And if you focus just on the low-hanging fruit, that low-hanging fruit may return such a small amount of business value that it won’t build momentum for future, ongoing investment.

The trick for building your business case and jump-starting your MDM and data governance efforts is to find that shortlist of business processes and decisions that (1) can deliver short-term value (low-hanging fruit) with (2) a compelling impact to the business that would interest your most senior leaders (burning platform) and that (3) has passionate business stakeholders that can clearly articulate that business impact from the frontline perspective and are willing to partner in solving the problem (squeaky wheels).

 I’d love to hear what clichés and defining metaphors you’re using or come across just a tad too often in your day to day! Share with everyone in the comments.