MDM’s Blind Spot: Social Networks by Peter Perera

The convergence of Master Data Management (MDM) and social networking is inevitable.

Not because we need to jump on the social networking bandwagon to keep MDM interesting and relevant. But because companies like Google (with Google+) and (formerly Jigsaw and now have already cemented the relationship between the two.

The evolving conversation regarding MDM and social networking has two perspectives. One angle considers how to use members of a social network in the management of master data. The other addresses how to use MDM for managing data about members of a social network.

The first context for discussing MDM and social networking has been a subject of interest for some time. Crowd-sourcing is the basic social networking mechanism used to accomplish this goal. The “crowd” can be a well-defined group of employees or a coalition of like-minded members of an online service.

The second recently came to the forefront when Google chairman Eric Schmidt proclaimed that the company will only accept “real names” in Google+. According to GigaOM, Schmidt admitted in an interview “Google is taking a hard line on the real-name issue because it sees Google+ as an ‘identity service’.”

That sounds a lot like an MDM policy in the making.

Marrying MDM and Social Networking

The idea of bringing social networking and MDM together has its roots in “community data stewarding,” which some in the MDM space started touting a few years back. The idea is to leverage the collective efforts of individuals within an organization to help manage master data. More recently the notion of community data stewarding expanded to include using “the masses” for MDM.

Online data services like, which is the reincarnation of Jigsaw after it was acquired by in 2010, is a good example of mass data stewardship.  Jigsaw is probably the first real adaptation of social networking, specifically crowdsourcing, to managing data about people and organizations.

Even though the stated intent of Jigsaw was to share contact names, I can easily argue that Jigsaw is a social MDM application. By tapping the universe of salespeople for information about people and organizations, Jigsaw, now is, in effect, the first commercially successful crowdsourced Master Data as a Service (DaaS).

Master DaaS is different than MDM SaaS, which is the delivery of MDM software capabilities in the cloud. Personally, I believe all the action is (or will be) at the intersection of Master DaaS and MDM SaaS, which is where is likely heading. But that’s a conversation for another time.

One can also show that even LinkedIn is readily re-purposed as a Master DaaS, where individuals manage their own identity. Consider offerings such as “LinkedIn for” It’s not much of a leap to see how contact names in are indirectly managed by the contacts themselves through their LinkedIn profiles.

While understanding how to adapt crowdsourcing dynamics to data stewardship is worthy of further consideration, this article focuses on the second context: how to use MDM to manage data about members of the crowd, i.e. a social network. This is where the conversation gets contentious, as Schmidt unwittingly demonstrates.

At first blush, all the fuss about banning pseudonyms on Google+ seemingly has nothing to do with MDM. But it does. Very much so.

Master Identity Keeper

According to GigaOM, during an interview with Andy Carven, National Public Radio’s digital editor, Google’s Schmidt stated:

“G+ was build (sic) primarily as an identity service, so fundamentally, it depends on people using their real names if they’re going to build future products that leverage that information. If you think about it, the Internet would be better if we had an accurate notion that you were a real person as opposed to a dog, or a fake person, or a spammer or what have you… So if we knew that it was a real person, then we could sort of hold them accountable, we could check them, we could give them things, we could you know bill them, you know we could have credit cards and so forth.”

Fred Wilson at Union Square Ventures further notes, Google “wants to be an identity gatekeeper,” where individual crowd members basically manage their own identities.

Schmidt and Wilson suggest what sounds like the ultimate Master DaaS for person-type parties. But it raises some interesting questions. Does a business need to definitively know the individuals that they interact and transact business with? While this may seem absurd to even ask, apparently we are at that crossroad. And from the dialogue it seems not everyone agrees on the answer.

Is MDM Evil?

To date, a business naturally assumes that a customer cooperates by exposing their identity. After all, how else can you conduct business?

That said, there are many instances of businesses that don’t know the identity of their customer. P&G, for example, cannot readily identify the consumers who purchase, say, Tide®. The “customer” represented in P&G’s business systems are retailers and wholesalers and some of their employees, but not likely the person pouring Tide® into their washing machines.

On the other hand, take a retailer like Target. Recently, they had some challenges with handling online purchases as described in this story on CNN.

“…shoppers who bought the Missoni Target line are posting on social media websites Facebook and Twitter that they won’t shop at Target again because their online orders are being delayed — or worse, canceled — by the retailer.”

Before the internet, Target did not likely know the identity of many “shoppers,” i.e. customers who made their purchases at a store, unless they had a Target credit card or exposed their identities at the cash register. And even if they did have shoppers’ identities, they would not likely have the capability to resolve the relationships among them, which is a major goal for social media sites.

In the past Target’s customers for MDM purposes were suppliers and wholesalers and not “shoppers.” Just like P&G. With online purchases, however, this is no longer the case.

Of course, Target needs to know the identity of the suppliers and wholesalers and those related contact names. The question is this. Will they ever know the identity of the supplier or wholesaler contact, who, when behaving also as a shopper, is bad mouthing Target on some social media site under a pseudonym…or is part of some anti-Target group? Meanwhile, a Target representative may just have had a seemingly pleasant lunch with the person. They’re being blindsided.

Now consider this. The blog GIZMODO states “Google’s horrible new policy on using real names in Google+ effectively means that the service is now a danger to real people.” (As opposed to fake people?) And “…the policy is evil.”


“You can’t use initials (even if that’s what you go by). You can’t use a pseudonym (even if that’s what you go by). And you can’t use numbers or symbols (even if they are part of your name).

Æ, e.e. cummings, Malcolm X, and T.S. Eliot would all be in violation of Google’s policy. So, too (by my reading) would be Mark Twain, George Eliot and doubly so, R.U. Sirius. I’m pretty sure nobody whose name you actually know in the band U2 can use Google+ or, by extension, Gmail.”

Play Nice

Apparently Google seeks birth certificate-quality names. Is this the same strength of policy making that MDM needs to succeed?

Traditionally, the answer is not necessarily, because any decent MDM technology will have the ability to relate multiple aliases to a person party. But as MDM moves to manage master data about your customers who are also members of business and social networks, not all aliases are willingly shared.

Everyone knows Mark Twain and Samuel Clements is the same person. And even if we did not, someone besides Twain himself would ultimately have to know his real identity. Otherwise how would he collect his royalties?

And here is the blind spot for MDM moving into the social realm. A 360-degree view will be without those structured or unstructured data relationships of a party that may only be revealed under a fantasy name…and not disclosed to you or anyone else.

Selling and marketing may get a whole lot harder as individuals increasingly armor themselves with pseudonyms and fantasy names (or personas). In response, we see the rise of strict policies enforcing identification…or don’t play on my social media site.

Unfortunately, that’s a double edged-sword, and the physics of it all has yet to get worked out. On the one hand, Facebook and Google have a threshold mass where people have to play by the rules or get booted. On the other hand, the resistive power of the masses can influence those policies. Just ask Netflix.

When a Customer Identity Is the Product

Consider Don Norman’s observation about Google+. Normanis the author of The Design of Everyday Things. He says, “Real names, they (Google) say, turn out to be the names on your driver’s license and your passport and your credit cards so that they can track you.”

He goes on to say Google’s “goal is to gather all the knowledge in the world in one place, but really their goal is to gather all of the people in the world and sell them.”

This appears very much like a goal of MDM: to gather all of the people in your business circle in one place so you can ultimately track them. All, of course, with the intent to manage a relationship with them…um sell them something.

I unequivocally say, yes, this is a goal of MDM. But there is a slight twist to the Google+ story.

Norman also submits that “Most people would say (of Google) ‘we’re the users, and the product is advertising. But in fact, the advertisers are the users and you (we) are the product.”

Typically, MDM assumes we are talking about the identities of persons and organizations like customers, suppliers, employees, partners and the like. Norman fundamentally asks, when a person’s identity is a product, do we have a right to enforce them to share that identity as a condition of use…I mean, participation in a service?

Frankly, I am not quite sure what the big deal is. Credit bureaus, like Experian and other companies like Acxiom, have sold our identities as a product for years.

Data Is Not An Asset. A Person’s Identity and Relationships Are.

According to GIZMODO, “Forget social networking, the big goldmine of the future is online identity verification.” Bingo, that’s Master DaaS.

Two questions related to MDM are at play here. (Since we are solely discussing individuals and groups of individuals …and for simplicity, I exclude master data on other entities such as products.)

1. How do you have transactions and interactions and perform analytics without, well, master data? After all, a party’s name is master data. In other words, how do you create an order or an account without header information about the party?

2. Is there an obligation for people who do business with you to correctly identify themselves? I am not sure how else business can occur. Even setting up a Swiss bank account requires identifying the account holder. Although, I cannot say for certain. I’ve never had enough money to hide from anyone!

Speaking of bank accounts, Dave Winer thinks Google “wants to effectively become a bank.” According to Weiner, knowing the relationships among persons is where the value of sites like Facebook and Google+ is. Knowing and managing the relationships among persons happens to be an important function of MDM too. We can think, then, of a MDM hub as a sort of bank of person and organization identities and the relationships among them.

If nothing else, one thing has been settled. Data is not an asset. The true identity…and corresponding relationships of a party are. It’s an asset to a person. It’s an asset to a business. Even if we mean “asset” rhetorically.

In my opinion, Google+ and other social media sites purporting to be identity services should offer an incentive like Jigsaw does. You gain points by sharing the identities of people you know. If anything, Jigsaw is the evil one. It’s a platform for everyone to “rat out” everyone else they know by disclosing their name, employer, work address, phone number and email address.

Identity and Relationship Resolution and Keeping

The concern voiced by Google resonates in MDM because a single representation of customer information and a “single version of truth” are frequently stated desired outcomes. Given the largest percentage of MDM initiatives involves resolving and managing identities and relationships, we need to reconsider what and who is a party to a transaction and interaction.

For starters, we need to rethink the notion of “customer.” It’s becoming an increasingly marginalized, if not obsolete and irrelevant concept. “Customer” seems inadequate for collectively describing the myriad roles played by all the participants in business transactions and interactions.

If abandoning “customer” altogether is too radical, we should limit it to a very narrow meaning. Take a health insurance company for example. They narrowly define a customer as the employer sponsoring a health plan. That’s it.

An employer a.k.a customer is only one of many participants in their business transactions and interactions. Other participants include subscribers, providers, members, administrators and brokers. They collectively refer to these participants as constituents, and any participant may play more than one role. A provider, for example, can also be a subscriber or member, or if the provider is an organization, such as a hospital, the provider is also an employer that sponsors a health plan for its own employees.

Additionally, we need to recognize that the collection of participants forming a crowd, group, organization, circle or whatever we call it is also an entity. Crowds, circles and groups are similar to organizations, except they usually don’t have a legal standing and tend to be virtual. Nevertheless, they are living, breathing entities that matter and require identity and relationship resolution. This is particularly the case if they are participants or potential participants in a transaction, interaction or analysis.

We can no longer easily segregate the persons and organizations we engage in a transaction or interaction into separate entities like customer, supplier, employee, partner, user, shopper, guest, donor or whatnot. It’s time to recognize these concepts and terms for what they are: role designations, not discrete entities.

The entity is the person or group. That’s why some organizations now collectively recognize all of them as a single entity and dub it a “party” or “constituent” or the like. Where the entity can behave in one or more roles as a customer, supplier, employee, partner, shopper or whatever.

Personally, I prefer “participant” to describe the individuals in a group. “Member” or “party” is probably easier on the brain, but “participant” is an action word, even if it doesn’t nicely roll off the tongue. “Constituent” works too, but sounds a little formal.

I also prefer Google+’s “Circles” to simply “group” or to, say, Facebook’s “Smart Lists” when depicting a crowd. After all, people travel in circles, not on lists! A “list” is too linear, even hierarchical sounding. “Circle” is a clean break from the chronic misrepresentation of all relationships as hierarchical. Plus, we can be participants in multiple related or unrelated circles.

“Smart group” might work too, where smart means identifiable. Then, of course, there is always “network.” A network is neither linear nor hierarchical but it’s too clinical sounding. We can always just say persons and organizations. But that’s unimaginative.

Instead of categorizing persons and organizations by their role in transactions and interactions, just designate them as participants in a circle. Some seek to distinguish social networking and business networking, but in the end, we can’t always distinguish interactions as social or business.

The following table depicts the evolving conceptual models for representing participants and circles in a system. While the goal is to move toward a Stage VI model, most organizations will have systems representing participants and circles in transactions and interactions at different stages.

Perera Table 1

Perera Table 2

Where Do We Go From Here

Deriving a panoramic view of fragmented customer data for transaction processing, business interactions and analytics involves multiple parties arranged in complex network configurations. But not all these parties traditionally and simply behave as a “customer.”

Business applications must rapidly evolve to a Stage VI model that can support different sets of relationships among persons, organizations and groups and different sets of data relationships for them. A blind spot may still exist where the identity of participants in a combined social and business circle are irreconcilable.

Until business applications can support a Stage VI model, MDM will have an interim function as keeper of participant and circle identities and relationships. However, even with MDM, separate data relationships based on participant role may not be fully supportable until business systems themselves can support complex network configurations.

Once business applications can support a Stage VI model, they still may not be suitable for managing all participant relationships for two reasons. One, if enterprise applications are not optimized for a large, complex arrangement of participant and data relationships, performance could be a significant roadblock. And two, a production transaction system may not be optimal for dedicated data stewards and curators to maintain participant identities and relationships.

For these reasons, the importance of MDM will increase as it becomes the main mechanism for managing current and historical participant and circle identities and relationships with pointers to corresponding data relationships. As cloud computing penetrates enterprises, resolving and keeping participant identities and relationships will increasingly occur as a combination of MDM SaaS and Master DaaS.

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