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In The Code

By Doug Bartholomew  |  Posted 2006-09-08 Print this article Print

Incorrect or obsolete data can slay a business. Mentor Graphics, a maker of electronic design automation systems, fought back by deploying a master data management system to automatically update changes in its operations.

In The Code

Of course, all companies have master data—basically, descriptors that consist of a code for each part number or customer account. The descriptors enable key business information—about products, customers, geographic locations, general ledger accounts, etc.—to be consolidated into reports. These identifiers also help in the analysis of business information, so that it can be sliced and diced using an online analytical processing-based business intelligence system such as the Hyperion Essbase system used at Mentor Graphics. Master data is used to categorize, aggregate and evaluate transactional data for data reporting purposes.

The Hyperion MDM software not only refreshes data in Essbase, but it also streamlines the rebuilding of data cubes for analytical applications. Mentor Graphics usually updates its Essbase cubes twice daily, but during the close of a quarter, financial analysts depend on the information so much that the cubes may be updated every four hours.

But exactly what does master data consist of? And why is keeping it current, accurate and consistent across the enterprise so important? Simply put, master data consists of ranked lists, sometimes called hierarchies, of various data dimensions—customers, suppliers, general ledger accounts, products, geographic divisions or other organizational units.

Often, master data is used to define transactional data. When a company sells X volume of product Y, to customer Z, by salesperson W, who works out of geographic business unit V, a set of descriptors is attached to that transaction that identifies X, Y, Z, W and V. Embedded in the transaction are various pieces of master data that help identify each of these key information components surrounding the transaction.

Sure, an old-time cash register could ring up that sale, but at the end of the day, or month, all you'd have is a tally of each sale amount and a total. There wouldn't be any information about who made the sale and where he worked, who bought the product, how much of each product was sold and where it was purchased.

Today, of course, companies need all that information about the sale. That's why master data, which provides the core elements that span the business' enterprise systems, is integral to corporate operations.

The problem arises when a company uses incorrect or outdated master data. "If I deliver a product to a customer and then I invoice that customer incorrectly, and the data the customer has doesn't agree with the information on the invoice, the customer will not pay the bill," Swanton says.

All master data eventually changes over time. Customers come and go, as do employees. Products are discontinued and new ones are launched. Business rules are revised and new procedures added.

At many companies, information-technology staffers are tasked with updating and maintaining master data, placing a huge burden on these workers. "The business user will ask the information-technology administrator to make the change," Villacis says. The administrator then will contact systems staff in other areas of the company to tell them to make the change in other business systems. "Besides requiring lots of back and forth and lots of steps, this process often leads to errors," he adds.

At Mentor Graphics, this overload led to a bottleneck that was a key business reason for the company adopting a new master data management scheme. "We knew we needed to push it out to the users," Beldman says.

Today, Mentor Graphics has 30 business unit users responsible for updating and changing master data. When they input a revision in the company's central Hyperion MDM system, the change is automatically propagated via Web services to the company's data warehouse and to the various business applications that would use the data.

In some cases, depending on the type of business information, a unit will save up the changes and input them in batch mode once each day. The actual integration among systems is done using extract transformation load tools, Web services or, in the case of SAP, its application programming interface tool, BAPI.

When Mentor Graphics went looking for an MDM system, it selected a package from Razza Software, which shortly thereafter was acquired by Hyperion. Mentor chose the system because of its flexibility in allowing business users to make master data changes. "At that time, there were not a lot of products in the MDM space," Beldman recalls. "This one was flexible in the ways you can set up the rules to determine what are valid changes." Thus, if a business user inputs a change that would violate the rules governing the company's master data, the system rejects it.

Although only 30 people can make such changes to master data, a total of more than 1,000 employees can access the MDM system to obtain current business information. "Our people can go to the Web and see who the account manager is for Switzerland," Beldman says. "They don't have to ask around or call people to try to find out who the new account manager is because the information is out of date."

NEXT PAGE: Consistency, At a Price

Doug Bartholomew is a career journalist who has covered information technology for more than 15 years. A former senior editor at IndustryWeek and InformationWeek, his freelance features have appeared in New York magazine and the Los Angeles Times Magazine. He has a B.S. in Journalism from Northwestern University.
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