The Importance of Master Data

We as a profession have always flocked to the latest and greatest new tools, and I think we always will.

We get overly excited when we see new dashboards, mobile applications and ways to be social using technology. Today we are even thinking about the promise of technology like Google Glass as a way to make our employees’ lives easier.

While all of these innovations are important stepping stones toward a great portfolio of tools for the workforce and human resources function, one boulder continues to leave most of us struggling, and it’s master data.

Master data is data that is essential to the operation of the business. This type of information is exactly what most leaders around the world think about when discussing the holy grail of HR and workforce technology today: How to get intelligence, move from process to prescription and help the business understand human capital.

Why is it that most HR functions struggle so mightily when it comes to having a set of master data that is consistent, trusted and used on a common basis across the enterprise? The answer is simple: Most miss an important part of the concept of master data — that it is singular in nature.

The overlap of the functions continues to kill HR when it comes to using one set of master data to drive the enterprise. When the organization continues to buy technology to automate or energize a specific business process and does not consider, or take action and integrate this process into a master data strategy, all we do is continue to make data informational and leave it in the most part disconnected from action.

When thinking about master data, my favorite exercise to lead organizations through is one I call “follow the data.” It is quite simple in nature, but it helps organizations understand overlap as well as data leakage between functions and processes that leave us throwing stones versus taking on the big boulder I mentioned earlier. A few tenets of follow the data:

1. Start at the beginning. The first time an applicant or a recruiter identifies a name and it is entered electronically, it should be the only time someone types that individual’s name across the enterprise. Is this happening today? Yes? No? Why not?

2. As the applicant moves from being an applicant to an employee, are the most important parts of his or her information moved from an applicant-tracking tool to your master data management system? This is not just enough information to get the person paid, it’s the talent gold he or she provided during the application process. Yes? No? Why not?

3. As you roll out other automation of processes across the enterprise, do you continue to populate those systems with data from the master data management system or do you start from scratch, enter and store a bunch of data and not bring that data gathered from processes back into your master data set? An example would be tracking an employee’s completed learning and development activities and storing that in your learning management tool but not storing the skills and competencies gained by taking that course as master data. Yes? No? Maybe?

By asking yourself these questions, or if you don’t know the answers, asking the individuals responsible for your HR and workforce technology strategy these questions, you can quickly assess how solid your data and technology foundation is and how difficult it may be to continue to evolve and innovate as a strategic function in the business.

This type of understanding and the fixing that may be required is not the sexy, glamorous work within our business, but making it a disciplined, ongoing way of thinking will allow us all to more easily be the trusted adviser, and most importantly, be agile enough to innovate in the moments that matter.