#ModernDataMasters: Scott Taylor, “The Data Whisperer”

Scott Taylor also known as “The Data Whisperer,” is a firm believer in “making your data do the work,” and has enlightened many business executives to the value of proper data management by focusing on the strategic rationale and business alignment rather than technical implementation and system integration.

What is your background and what was your route into data management?

I got my start in data by working for a number of data companies such as Dun & Bradstreet and Nielsen. I think my parents would say I was hardwired for working in the master data space because instead of building with my Lego blocks I sorted them. In MDM there’s a lot of data sorting, taxonomies, ontologies etc. If your kids are sorting blocks, they might be in the master data business so watch out!

The companies I worked for all had taxonomy and content assets, so to deal with that I had to talk to business leaders across all sorts of global enterprises. I needed to help them understand the value of master data more from a strategic initiative perspective than one of technical implementation. I am not a practitioner in the MDM technology space – I am someone who can convey its value to the business.

“I’m more of a “why” guy than a “how” guy. It’s the people who have no idea what master data is and no time to learn it – but who have all the money – who really need to understand the value of it and what it can do for the enterprise.”  

How would you define “modern” data management and what does it /should it mean for organisations that adopt it?

As far as the technology goes – cloud, big data, machine learning, etc – if we’re talking about that and someone hasn’t bought into the fact that they need master data at all, then none of it matters.

The current approach to MDM at a very high level is pretty much the same as it has always been. What’s changed is the urgency and the stakes around it.

“MDM and master data used to be a very clerical back office, logistical, tactical sounding discussion all about cleaning data – no CEO wants to have a conversation about data hygiene. Data janitorial work doesn’t sound very strategic however important it is.”

What’s happening now is the convergence of all these mega-trends – AI, Cloud, Social, Mobile, Blockchain – I can count handfuls of trends out there that are regarded as the “sexy” stuff. I look at all of those and behind each one I say: “OK it’s not going to work without master data”. Period. For example, you’re not going to get IoT to work across organisations and devices without having a common data structure.

It always comes back to this foundational, structural data and the challenge is, it’s not very sexy. People forget than when you build big, ambitious things – ships, buildings or bridges for example – you need the nuts and bolts and you cannot build without them. Master data is the nuts and bolts, no one talks about them but you can’t do anything significant without them.

What are your top 3 tips or resources to share for aspiring modern data masters?

Well, first of all, they should look at the business process and see how they can improve it – without jumping to the technology – because they don’t know what they are solving for yet.

Backing up a bit it’s to get an understanding across the enterprise of what data is there and what needs to be mastered. It’s usually the same stuff – customer, product, vendor, asset, partner – and look for the ways that that is going to map directly to the strategic direction of their enterprise. If you look in a Chairman’s Report for any large enterprise’s 5-6 strategic priorities you’ll see that at least half of them won’t work without master data. Find those and try to link them together because for me master data is the ultimate enabler.

Look at the things that the CEO and CIO are really putting their weight behind – they won’t be saying they need more MDM. They could be saying they need “Customer 360” in their annual report and not even realise they need a master data strategy to do that.”

For example, they might say they want to be the “premier partner of choice” for their customers and yet not have a common definition of customer that everyone in their organisation understands.

People talk about ROI – it’s very difficult to find the ROI of cleaning a record – it’s very tactical. But what does it enable? That’s the exciting thing for me in the space – people are investing in lots of programmes that require MDM to run but they probably don’t realise it yet.

“Things like CRM won’t work without MDM – it makes the other stuff work better. That’s your ticket to the party.”

How important is experience versus willingness-to-innovate for a modern data master?

Experience is always important. There are a lot of great practitioners out there who know how to get it done so you’ve got to lean on that. It’s also critical that they’ve got a spark of innovation because they’ll then have to think about what to do next.

Many of the people with experience tend to have a lot of frustration because their dreams of master data have not come to fruition. They have spent years in their organisations and they “get it”. They totally “get it” but they can’t take that message upwards.

“When they bump into the CEO in the elevator they say: “We need a golden record” and the CEO says “Well that sounds expensive”. That conversation doesn’t go very well so consider telling a story about how the organization still doesn’t have a common definition of customer and can’t integrate all the disparate but valuable data across functional silos.” 

Data management has traditionally been positioned as a technical process. How important do you think data management knowledge is for business people – marketing professionals in particular?

Marketing people, more and more, need to understand the technical underpinning of master data. When they are talking about things like a CDP, if they think that is going to solve all of their customer issues, they have to realise there was already something called MDM that was already there to do at least the foundational piece.

Global brands are increasingly going to need to be able to master that brand entity consistently across different global markets. As people look to defend their brand and support its values they will have to understand its presence in all of these geographies and that gets really complicated, really quickly.

Brands could be in 100+ countries and have different product names in each of those countries but they all roll up to the same idea.

“The notion of protecting and managing a brand is something that has to be mastered in order to work at scale. To do that across all the different channels you have to establish a common definition of brand, push it out and make it something that is standardised across your whole value chain.”

Agencies need to understand that, ingest it and work off those brand definitions – the media side needs to do it as well.

Brand messaging is funding pretty much everything we’ve got out there. All these start-ups that want to create a new app think to themselves “we’ll get an audience and then expose it to all this brand messaging” – it’s a form of advertising or marketing no matter what.

–           Is there a skills gap currently amongst marketers?

Well yes, absolutely there’s a skills gap. I love marketing, it’s telling a story and putting it into play. However, the more marketers can understand the details and the logistical part of how these stories scale, the better. As much as the technical side needs to understand the business drivers, the business needs to understand the technical side as well. 

–           How can it be addressed?

Practical suggestions? Watch my videos! What is Master data? What’s the value of master data? Don’t get so caught up with the sexy stuff – marketers by their nature try to make everything exciting. Think of a Venn diagram with sizzle on one side and steak on the other – marketers need to be in the middle.

“Marketers are really good at the sizzle and sounding cool, but you’ve got to have the steak, and for me, the steak means being technically accurate. I look for the sweet spot in the middle.”

What trends or changes do you predict to the data management arena in the next few years?

Rather than what I predict, let me tell you what I hope for. The first one is about data being the new oil. It’s not the new oil – everyone just grabbed onto the poetry and then tried to explain why data was or was not the new oil. If people are using a metaphor that they then have to explain, then it is not a good metaphor.

“Data is not the new oil, it’s not the new gold, it’s not the new electricity; it’s not the new bacon; it’s not the new tofu; it’s not the new anything. Data is data and it has always been there and the people who have managed it really well already know that. It’s a fuel sure, but in terms of the oil analogy, I hope it just goes away.”

There’s all this talk about big data. I could run a debate on whether big data exists or not? Every time I hear people talk about it and what they’ve done with it I am wondering how that is different from just having lots and lots of data? What was “big” about that?

“I hope people start getting back to just regular data because that is where the real value is. It’s not as cool-sounding but that is where the reality is.”

Which is your favourite science fiction book, programme or film and why?

Science fiction? OK, can I say Toy Story?

Well any fiction then..

2001 is way up there in terms of that journey – anyone who tells a great story – that’s what I love. So The Godfather. Toy Story. La La Land was a great one. When I see people do really innovative storytelling I love it. No matter what – you must have a story – it has to somehow capture you and move you along.

“I had the chance to ask Francis Ford Coppola a question at a conference once. I asked him how he could tell what was a good story and he said “You just know, you read it and it just works. It captures your imagination and takes you somewhere different”. Being a marketer or a seller, you have to be able to tell a good story, so anyone tells a good story I’m all for that.”

What do you like to do to relax outside of work?

I live in an awesome place – Black Rock, Connecticut. We have an apartment in a building that overhangs the water, that they would never allow to be built today because it is a monstrosity. But we don’t care because we’re inside of it and we look out at an idyllic New England harbour town with a lighthouse. One thing I do to relax is that any time it’s calm, I kayak.

“I’ve learned about life from kayaking because if you want to kayak when it’s nice out then you have to go and kayak when it’s nice out. You have to go and do it. You can’t delay and wait too long because the conditions will have changed.”

Also, I’ve learned philosophically that you can’t control everything. If you are out there you have to pay attention and if there’s a dark cloud you can’t think your way around it. You just have to go to shore. I take things like that to heart every day.

“I also do a lot of juggling – I can juggle pins. I can blow square and really really large Bubbles. Perhaps I could do that later? I don’t have the right tools here, but we can try that next time!

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