The “Big E” and “Little E” of Master Data Management

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By Christine Denney

Okay, I will admit it. I did feel that little twinge of jealousy when Data Governance got its “Big G, Little G”.  After all, that is a really catchy phrase. And if you’ve ever read the famous book by Dr. Seuss, you can think of all kinds of clever rhymes to go with it. But that wasn’t my motivation for introducing a “Big E, little E” for Master Data Management (MDM). It was actually a way to help me (and others) understand my new job.

Last year, I was tasked with implementing “Enterprise MDM” for the company. At the time, I had been working in the Reference and Master Data arena for over 12 years (albeit, mostly within one business unit). How could I grasp and communicate what it meant to have “Enterprise MDM”? I reflected on the experiences that others had shared, either through conferences, seminars, or one-on-one discussions during the past few years. There had to be some golden nugget that would help me understand what it meant to be the “big E” Enterprise for Master Data.

I dug back through notes from conferences and seminars. I googled until my fingers were sore. And in the end, there were some statements that kept running through my head. During discussions with other MDM professionals, I frequently heard the statement that Enterprise MDM had been implemented at a particular company or institution. Even before my new mission, I remember how my ears perked up with interest (and awe). Could it be that someone had truly found a way to engage the entire Enterprise in master data? But then I recalled how, as I probed further, I found that the so-called ‘Enterprise’ master data was often limited to a subject area that was relevant to one business unit. Did that mean it wasn’t “big E”? Did “big E” really exist? I had to answer more questions to understand the difference.

When is something considered “big E” Enterprise?

Take Customer master data, for example. Few companies that focus on the sales and marketing business unit would say that “Customer” is not a key subject area for their company. But is it truly “big E” or a very important “little E”? I have found that the answer depends on the subject area’s breadth of use and importance to the company or institution as a whole. Is the company focused on sales or is that just one of several key business units? Looking cross-functionally at the organization’s business processes provides guidance in this area. Some processes, such as managing relationships with external organizations, (e.g. tracking potential and/or actual vendors, collaborators, and thought leaders) are typically “big E” in nature and benefit from “big E” master data and cross-functional governance bodies. Others, such as management of the concept of “Project” within a business area, are more localized and may benefit from the agility of “little E” master data management.

Does it matter if I am focused on “big E” or “little E”?

Either form of master data management brings benefits to the business. Just as “big G” isn’t better than “little G”, (properly implemented governance of any scale can bring positive results, whether broadly or narrowly focused) “big E” MDM isn’t better, just broader in scope and possibly complexity. When dealing with a subject area that is owned by a single or few business units, the definitions and responsibilities are clearer and business customers feel more empowered to make decisions about the data. Here is a recent example that is near and dear to my heart:

Several areas of the organization, from research to sales, share similar pain in managing information about other companies and institutions of interest (a.k.a. “third parties”). However, each business area has slightly different requirements for both the information that is needed to uniquely identify a third party as well as for the use of hierarchies. In addition, while one area may be only concerned with a company name, another area may need to work at a site level. In a “little E” implementation, a business area would focus on implementing its requirements and set up a local governance body; however, in a “big E” implementation, discussions and buy-in amongst several areas are needed to establish governance and agree upon scope.

How do I find the “Big E” master data?

A list of business processes and an Enterprise Data Model (EDM) are valuable assets to use as a starting point. Look at the key subject areas and categorize them as Enterprise, local/enterprise, non-MDM, etc.

Does that imply a single Enterprise System?

As I introduced the idea of “big E” to a business area, I saw a bit of concern (i.e. frowning and raised eyebrows). I found out why when we got to the question and answer period at the end of the presentation. Did the concept of “big E” master data management mean that we were going to have one huge system that everyone would use? (To which I think that I responded with a look of shock and possibly a smack to my head.) Since I had been so focused on the bigger picture of comprehensive Enterprise business process and master data, I hadn’t considered how the phrase “Enterprise” could be interpreted as people imagined the details of the operational aspects and the data creation process.

The intention of looking at the Enterprise level was to ensure that we had Enterprise coverage of the data, not necessarily an Enterprise system. I could rant about why an ERP is not the same as MDM, but I will save that for another day. In further communications, using the concept of “Enterprise Coverage, not Enterprise System” helped to clarify the MDM strategy for the “third party” subject area.


Both “little E” and “big E” MDM implementations bring benefits to the business. Understanding the critical needs of the organization is a necessary first step in developing an MDM strategy. Looking at the company’s business processes and categorizing subject areas is a valuable first step in understanding whether to focus on the “big E” or “little E” for MDM.

NOTE: Thoughts expressed in this blog are the author’s and not her employer’s.

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