Separating the Wheat from the Chaff: How to Conduct an MDM Product Selection Process

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Much like separating the wheat from the chaff (the rough casings surrounding the grains) during the harvest, selecting the right Master Data Management (MDM) product for your organization can be a long and rigorous process. However, it should also be a celebrated event.

Having the appropriate MDM tool is paramount to proper technical execution of Data Governance and critical to an organization’s data strategy and will bring tremendous value to your organization. Data Governance and MDM function best as a pair, so they need to be snuggly aligned. If you’re looking to avoid ending up with a product that won’t work for your organization, and assuming you already know what you’re looking for in a product, keep these steps in mind so that you can separate the right products from the wrong ones.

“Prepare for the harvest” by getting the right team involved and excited

You should never attempt to select an MDM tool without also involving your end users—the data stewards and other agents who will be using the product every day.  Their partnership and participation is key if you want the selection, and ultimately your deployment, to be a success.  Establish a panel where members are well represented from each business area to ensure they have a contributing voice around their preference.  Ideally, you want to have a unanimous decision from the selecting panel on the preferred vendor with one alternative backup.

“Survey the field” by reviewing the top industry products

Before selecting an MDM tool, you will want to consider all the products currently on the market that might be a good fit for you.  To get this information in a speedy fashion, leverage reputable vendor/product review sources to get an understanding of the landscape and how products compare to each other. Forrester Wave and Gartner Magic Quadrant are both reliable references and effective resources with which to begin. The available list of MDM vendor choices offers you a broad selection of both market leaders and newer, niche vendors, as well as ample information to properly vet what may be the best fit for your business needs. The gradation of services and cost will allow you to effectively weigh value to your organization and prevent you from missing out on newcomers that may possess the MDM features or functionalities you require at a significantly lower TCO.

“Assess the quality of the grain” by defining metrics for product features you need

Evaluating multiple complex products can be confusing and sometimes emotion can get in the way, especially if there is an established relationship with one or more of the vendors in the running.  In order to make sure that you end up with the product that is the best fit for your needs, you should develop an evaluation system and assign metrics to each essential feature or functionality to ensure assessment is objective and not biased toward an existing vendor relationship. Although a good relationship with a vendor is valuable, it is the product that needs to perform. If the product/tool is unable to do what you need it to, the relationship will be immaterial. You must look for a good product and a good relationship with a vendor in combination.

“Determine the appropriate harvesting tool” through vendor briefings, RFI, and demos

Once the criteria and evaluation process are established, begin communicating with all interested parties. In your vendor briefings, it’s important to cover both business and technological requirements, desired approach, your selection process, and overall rules of engagement. To ensure objectivity and success, provide specific instructions around evaluation criteria, timeframe, involved participants, evaluation details, and any other pertinent information to all participating vendors in both a consistent and timely fashion.  Allow time for Q&A and maintain uniformity across answers.

You may also want to issue a RFI (Request for Information), which will provide you with detailed information about each vendor and its product, such as technical capabilities and the financial stability of the supplier. Be thorough. Look into the vendor’s financials, P&L, income statement, or 10-K if available. Were product sales booming initially and have now tapered? Are they consistently increasing market share and demonstrating a revenue climb each quarter?  What are their R&D dollars spent thus far or allocated for the future? What other assets do they have? Is their business viable and the company overall financially sound? If they were to go under, what options do you have should you already own the product? What would you be left with? Always plan for the worst possible scenario. If that were to happen, would you have custody of the software source code, or your data back, fully unencrypted? Ensure there are legal documents to bind your investment and your vendor’s obligation.

Once you’ve communicated the requirements, approach, selection process, and rules for engagement, and reviewed responses to an RFI, it’s time for the vendors to showcase what they have for you. Schedule in-house demonstrations to gain further insight into the experience of the product’s key functions and features.

Key items to consider in your evaluation:

User Experience and Product Interface

Sometimes you will come across a fantastic product that’s able to do everything you are looking for–Data Cleanse, Match, Merge, Link, Validate and Visualize–but the interface is reminiscent of DOS or widget-like screens that require multiple steps to get where you want to go. This poses the potential for rejection by your end users. Visualization is also a major consideration.  For example, Tableau’s packed bubble chart, heat maps, and tree map all offer fantastic visual representations of data contents that are both aesthetically pleasing and effective in conveying insights.  When evaluating product features, take the time to flesh out the UX (User Experience) such as the end-user interface with conscientiousness toward addressing end-user concerns specific to product look and feel.

True performance and scalability

Most demos are executed via localhost settings, resulting in an amazing response time produced with both client/server and data residing within the laptop.  Make sure you have one session to test and benchmark true performance-speed in a remote setting. As your user base grows and your demand increases, can the software handle the growth accordingly?  You want to ensure the tool does not require a reevaluation after only two to three years of usage.


Ensure the software integrates easily within the existing environment or systems.  If you can, test drive and see if there are compatibility issues, especially with current applications or surrounding legacy systems.  Vendors tend to make the blanket statement of “we handle all drivers and should be able to support most of them” in addressing this potential risk.  However, all you need is one incompatible item to land you in a perpetual end-user support nightmare.

“Begin the reaping” with a proof of concept challenge

At this stage, you should be excited about the benefits the MDM tools still under consideration can provide, but you will want to be absolutely confident. To get a deeper understanding of capability, it’s valuable to require a proof of concept. This acts as a trial opportunity to see first-hand if the product is capable of doing or handling what it was purported to do. Provide your remaining vendors with sample data and let them impress you with what they’re able to find. If your data is atrociously bad, they should be able to identify its challenges in a jiff. If your data is pristine, they should be able to harness its contents to provide you with great insights!

This is your chance to evaluate the effectiveness of the vendor in a real-life scenario, so be critical.  Were there any newly discovered insights or was the vendor merely representing what you already know? Did they do their due diligence and demonstrate that they truly understand your business problems? Were they able to succinctly articulate a “day in the life” narrative and address daily challenges your staff faces?

“Let the threshing begin” with a final presentation

It’s now time to separate the winners from the losers. Ask each vendor to conduct a final presentation. This presents an opportunity to examine if the vendor truly understands your needs and demonstrated value from the proof of concept challenge or product demo. How effective are they in discovering data challenges, offering potential solutions and providing you with data insight? This final step is where the wheat gets separated from the chaff and should help you easily distinguish what is the best product for you. It should be inclusive of differentiating facts such as product information details, performance statistics, costs, technical specifications, the support model, R&D direction, scalability, and hopefully, among these criteria, a clear differentiator to aid your decision.

“Winnowing further” by conducting a final bake-off if needed

If you end up caught between two or more competing and arguably good vendors, a final, friendly bake-off to answer specific product features or performance-based criteria will help determine the winner. This is best conducted as a hands-on session with selected end users to determine and evaluate capability as a final step to the decision. Let the end users test-drive it and verify product look-and-feel.


Following a rigorous process as outlined above should ensure that you land on the right product for your company.  In order to set the right expectations and ensure success throughout the implementation, here are three simple “A’s to remember following the selection process:

  • Acceptance – Do you have overall acceptance supporting your selection process and alignment that the right tool has been chosen?
  • Adaptation – Even if it is right tool, expect that some adjustment may be necessary (based on resistance) due to locality, logistics, infrastructure, and end user maturity.
  • Adoption – Implementation does not mean adoption. To progress to a level where all of your users are leveraging the product as intended typically takes time and requires a combination of acceptance and adaptation.

Although it is an involved affair, approaching MDM selection as a critical and exciting event and employing a rigorous process to evaluate vendors will ensure you weed out those that aren’t suitable and separate the wheat from the chaff.

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