The ever-evolving role of master data management

Executive Architect, IBM

The first known census, which occurred 6,000 years ago in Babylonia, counted people and things—that is, parties and products. Indeed, historical artifacts from a wide range of known civilizations in various epochs of history attest to governments’ abiding interest in counting people and the things that people produce—not least because keeping such accounts allowed monarchs to collect revenue by taxing individuals. Master data, to be sure, will persist as long as governments need revenue.

The persistence of master data

Early census-takers wrote on clay tablets using cuneiform. In the Middle Ages, the Domesday Book used parchment to give a definitive accounting of William the Conqueror’s realm, numbering all his subjects and even the animals they kept. The first modern census, conducted in 1841 in the United Kingdom, systematically captured data on paper in regular rows and columns. Building on that, the US census of 1890 radically transformed the way census data was captured by using the Hollerith Census Tabulator. In modern times, we capture and retain master data using internal IT systems, across social media and in the cloud.

The evolving attributes of master data data was simple at its outset, describing only the head of a household and the number of things that household owned. This approach was simple by necessity: Capturing information on clay was both tedious and time-consuming.

However, the UK census of 1841 took things further by identifying the individuals who made up each household and then reporting information about them, such as their sex and date of birth. Not long after, the Hollerith Census Tabulator reduced the time required for tabulating census information from years to months, allowing census-takers to capture more information than ever before—and still more with each year. Accordingly, modern census-takers record mobile phone numbers, email addresses, Twitter handles and the like, and they use algorithms to establish household relationships.

The evolution of interactions with master data

The first interactions with master data occurred when Babylonian officials visited villages to count heads of households and the cows, goats and boats that they people owned. Census-takers used a reed stylus to record this information on clay tablets. Stored in a safe, dry place, these tablets helped scribes and tax officials collect taxes from the populace. Similar interactions with master data continued in the Middle Ages, aided by the Domesday Book.

Beginning in 1841 with the UK census, the master data collected during censuses became useful to more government entities than just the taxing authorities. Nowadays, having automated the capture of master data through information technology, governments have replaced reeds, quills, pencils and punch cards with keyboards, mobile devices and voice recognition and image capture capabilities. The master data so obtained is useful in many business processes, and it allows the building of meaningful relationships between businesses, individuals and the products that those individuals use.

The outlook for master data

Master data has persisted for thousands of years, and it won’t be going away any time soon. However, our ways of capturing it, as well as its attributes and our ways of interacting with it, have evolved throughout the millennia and will continue to do so—as long as governments need to uniquely identify persons and things.

Your business also needs the capability to capture and uncover insights in master data, and IBM is here to help. As you prepare to take your master data journey to the next level, find out how IBM master data solutions can empower your organization to reach new heights.