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True Hollywood Story: MDM thrives at Sony Pictures despite low buy-in

Mark Brunelli, News Editor

Technology professionals and IT industry analysts have repeated the advice over and over again: The key to any master data management (MDM) initiative is sponsorship, funding and participation from the business

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side of the organization.

If you think that your MDM projects aren't exciting, you should just do them inside a sound editing room.

Eric Iverson, vice president of television and intellectual property systems, Sony Pictures

But if the business has little or no interest in MDM -- and the program's success or failure is riding entirely on the IT department -- then it's probably time for unorthodox methods and some Hollywood-style creativity, according to Eric Iverson, vice president of television and intellectual property systems at Sony Pictures Entertainment.

Speaking at the recent Gartner MDM Summit in Los Angeles, Iverson explained how his team implemented a hugely successful product MDM program that began with almost no support from the business. Iverson said Sony Pictures' business units eventually bought into the plan, but that took patience, flexibility and the will to "strategically create pain." He also had plenty of advice for anyone launching a product MDM initiative.

"Gartner tells you how to do things the right way [and it] would be so awesome if I had sponsorship, but that wasn't our situation," he said. "I want to give you some reassurance that you can succeed even if the cards are stacked against you and you don't have all of those great things that Gartner is recommending to you."

Digital technology prompts need for product MDM

Sony Pictures business units are involved in entertainment ranging from video games to screensavers and beyond. But the media giant is probably best known for making, acquiring and distributing television shows and movies. Among its well-known properties are the long-running TV game show Wheel of Fortune and box office hits like Spider-Man and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.

With countless products or "titles" in the Sony Pictures library -- and digital technology changing everything from how movies and television shows are produced and stored to how they're distributed -- it became clear to Iverson back in 2003 that time had come to centralize management of the company's digital assets.

"At that time in our studio we had 53 different content management systems that were managing digital assets in different ways," he said. "It was like the wild West. People were doing their own things. So we really started this by saying, 'Hey, this digital media thing is kind of changing our lives a little bit so maybe we should figure this out.'"

Iverson and his team took stock of the situation and realized that, like many studios at the time, Sony Pictures did not have a clear view of everything that was available for sale in its digital library. That's when the product MDM initiative was born.

"We realized that an asset with no information about it is garbage," Iverson said. "The information about those files is important."

The team had little support but decided to press on anyway in hope that new opportunities afforded by MDM would attract business units to the program one at a time. A centralized view of the digital catalog would lead to fresh ideas about how to package and sell Sony Pictures' titles over the Internet and elsewhere, Iverson argued, and that translates to increased revenue.

"We didn't even have space, [but eventually] got some sound editing room space," he said. "At the beginning of our initial projects we would hear gunfire, lions roaring, chimpanzees and anything you can possibly imagine. If you think that your MDM projects aren't exciting, you should just do them inside a sound editing room."

Looking for buy-in? Try separating financial and product codes

The IT crew at Sony Pictures began the work of creating a centralized product master file while simultaneously working on a major -- and better funded -- SAP enterprise resource planning (ERP) software implementation. Early on, the team decided to use standard interfaces and a loosely coupled publish/subscribe method to help ensure that future integrations with individual business units went smoothly.

SAP has the ability to assign items a "title level financial code" that is used to help identify any important financial information about a product that salespeople need to know when closing deals. Iverson said many studios have opted to let that financial code number double as the product identification number in MDM systems. But Sony Pictures went another way.

The team decided that their new application would create separate financial codes and product codes for individual titles -- information that could be published to SAP ERP at will. Iverson said one of the benefits of this approach is that it creates an incentive for business units to get on board with the new system.

"Money talks," Iverson said. "If they can't get the financial number to bill any of their [accounts] or collect any of their revenue, they're going to be very motivated to actually move over to the new system."

Be flexible and adapt to change

An important lesson that Iverson learned while launching the program is that a willingness to be flexible and diplomatic goes a long way toward attracting buy-in.

Shortly after the beginning of the SAP ERP and intellectual property MDM initiatives, Iverson received word that Sony Pictures' acquisitions group was getting ready to build its own system to manage acquired titles. This presented a problem.

"We said, 'We're going to be dead in the water if we don't figure this one out because that is what's not working here," he said. "We can't have completely different processes."

The acquisitions group was reluctant to sign on with Iverson's program because they had a very specific type of identification code for titles in their home entertainment catalog. They feared that switching to a new coding system would cause problems in Sony Picture's many legacy systems. But rather than attempting to strong-arm the acquisitions group into conforming, Iverson's team figured out a way to bring their identification codes into the new system.

"If you're flexible enough, then you can meet all those requirements," Iverson said. "And if you do that, then you can bring them on board."

Don't be afraid to strategically create pain

Fast-forward to today and Sony Pictures' product MDM program has been wildly successful. Iverson said it now connects to approximately 64 internal and external systems and more than 250,000 titles. It also indirectly contributed to $50 million in cost savings and new revenue and helped drive a tools automation project for the company's digital supply chain.

As the project picked up steam, more and more business units bought into the plan. Iverson said it was important to communicate effectively with the business side throughout the initiative.

"We spent a couple of weeks [creating] one chart explaining how everything was going to fit together," he said. "Spend the time [explaining] why this works in a very compelling story in really awesome, short communications."

And if that fails, a little pain can be an effective tool. Iverson likened it to a scene in the classic baseball movie Bull Durham where the veteran catcher, played by Kevin Costner, decides to teach his team's rookie pitcher a lesson. Rather than explaining why the pitcher should stop "shaking him off," Costner's character tells the opposing batter to expect a fast ball -- and the batter knocks it out of the park.

"You can work really hard and lose a lot of ground by trying to fight some battles when the easiest thing to do is just let them experience the pain," Iverson said. "Let them have it, because when you solve pain on a project, you'll get a lot of buy-in to what you're doing."