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A data steward's job is never done

Two law firms have taken the problem of dirty data to heart and hired full-time staff to monitor their contact lists.

Mary Pickett doesn't wake up every morning thinking about dirty data.

"But I'm sure my clerks do," said Pickett, the marketing applications manager for Winston & Strawn LLP, a law firm based in Chicago with offices around the world. "I'm sure they wish they didn't have to think about it."

When Pickett arrived at Winston & Strawn three years ago, there were a couple of new employees working with her helping to keep the firm's data, particularly the client lists, clean. Pickett spent her days with them poring over lists, consolidating duplicate entries, swapping out nicknames with formal names and correcting executive titles. Now, she has three full-time employees and a summer worker undertaking the task of keeping the firm's data clean.

According to a report from the Seattle-based Data Warehousing Institute, poor data quality cost U.S. businesses more than $600 billion in 2001, and it said business data decays at a rate of 1.5% to 3% every month. The answer for many companies is to use data stewards -- people in departments throughout the organization who monitor the quality of data coming in and going out. People like Mary Pickett.

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Winston & Strawn felt the matter important enough to add full-time staff. Pickett now spends about 20% of her day cleansing data and the rest is managing people and running special database projects. For example, Pickett makes sure the right clients are getting invited to the right Winston & Strawn events and the top clients are on the right lists. The firm's top 500 clients get top priority when it comes to data cleansing.

Keeping the firm's contacts accurate is a Herculean task. There have been 10,000 new contacts added since the beginning of the year, 6,600 in the past two months. The efforts seem to be paying off. The firm recently sent out a mailing to 11,000 contacts. Only 350 came back as undeliverable, Pickett said.

A backup plan for accuracy

It's a similar setup at law firm Blank Rome LLP in Philadelphia. Both Winston & Strawn and Blank Rome use data management applications from Interface Software Inc. in Oak Brook, Ill., which makes applications for professional services organizations.

With the Interface application, any changes made to existing contact information is essentially flagged and put in an inbox where a full-time data steward double checks the entry to ensure it's a valid change. For example, an attorney might speak with a client and enter the name of a new executive. The data steward would then check the name and title and, if it's incorrect, send a notification to the attorney. Changes are then repopulated to the database where users can see it.

"We encourage them to monitor their watch list," said Kristen Azzam, marketing database coordinator at Blank Rome. "That way they'll know if contacts change names or companies. [There is a] head data steward, but there are hundreds of people watching this watch list. If something is incorrect, we hear about it immediately."

With a database of hundreds of thousands of contacts, Blank Rome's initial cleansing project was a massive undertaking. Ten temp workers spent eight months validating the contact information for the company's top clients.

"We have incredible management support," Azzam said. "There's a senior management sponsor who, if an attorney doesn't comply [with data quality processes], will send a personal e-mail."

Clean data has many fans

Lauren McGinty, Blank Rome's full-time marketing database steward, spends about two hours in the morning running through about 250 tickets. Throughout Blank Rome, the importance of clean data is clear and McGinty said her work is appreciated.

"I know just from my contact with secretaries and attorneys," McGinty said. "They get excited when I ask them if things are correct. When I send out e-mails, they thank me for ensuring the best information possible. It's the only way they have of contacting their clients."

A data steward's job is never done either. Winston & Strawn launched the data monitoring project with the labor practice group and expanded to five others. Next on the list is the corporate practice group, which accounts for about 40% of the firm's business. After that is litigation, which accounts for another 40%, Pickett said.

"I would think we have pretty clean data," she said. "We're never reinventing the wheel completely, but we're always reinventing."

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