How Many Times Do I Have to Tell You My Name?
Chris Brogan, one of the leading minds in the world of social media, just started a new job. And, he’s going through the new employee paperwork hassle (I think), which prompted this mini-rant:
It’s interesting, as Chris is expressing the same frustration that we’ve all faced. WHY do I have to write in my name, date of birth, spouse’s name, etc. a gazillion times to do one simple thing?
He acknowledges that part of the reason that there isn’t a centralized, global ID that has gained widespread adoption is security concerns. And, that’s certainly part of it. The University of Texas managed to give my social security number up to some hackers several years after I graduated. They’ve now implemented much more stringent security…to the point that it’s a royal pain for me any time I need to conduct a transaction online with them.
Still, I firmly believe that people are overly paranoid on the security front. It’s a valid concern, though.
Another reason to push for a universal ID is from a data maintenance perspective. In the last six months, I’ve changed my home phone number and my home address. My job title, my name, my SSN, my mobile phone, and my work address have not changed (actually — that’s not entirely true; in some cases, my work address has changed). Various studies (none of which are close enough at hand for me to quickly track down), have shown how frequently individual and corporate data changes. Even doing the most simple of analyses of a company’s internal prospect lists will turn up duplication rates that are eye-popping (20% or higher), with no easy/obvious de-duplication options. And this is perfectly valid!
To have a universal ID, you need a universal key, and that is hard. SSN meets the criteria of being unique and unchanging…but only for US citizens. So, hardly universal.
A lot of applications try to use e-mail address, but that is wildly flawed. Chances are, you have at least two e-mail addresses — a personal one and a work one. But, there’s a good chance you have others: email forwarding addresses from your college or professional organization, “junk mail” e-mail addresses for online registrations that you think may spawn a lot of spam, or a gmail address that you need to get to your Blogger or Google Analytics account. And, e-mail addresses can change over time.
You can get people to pick a single e-mail address or ID, which, if memory serves, is what Microsoft tried to do with Passport. But, this was requiring people to remember that ID…and Microsoft was pretty weak when it came to controlling access levels for third parties to use that data. Not to mention, paranoia kicks up a notch in people who have decided that Microsoft is inherently evil (simply because they are large and successful).
In short, it’s a lot more complicated than, “I’m looking at five forms that all want me to fill out the same basic data!” Now, absolutely, an employee onboarding application should be able to make this electronic so, at a minimum, you fill in your name and phone number once. And, maybe that application could have a hook into LinkedIn to do a one-time prepopulation of the data for you to review and confirm. But, as much as companies would like it for that to be a permanent link to LinkedIn…it’s a messy, messy proposition.
And, things get even messier on the company front. Mergers, acquisitions, and spinoffs happen constantly. It is incredibly hard to track a single person through those changes. But, that’s where companies like D&B and Hoover’s, combined with customer data integration companies like Initiate Systems come into play.
Okay, so I’m rambling all over the place. But, I’ve been in this area for long enough and had enough people oversimplify the challenges of maintaining data integrity, that it seemed worth scratching the surface with a quick blog post.
Does all of this say, “There’s got to be a business opportunity here?” Well, yes and no. Anyone who tries to solve the whole problem is going to require a ridiculous level of funding and time…with a limited chance of success. Lots of companies already exist that are trying to carve out pieces of the problem and solve them.
In my mind, the best bet is to focus on standards for storing and transferring that data. I’ve heard rumblings of some attempts to come up with XML standards on that front. But, the W3C is a good example of where global standards for something “simple”…generally aren’t.