Editor’s note: How do you manage customer data in an era where the democratization of data is becoming huge? Don Peppers is a best-selling author, blogger, business strategist, and widely acclaimed keynote speaker who has traveled to over 40 countries talking about customer and member experience. His book, “Customer Experience: What, How and Why Now,” provides insights and “how to” recommendations for building and maintaining a truly customer-centric business. Because of the COVID crisis, businesses all over the globe have been scrambling mightily to cope with remote work, remote marketing, remote sales meetings, and e-everything. According to Forbes, 97% of executives report that the pandemic sped up their digital transformations, while McKinsey proclaimed the COVID crisis gave us more than ten years’ worth of e-commerce growth in just a few months. The frenetic pace of digital work has also generated a proliferation of “bottom-up” activities at many businesses, with individual departments and business units installing sales force automation tools, remote customer-service platforms, digital marketing tools, and the like, all on their own initiative. That’s largely positive, but how do you still maintain a strategic, top-level focus, while encouraging the most important of these bottom-up activities? Bottom Up vs. Top Down Customer Data Management & the Wisdom of Crowds. As a general rule, you can mark me down as being a strong supporter of bottom-up thinking, whether we’re talking about open-source software, Wikipedia, exploring for new ideas, or a self-organizing employee culture motivated by a unifying sense of purpose. Open, competitive markets represent the very epitome of “bottom up” thinking, because by weighting thousands of individual opinions with real money to reach an assessment of value, they can seem truly prescient. Orange-crop futures markets, for instance, do better at predicting Florida weather than meteorologists do. And just 13 minutes after the 1986 explosion of the Challenger space shuttle, the stock market correctly zeroed in on Morton-Thiokol, maker of the frozen O-rings, even though it was several weeks before a team of engineers investigating the disaster figured this out. So yes, I applaud bottom-up efforts in most situations. However, there’s an important caveat to bottom-up thinking: the independently acting individuals, whether investors, coders, or business units, must still be united by a common idea about how success is defined and measured. In Scott E. Page’s most recent book The Diversity Bonus (2019), he points out that a group of totally independent individuals acting on their own will almost always make smarter decisions than even the smartest single member of their group, provided that they have a true diversity of perspectives on how to solve the problem (he calls this their different “instrumental preferences”), but that they all agree on the overall objective to be achieved (he calls this their “fundamental preference”). And therein lies the problem with the way many companies have been hurriedly approaching their digital transformations lately. The fact is that customer data is the real currency that animates each incremental sales, service, or marketing platform, and any other customer-facing piece of automation. Think of Customer Data As a Currency. But if the company itself has not already set up this currency, by installing an enterprise-wide customer data platform, then all the various systems and platforms that are independently installed can create chaos rather than efficiency. When the digital marketing platform operates on one definition of customer data, while the customer service platform uses a different currency, and the sales force automation tool relies on yet another currency, then the result won’t be efficiency, but confusion, frustration, and (often) security problems. Unfortunately, this is exactly what more and more medium-to-large businesses are finding now. At one large enterprise with a global footprint, for instance, several different business units each installed a sales force automation tool from the same vendor. Each division, however, was dealing with its own different customer characteristics, regulatory issues, and geographical boundaries. The result was a hodgepodge of customer data protocols, entailing a significant security risk to the enterprise and requiring a substantial effort to police on a regular basis. The painful lesson here is that “customer data” is not just another digital tool that can be added to a sales or marketing or customer-service platform. It is the tool that any customer-facing platform ought to be using to evaluate its success. Only in this way can all of a company’s digital platforms communicate with one another in a common language. Integration of data throughout the organization, and a bias against siloed data, are important in maintaining strategic focus in marketing and management. How to Get Back Your Strategic Focus. So start by making a “top down” corporate decision on which customer data platform would best suit your company and install it first. Importantly, it should be a platform that isn’t owned by any particular one of the major sales, marketing, or service vendors, but is compatible with each of them. By doing this, you’ll simply be agreeing in advance on what currency or language to use within your business when it comes to managing (and integrating) all your customer-facing activities. And here’s the best news: By starting with a “top down” decision that fixes an enterprise-wide definition of customer data, you’ll find it easier to animate more bottom-up activity among all your various departments and divisions, all without fear of chaos, confusion or backtracking later. Where to Go for More on Customer Data Management. Of course, there’s a lot to consider when it comes to customer data platforms, top-down management, and bottom-up marketing tactics. I am an advisor to Treasure Data, a Customer Data Platform company, and on Wednesday, May 19, I’ll be doing a webinar with Luiz Gama, Sr. Global Martech Manager of Consumer Data at Anheuser-Busch InBev, and Tom Treanor, CMO at Treasure Data. Register here for the webinar, “Who Owns Digital Transformation?” This article was originally published by Don Peppers on LinkedIn.