In A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the all-knowing computer Deep Thought was asked to come up with “the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything.” 7.5 million years later, Deep Thought provided the answer—42.

However, as so much time had elapsed, everyone had forgotten the question, which rendered the wisdom confusing at best and utterly useless at worst. Not to worry, though: a new supercomputer was tasked with reverse-engineering the question.

What does this piece of cult sci-fi have to do with business operations and data management? For too many organisations, information is anything but real time. Disparate systems effectively present an intractable barrier to aggregating information. At these companies, the failure to prepare reports and conduct data analysis in a timely manner is hindering the C-suite’s ability to develop effective strategies.

Say executives need analysis for a weekly check-in meeting. At companies without a consolidated view of data, that request will send employees across the organization scrambling to aggregate information (often manually) from their respective databases. Since each department has its own systems and data standards, consolidating the data can be a labor-intensive process that pulls employees away from higher-value tasks as operations grind to a halt.

More problematic, when the request doesn’t come down the pike with enough advance notice, executives walk into planning meetings without the requisite information to support strategic decisions. In today’s business environment, with so much information available, flying blind or relying on gut instinct is a sure recipe for failure.

These same obstacles also impede organisations from unlocking the potential of data analytics to gain deeper insights into customer needs and support sales efforts. Executives who are eager to pursue more ambitious analysis will also be confronted with the sobering reality that harnessing big data depends on accessing information from multiple databases and systems.

If an organisation can’t handle basic data management tasks, big data becomes an unattainable aspiration.

So how do companies go from Deep Thought to Deep Insights? This transition requires a proactive strategy for master data management and an investment in the platforms and capabilities that can deliver true data integration. The benefits reach far beyond more efficient operations, better strategies, and an improved bottom line.

Leading companies that have made this leap have gained a true competitive advantage in the marketplace, responding to new opportunities and emerging trends with speed and agility. If your data management capabilities are more science fiction than reality, it’s time to develop the functionality to get the deeper insight. Or you can hope that “42” really is the answer for everything.