Every business and project is different – which is one of the things that makes it so interesting to be a business analyst – but a typical project might still go through similar steps.
My previous article introduced the broad concept of business analysis, and explained why SMEs may want to employ the services of such an analyst. To detail what it involves in practice, this article will go through each step from discovery to implementation.
The first step in any business analysis project is discovery. This is essentially a planning stage, spending time to identify clearly the objective of the analysis, and the desired outcomes. As business analysts, we like to ask clients the following questions.
Why are we doing this?
What results would you like to see?
How will we explain what we're doing to your staff?
Who should the project team talk to?
The answers we hear then guide our planning for the next stages. Typically, we find that small businesses are looking to deal with issue such as:
improving the quality and consistency of their service by standardising their business processes
improving the business's effectiveness by cutting out unnecessary administration
bringing new software or hardware into the business, when staff lack the confidence to identify the system that is right for them
preparing for or managing business growth.
The discovery stage is important because it is often then that we find out that what the business needs is not necessarily what it requested.
For example, we were approached by a small financial services firm to map its business processes. While talking to one of the two partners, they mentioned that they were working to design a bespoke software system for the business. So rather than simply mapping their existing processes as the firm had requested, we instead agreed with the partners to map how they wanted their new system to work, even roughly designing the application's page layouts for them.
By more accurately defining the objective that they were trying to achieve, we were able to get the clients where they wanted to be, which is the whole purpose of discovery.
It is during the information gathering stage that we get into the detail. The previous article explained that a business analyst's role is to identify needs and propose solutions. In the information gathering stage of a project, we start to identify the specific needs of the organisation.
This is also where a business analyst would start to involve the frontline staff. The aim is to find out how things work, why things are done in the way they are, and what the team need to succeed. The analyst will try to get a feel for which parts of the process are the most time-consuming and focus on these.
It's vital to include frontline staff in this process because:
they are the only ones who can describe with accuracy what they currently do
they understand better than anyone the problems they face
they often already know how to resolve those problems, but may not have had the opportunity or courage to speak up before.
A business analyst will engage frontline staff through workshops, interviews, walking through their processes or shadowing them.
With SMEs, business analysis is likely to result in:
changes to the way the business works – that is, the business' processes
changes to the technology that the business uses, including both software and hardware.
Having found out about the business from conversations with staff, the analyst can now start identifying any problems with the way it works and looking at how the processes themselves could be improved.
They may start by modelling the business processes, drawing out the steps that each person takes so it is easier to spot duplicated or unnecessary activities.
They will be looking for:
any duplicated effort that can be consolidated
time-consuming activities that can be automated
wasted effort that can be removed from the process altogether.
The principles of Lean thinking are useful for identifying wasted effort in a process.
As an example of process improvement, we spent a single day talking to the staff of a ten-person consulting firm. Even in this small team, we identified time savings worth 343 days each year, which represented 15% of the business's available working time.
When the business needs new technology to achieve its objectives, the analyst will search for a suitable solution. This isn’t always needed, but we’ve found that most projects involving SMEs do result in changes to software.
If required, it's at this stage that the analyst can take what they know about the business and start looking for software or hardware that could solve the problems identified in the previous step.
The business analyst will:
consolidate the business's list of requirements – needs – perhaps as a formal document or as a simple matrix-style spreadsheet
start searching for software or hardware that would meet those needs
filter the available options to exclude those that are clearly not suitable for the business
investigate the remaining shortlist, trialling each product to ensure it meets the business's needs
research the supplier to ensure it will fulfil the business requirements too.
One example of this process is our work for a small not-for-profit organisation in Oxford. Through talking to its staff, we identified that, like many businesses, it needed to:
consolidate the information it held about its consulting staff, their experience and skills
be able to schedule its resources
monitor time spent on client-based projects
invoice for each project accurately.
It also needed to keep better records of the client projects that it had completed so that it could use this to build credibility for future work.
We researched potential solutions and found that a type of software known as professional services automation (PSA) software, would meet these requirements. PSA software is used by professional firms — including architects and surveyors — to schedule their fee-earning workers, record billable time and invoice clients for time spent.
We initially identified 156 different products that could potentially help the firm. Through a process of elimination, researching and trialling many of these, we whittled the list down to just three systems that we were able to present to them, confident that they would benefit the business.
This brings us to the penultimate stage: making a decision.
It's the business analyst's role, you'll recall, to recommend solutions. The final decision about which to choose will always rest with the business's leaders, managers or owners. However, the business analyst can provide information and support to help them make the right decision.
For example, we worked with a small warehousing firm in the South East of England. It had been looking for a new system to manage its workers and vehicles for some time. The team were not confident in choosing the right one because of the complexity of integrating new ways of working, new hardware devices, and new software. Like many businesses, it had been stung by a previous experience.
We went through our process with the business's leaders and finally presented them with ten options. We discussed the pros and cons of each, shared our research and calculated the potential return on investment for the different options.
With the information our analysts had provided, the business was confident enough to make a decision in just one meeting.
Of course, all this analysis is useless unless the chosen recommendation is properly implemented.
Whether this is a change of process, new software or any other measure, the business analyst's job doesn't have to end here. With the detailed knowledge of the business they have built up during the information gathering stage, they can provide practical support for the changes.
Business analysts are often asked to:
prepare documentation and training manuals
interpret the business's requirements for technical suppliers
create forms and checklists for any new processes
provide training on the new process or system
project-manage the implementation; although strictly speaking this is a skill set of its own
test the implemented system to make sure it meets the original needs identified.
We've often taken on this role for businesses from property managers to solicitors.
It is critical that any operational problems or inefficiencies in SMEs are dealt with quickly because without exaggeration these can make the difference between thriving and failing. But SMEs often lack the resources to resolve such problems quickly.
An independent business analyst can support SMEs by pinpointing where the business needs to change, identifying how it needs to change, and then supporting it to make those changes for the better.