Most business analysts will never interview a CEO and many don’t understand how a company’s real objectives cascade down to the little bit of requirements they’re doing for a particular system. How does my system fit into the company’s business strategy? What is my role in the big picture?
To understand this we need to start at the beginning – or rather at the top. Everyone knows a company’s objective is to make money (if we’re a commercial organisation) or to provide services to the community if we’re in the public sector. This is what we do, but to appreciate our role as business analysts we need to understand the link between what our organisation does and how it’s achieved – and how the little things we do fit into the big picture.
Do mission statements clarify or confuse?
We’ll start with mission statements as many people think they describe what an organisation does. Others assume it describes how the organisation operates, while some believe it describes the organisation’s values. In fact a mission statement can be all of these. Look at the following examples:
- Put the needs and well-being of the people we serve first.
- To help people and businesses throughout the world realize their full potential.
- Deliver sustainable, satisfactory returns to shareholders.
- To inspire & nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup & one neighbourhood at a time.
- Assisting people to become self-sufficient and supporting those in need.
Five mission statements, one is telling us what the objectives are (to make a profit), others are telling us how they plan to achieve their objectives, and some are telling us the corporate values they adhere to whilst pursuing their objectives. These examples come from a mix of private and public organisations. Which do you think is which? i It’s easy to see how any of these could confuse us as to the organisation’s primary objective. The harsh reality is that commercial organisations are here to make a profit – no ifs, buts or maybes. They can still do this ethically and morally but if they don’t make a profit, they’re history. Being clear on objectives, both at the corporate and project level, is critical for a business analyst and we’ll revisit this issue once we’ve had a look at how organisations go about doing what they do.
Organisations only do two things
So how do organisations go about doing what they do? We can explain this by understanding that every organisation (private and public) has both an operational side and a project side. Operations is the “business as usual” component, supplying goods and services to consumers, businesses or the community.
Of greater interest to the business analysts, in fact our raison d’être – our reason for being – is that no organisation stands still, they are all moving some part of their operations from an “as-is” to a “to-be” state – from a current to a future state. In some organisations this movement might appear glacial, in others frenetic, but every executive knows that if you stand still then you end up going backwards. The competition will overtake you (commercial sector) or the efficiency of your operations will fall behind best practices, cost more and become the subject of inquiries and audits.
Projects change organisations
To move from where you are today to where you want to be tomorrow requires a project – a planned activity to achieve specific objectives. The vast majority (if not all) projects occur in order to achieve one of the following objectives:
- Meet legislative, compliance, governance or safety obligations
- Lower costs
- Increase revenue and/or profits and/or market share
- Increase efficiency
- Improve quality
Note that projects which improve, say, customer service or increase customer satisfaction are not objectives in themselves, they are a means to an end (point 3 above). In the same vein, projects which lead to a competitive advantage or address a competitive disadvantage are only undertaken in order to address the third point.
To look at similar examples in the public sector, providing a self-service portal on a government website can be a mixture of point 1 (enacting government policy) and point 2 (getting best value out of tax payers’ dollars).
How projects work
The vast majority of business analysts work on IT related projects where the development or procurement of software is a central component. In the same way that most projects fall into one of the five categories mentioned above so most software intensive projects are delivered using just a few methodologies.
A 2010 global survey of business analysts conducted by International Institute of Business Analysts (IIBA®)/Forrester Group ii reported that the three main methodologies in use were:
- Waterfall (34%)
- Iterative (9%)
- Agile (9%)
More importantly though, 45% used a mixture of some or all of these. This might not sit well with proponents of one methodology over another but it tells us that the best tool for the job is the one that gives the best outcome – not the one that’s flavour of the month. So does a business analyst need a split personality depending on the type of project? Do they need different skill sets from one project to another? Definitely not, if they keep in mind what the objectives of the project are.
Why business analysis skills are timeless
All projects exist to achieve an outcome, regardless of the development (SDLC) methodology. Every project will have scope, boundaries, sponsors, constraints……and requirements. Some of these will (hopefully) be nailed down e.g. the sponsor. Some may be fluid and evolve over time e.g. the requirements. But all of them will need somebody (the business analyst) to conduct interviews, facilitate workshops, investigate problems and objectives, validate and verify information. The analyst will have to make sense of this and make sure that the developers – the solution providers – understand it.
There’s a good reason why books like the Business Analysis Body of Knowledge (BABOK®) – and the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK®) before it – have become the definitive reference guides for their profession. It’s because the techniques and skills they describe can be used on a vast range of different projects.
Just look at some of the underlying competencies listed in the BABOK® – analytical thinking, problem solving, communications and interaction skills, business knowledge. Can you think of a project methodology – or business problem – where these sorts of skills aren’t essential?
Of course the techniques you use will vary from project to project. For example you won’t need to conduct a formal interview when you’re co-located with the business user (on an agile project). But you will still need to ask the right questions to understand their business problems.
Being objective about objectives
All projects ultimately boil down to two business objectives:
- Making a profit
- Reducing costs
In fact for commercial organisations it boils down to one – making a profit. The other objective – reducing costs – is just another way of increasing profits.
For government organisations the focus is on minimising costs whilst meeting legislated obligations. At least that’s the assumption – we hope they’re not out to make a profit!
As a business analyst we would be overstepping the mark to criticise a project sponsor over their business objectives. However we still need to understand where the project we’re working on fits in the big picture. Quite often the business analyst will be involved in writing the project objectives and this is our opportunity to question – perhaps challenge – any and all assumptions that have been made about the project’s business benefits.
We can start by revisiting organisational objectives – make or increase profits, reduce costs, provide legislated services – and see how they map down into project objectives.
For every organisation, 99% of the projects they undertake will fit one of these business objectives. For any project we might be working on, one of these objectives should feature prominently in the project charter or terms of reference document. That’s our clue that the project is aligned with organisational objectives.
What’s going on in the marketplace?
For those business analysts working in a commercial organisation it’s also necessary to understand where your company sits in relation to its competitors. Is it:
- A market leader wanting to maximise market share
- A market leader wanting to maximise profits
- Operating in a mature market where customer service is the differentiator
- Operating in a mature market where lowest costs are the differentiator
- Expanding into new markets
- Trailing the competition and planning to catch up
- Trailing the competition with no real strategy!
It’s sometimes hard to appreciate these factors from within – isn’t it part of every manager’s job to motivate and inspire their staff? – but keeping an eye on the financial press, particularly industry reports, will give you another perspective on how the health of your company is viewed.
Making a profit vs. increasing profits
A final word on profits. For some organisations it’s not enough just to make money, they also need to increase profits. This may be driven by poor performance in the past or just a desire by shareholders to make more profit this year than they did last year. Put simply, profits are made by selling more than you spend. However to increase profits you need to sell more than you’re currently selling or spend less than you’re currently spending.
The second point is often easier to achieve but you can only cut costs by so much. At some point you have to sell more if you’re going to increase your profits. Whilst this is harder to achieve it’s the only path to sustainable growth – and the increased sales have to be matched by increased profits. Selling more – increasing revenues – by only reducing prices isn’t sustainable in the long term. It might look good on paper but to quote a well used saying: “Revenue is vanity, profit is sanity”
Private vs. public sector – not so different
This paper has used many examples from the commercial world to illustrate its argument. To those readers from the public sector who’ve made it this far, I apologise. Your job is no easier just because you don’t have to make a profit. You are still accountable to your senior executives and they in turn to politicians and the wider community. The community expects an ever increasing range of services – but delivered at an effective price.
So, in the end, there are many parallels between the public and private sector. You still have to give the community (customers) what they want or what elected governments (or visionary companies) believe they need.
Understanding the CEO
By now you should have a reasonably clear picture of what goes on in your CEO’s mind. Sure they have to provide vision and leadership – to set strategy and objectives. But like every manager they also have to manage upwards as well as downwards. Above the CEO is the board of directors who, in turn, are accountable to the shareholders. These shareholders expect a profit from their investment and this is what the CEO is hired to deliver. Vision, leadership, strategy and mission statements are how the CEO achieves this.
Download the full paper here: From Mission Statement to Business Process
If you enjoyed this paper, you may also like: