Of all the tools and techniques available to a business analyst, two tools and one technique are essential. One tool defines the question that drives analysis, one technique balances off the three forces that drive the selection of all the other tools, and the final tool ensures that the BA’s conclusions are communicated effectively.
Business analysts have a wide variety of tools to help understand and describe the problems their organizations face and, then, to deliver a solution (Learning Tree even has a course covering the members of a basic modeling toolkit). Having said that, one of the first tools developed for business analysis remains essential for analysts because it defines the question that drives the business case. After using that tool to pick the question, the analyst has to balance off the three forces that drive the selection of the tools used in the business case to answer that question. In the end, though, none of the BA’s work matters if it can’t be communicated…and there’s another tool that ensures that communication is effective.
The IIBA’s BABOK defines the business case as the tool that “justifies the investment required to deliver a proposed solution,” a tool which “assesses and evaluates the available options to solve the business issue.” However, creating the business case depends on what the BABOK calls the “problem statement” — on asking “the right question.” The problem statement drives every other action taken in developing the business case. The first tool that the BA needs, then, is the one that ensures you “ask the right question.”
The tool that does that is one that’s been around since the start of business analysis: the SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis. However, an effective SWOT analysis doesn’t just blindly list an organization’s strengths, weaknesses, etc. Instead, a useful SWOT analysis does two key things — it aligns:
Done right, a SWOT analysis leads to questions like “Which opportunities make sense for us?” and “Which threats pose the most risk for us?” These questions, in turn, lead to problem statements like “How should we pursue this opportunity?” or “How do we reduce our weakness in this area?” Or, even: “How can we turn this weakness into a strength?”.
A SWOT analysis ensures that you’re working on a problem that matters to your organization and, as a result, are asking the questions that matter to your organization.
For any problem statement and any organization, only some tools will be useful. For example, in a for-profit organization, some analysis that addresses profitably is going to be required for almost any activity. That, however, still leaves you with a number of tools to pick from (for example, should profitability be addressed through discounted cash flows or return on investment, just to mention two).
Picking the right model comes down to being familiar with a wide variety of tools and being clear about the three forces that control which one is “the right tool.” That’s a three step process:
The ability to identify the intersection between the analysis required by the problem statement, the output of a particular modeling tool, and the evidence that your stakeholders will find useful is a critical technique for business analysts. Without it, you’ll end up spending time working with a tool that doesn’t produce results that are valuable to your stakeholders — a waste of both your time and your organization’s resources.
The final part of the analysis process is effectively communicating your results. ‘Effective’ here doesn’t mean being concise or even being clear (though, obviously, those are good things to do). Here, ‘effective’ means “actually useful to your audience.” There’s no point in communicating anything unless your stakeholders believe that what you’re saying matters and that they can use your input to make a decision.
The tool you need here has three parts: Audience, Scenario, and Purpose (we discuss this tool in depth in Learning Tree’s technical writing course). The audience for your analysis is always your starting point. Frequently, BAs write what matters to them…but that’s probably not what matters to their stakeholders — the stakeholders are not, after all, business analysts. As with picking the right modeling tool, knowing what matters to your audience (your stakeholders) is the first step in deciding what you’re going to communicate and how you’re going to do it.
The second step in communicating is identifying how the information you convey will be used by your stakeholders: The stakeholders’ scenario. When stakeholders pick between competing proposals, what inputs are helpful to their decision making process? Do they want hard numbers around return on investment? Or do they want to know how this proposal supports the organization’s strategic intent? Only if you understand how your stakeholders will use your information can you provide them with information they’ll find useful (and provide it in a format that makes sense to them).
Finally, you need to understand your stakeholders’ purpose: Are they looking for growth? Or is stability during difficult times the critical success factor? Are stakeholders looking for a strategic solution that will determine the company’s long term future? Or do they need a tactical advantage to address an immediate problem? Determining your stakeholders’ purpose establishes, among other things, the scope of what you’ll communicate.
As a business analyst, these two tools (using SWOT analysis to define the right question, using Audience/Scenario/Purpose to communicate effectively) and this one technique (identifying the right tools that address the question in a way that’s meaningful for your stakeholders) are essential. These are tools and techniques that ensure the work you do actually makes a difference to your organization.
Author: Peter Vogel