What the pandemic can teach Business Analysts

Not an on-line experience
Less close please

I recently managed to score a meeting with the Dean of Business at one of the GR8 Universities in Australia. Given the pandemonium in the University sector (think: no international students, the move to online education, the Government rework of University Course charges and lecturers can’t take their overseas junkets), I was grateful to get the time. Our conversation covered many topics to do with the future of work, but it was an off-hand comment that peaked my interest.

The Dean mentioned the remarkable job done by the University to pivot to on-line learning as large gatherings were prevented by the Covid-19 pandemic. The speed of transformation was breathtaking (a matter of weeks) and it was well supported by all academic and administrative staff. He commented that if the change had been driven as a regular University project it would have cost millions of dollars and taken 3 to 5 years.

I asked him what the key driver of this successful change was. Evidently the remote learning technology is reasonably mature and most staff had some familiarity with the on-line experience. This was not the main thing. “The one thing that made this happen was that everyone absolutely understood the need for change” the Dean stated.

This set me thinking, what can this teach us about business change in general? In this case many hundreds of man-hours of project manager, business analyst, change manager and tester’s time was not needed. Are we fundamentally flawed in our project approach? Is the money spent on these roles wasted, based on a mistaken belief that the only way to implement technology driven business change is through a well-resourced project team?

For me, the answer is yes and yes. Organisations can effect rapid business change effectively if stakeholders fully believe in the change rationale. In circumstances where the driver is less dramatic than a pandemic, we should be investing more effort in the “why” of change. In practice this means more upfront investment in clarifying strategic drivers and building excellent, believable business cases.

The second “yes” is that the project environment is not well suited to technology driven business change. The move to agile over recent years has certainly been an improvement, but ultimately the change capability must be built into the operating departments of every organisation. For technology driven change we need to move away from project managers to product owners and re-empower the people managers who have responsibility for business success.

It’s a hackneyed term “never let a good crisis go to waste”, but in this case we need some introspection and to ask the question – Are we really doing a good job with business change, or is it just fattening our wallets and keeping us employed?

How do we benefit from technology? Wrong question!

Bandah Acheh 2005
Destroyed by a tsunami

We all know “it” is coming, although we really don’t understand exactly what “it” is. It has something to do with new ways of working, new business models, changing customer habits and connectedness. For certain it is all driven by changing technologies and information technology is at its heart. Businesses want to be on the wave and are asking how to achieve this. I think it would be more useful to frame the question the other way:

How do we stop technology from destroying the value in our business? I have three easy steps:

1. Be excellent at running technology within your business. There are a host of best practices for IT out there, and while there are differences in approach at the edges, they basically agree about the major concepts. The business leaders must mandate a level of maturity to these business practices.

The key areas that should be in place are: Quality & improvement (e.g. ISO9000, Six Sigma, Continuous Service Improvement); Corporate governance of IT (e.g. ISO38500, ValIT); Service management (e.g. ITIL, ISO20000 or my new favourite Cobit5); Execution methods (e.g. BABOK, PMBOK, Prince2, CMMI); and architecture (e.g. TOGAF, FEAF or Zachman).

2. Make technology a core component of strategic planning. You should be rewriting your business strategy with some urgency if it does not have technology as an important component (yes this applies to every business). The market analysis that informs the strategy should include a technology evaluation (use your CTO if you have one).

Once you have current state, transition state and target state identified, you need to model the organization. This is called enterprise architecture and will identify what needs to change (people, technology, processes) as you progress. With this you can estimate costs and create a business case around the strategy.

3. Drive accountability. You now have a strategy, an investment plan and expected benefits (increased profit, more loyal customers, better compliance etc). Make key staff accountable for delivery on time, on budget with all benefits realized. Be particularly careful to manage scope and do only those things that truly drive the benefits.

The above is not the complete recipe for success – you still have to get the right strategy, but it is likely to eliminate a key cause of failure. Unfortunately I do not see many businesses doing this.

This year in the UK alone we have seen retailers Jessops, HMV, Blockbuster and Republic go into administration. There has been a huge destruction of wealth that should be sheeted back to their boards. I very much doubt that any of these chains were following the principles above.

Are you thinking about how you prevent technology changes from destroying your business?