Best of BATimes: Business Analyst Role in COTS Projects
Many tech companies offer commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) products.
Such products allow to meet their clients’ business needs relatively fast, comparing to the development of the new IT solutions from scratch. However, a COTS product for a complex solution such as ERP, CRM, laboratory or hospital information systems requires considerable time and effort to be invested into the configuration. Hence organizations usually involve a separate implementation team of professionals familiar with the COTS product to adapt it for the company’s needs.
COTS vendors normally provide the implementation service to their clients. This can vary from company to company, but oftentimes it includes discovery phase, configuration or customization of the system according to the business needs, user training and making sure the project goes live.
This article describes the BA role in the implementation of the COTS projects and cooperation between a COTS product team and BA from an implementation team.
BA in Implementation Project
One might say that COTS projects do not require business analysis since there seem to be no significant development activities. However, COTS projects could vary from completely out-of-the-box to complex solutions with lots of configuration and additional customization (codding) involved. In the latter case we can and shall involve the standard business analysis activities:
- Plan your business analysis work. Ask yourself what is your business analysis approach (adaptive vs predictive)? Who are your stakeholders? Do you have a requirements governance process in place?
- Requirements elicitation and analysis. This covers discovering the current and desirable states, conducting workshops and interviews, document analysis, etc. Don’t forget to elicit and document any gaps if a COTS solution is not capable to meet some of the business needs.
- Requirements modeling. COTS projects normally do not require the complete functional specification since the solution is predefined already. However, there are many other requirement views which can be useful for the configuration project. We will discuss that in the section that follows.
- Solution evaluation. Define your KPI and measure if they improved compared to the legacy solution.
- Configuration. System configuration is normally out of business analysis scope, but some companies tend to involve business analysts in such activities. In any case, the BA should know how the system works and understand the solution limitations.
As mentioned before, it might not be required to document all the functional requirements for the already predefined solution like COTS product. However, not documenting requirements at all could result in certain drawbacks:
- Apparently, external stakeholders, like end users, and internal stakeholders, like testing or support teams, will need at least some documentation that describes how the system behaves.
- Without modeled requirements, there is no way to validate the requirements before they are actually implemented and the system is demoed for users. What if you only validate your assumptions by demoing already configured piece of functionality? That is right, you will most likely need to reconfigure the system again once you receive the feedback, and then again and again. Nevertheless, you still can present out-of-the-box functionality which doesn’t require any configuration efforts and use it as a starting point to collect the initial feedback from your users.
- The change management process can suffer. Imagine that you documented the requirements for the billing module in the bunch of meeting notes, and now 4 weeks after the requirements were implemented the clients insists that some of the billing transactions are not calculated correctly. Would it be easier to refer to the SRS part where all business rules are documented, or try to find the relevant emails?
To address the above issues, the BA can use a variety of the business analysis techniques which will be applicable for the project and audience. For example:
- Roles and Permission Matrix: most of the COTS solutions allow roles configuration and assigning permissions. Start with defining and documenting user roles and their permissions. The organization chart can come in handy to define the roles.
- Process Modeling: you can elicit and model the current processes using either the standard notations such as BPMN, UML or come up with a simple drawing which doesn’t follow any notation standard but clear for the audience. The next step will be to review the models with stakeholders, define if anything should be changed in the process and update the model. Once done, you can supplement the model with the additional requirements view, e.g. use cases.
- Gap Analysis: as the BA on the implementation project you need to identify the areas in your client’s business which are not covered by the COTS package and address it to the product team. Bear in mind that it is always a good idea to think about the potential workarounds you can offer to the client, before escalating the gap to the product team. That way the client can access the desired functionality earlier, the product backlog will not be overloaded and there will be no need to overengineer the product with the functionality potentially used by only 1 client. So at first always assess if it is possible to configure the system in an alternative way or if the client can agree to do certain steps manually.
- User Stories: this is a simple and popular way of specifying the requirements, especially if you follow the agile approach and need to deploy the COTS solution incrementally. It is also quite convenient to prioritize the requirements using the user story form.
- Use Case and Scenarios: you can document each separate business flow in the use case. Use cases can easily be converted into the test scripts and serve for validation purposes.
- Business Rules Analysis: it is always a good idea to elicit and document business rules. Make sure you have a process in place to update business rules due to external or internal changes.
- Interface Analysis: your COTS product will most likely not be used as a standalone solution and will communicate with other components. Define and document interfaces specific to your client.
- Data requirements: usually a COTS solution replaces an outdated legacy solution and you need to take care of the historical data. And it is better to define data requirements upfront before you realize you cannot import 256 characters long text into the address column for one of the top customer’s client. Ask yourself the following questions: do you need to import the historical data into your brand new COTS solution? will the legacy data fit the new system? how will you handle the cases when the data doesn’t fit the new COTS product?
Provide Feedback to your Product Team
A good way to improve the product is to listen to your user’s feedback. And when it comes to COTS project who is the best candidate to elicit, analyze and document all the client’s concerns and frustrations? Yes, you’ve got it right! It is the implementation BA or anyone else who fulfills this role in an organization. And thus the BA is the one who should establish a process to communicate all business concerns and client gaps to COTS product team.
For example, the BA can create a separate Wiki page per a client where they can list all gaps discovered during the project and communicate them to the product team. The product team can then collect the feedback from all clients, prioritize the gaps for the future releases and share the roadmap with the implementation team.
COTS implementation projects can be a challenge for the BA as they differ from the traditional IT development projects. However, with the right attitude and a bit of creative thinking, we can adopt the BA techniques and establish the process which will bring value to the implementation projects and help improve the COTS product.