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Business Analysts; The CEO’s Army

As the economy slowly recovers, businesses and governments continue to look at ways to maximize their organizational potential with the human capital they currently have. Over the years several management strategies have been presented to ensure consistent long-term performance (and outperformance). Methodologies such as Six-Sigma quantify results to identify opportunities for improvement and monitor subsequent performance. Others take a more qualitative approach and look to unleash the most important asset any organization has – its employees.

One management strategy that was formalized in the 1980s focuses on organizational improvement through ‘inverted strategic analysis’. Management by Wandering (or Walking) Around (MBWA) was introduced in Tom Peters’s book “In Search of Excellence“. Instead of coming up with ideas in the boardroom and communicating these initiatives to lower-level employees to implement, MBWA flipped this model upside down. Management (particularly the CEO) is encouraged to meet with as many personnel (particularly front-line staff) as possible to understand the current state of the organization, learn what is working and get suggestions for what can be improved and how.

Several companies over the past 30 years have followed this management style, including HP, GE, Pepsi, 3M and Wal-Mart. Recently Costco’s co-founder and CEO Jim Sinegal was designated as one of America’s Best Leaders in 2009 by US News & World Report magazine. For decades Jim has effused the MBWA ethos by “store hopping … about 200 days out of 365”. Former Procter and Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley also made it a priority to listen to employees and customers to ensure that strategy and operations at one of the largest corporations were aligned as much as possible.

These examples demonstrate that it makes sense for leaders to keep a pulse on their company by staying in contact with as many people within the organization as possible. However, the larger the company the harder and more impractical it is to spend a large amount of a leader’s time on such activities. How can a CEO get the knowledge needed to ensure they can devise appropriate and relevant strategy while at the same time receive feedback on whether the strategy can and is being executed effectively? I believe that business analysts can fill this gap by becoming the CEO’s “eyes and ears”

As a profession, business analysts have the qualities required to listen to a group of people and then communicate essential information elicited from this group to others. Whether it’s software requirements, product ideas, operational efficiency suggestions or customer feedback, business analysts have the skill set to gather, prioritize, manage, maintain and collaborate with stakeholders to meet the strategic goals of the organization. Most BAs experience this on a day-to-day level, typically between internal business units and the IT organization. But I believe that business analysts can leverage these skills to help the organization in a far greater capacity.

Some business analysts are already well-suited to play the role of the CEO’s sounding board. Those who are assigned to one or more business units typically become intimate with the people and processes that make up the sub-organization. Often these BAs will be privy to knowledge that otherwise has no outlet; whether it’s hearing about issues as to how a certain process operates, or hearing first or second hand feedback from customers about a product or service offered.

Business analysts need a channel to be able to relay this information throughout the organization and ensure that ideas can be systematically evaluated and executed in the appropriate context. Usually, BAs know how to handle this information and leverage it to improve the organization if it’s IT related, but there typically are not structures in place to handle suggestions that would impact other external units.

As business analysts, we often see or hear about opportunities before the decision makers in the organization know they even exist. In order to successfully capitalize on opportunities, decision makers need to have such information in their hands so they can decide whether to act on it. How can we get this information to them in a timely manner?

While each organization is different, here is a proposed framework for enabling business analysts to relay the pulse of the organization to upper management:

  • Have at least one business analyst assigned to work with each business unit on a regular basis. This will allow the BA to get a level of expertise in the business area and will provide staff within the unit with a go-to person to discuss requirements or suggestions for improvement. The number of analysts you need per area will vary greatly depending on the size and structure of the organization. You may only need one BA to cover several units or several BAs to cover one unit.
  • In addition to informal information gathering that will occur as part of a BA’s normal activities, hold formal sessions occasionally to generate new ideas. This does not have to be your typical brainstorming session, and the activity can be targeted to a specific group based on their skill set (although I recommend allowing everyone to do the same activities, as you never know who has a hidden talent in a certain area). For example, have new product contests that pit teams from different areas against each other. As West Paw Design found out, employees from any area can have a creative bent that will improve the company’s offering.
  • Come up with a process to evaluate the information you receive. First you need to classify the information – is it a business requirement, a process improvement suggestion, a product or service offering suggestion, etc.? Each type of information will need to be dealt with via its own process. For example, business requirements may need to be collected and a business case developed for meeting the identified needs, either through technology or process changes.
  • Ideas and suggestions may need to be channeled through some sort of review process. Depending on the size of the organization, it may not be feasible to have all suggestions placed in front of upper management. A vetting process is recommended, performed by individuals who will be held accountable for the decisions made (i.e. which suggestions are to be brought forward). I would recommend that business analysts are responsible for overseeing this process and can participate but are not the ones who make the decisions – this should be left to a group that upper management has confidence in with such matters. As part of the review process, I would look to have an absolute grading threshold rather than a ‘Best X ideas’ threshold. This is not meant to be a one-time event – some months you may get several great ideas while others you may get very few.
  • Have the originator of the whittled-down list of suggestions and ideas present their suggestions to upper management on a regular basis. I would recommend allocating a flexible amount of time based on the number of ideas that have passed the review process. BAs should be in the room to hear the feedback and thoughts of upper management, and to help make suggestions on how to implement the ideas, particularly if it requires effort from many different areas of the organization. BAs can also collect feedback from management to improve the overall process and to communicate decisions and results back to others in the organization.

If such ‘internal engagement’ concepts are foreign to your organization or your organization is not used to tackling opportunities across organizational boundaries, setting up a structure similar to the one above may take a great amount of effort. Here are some suggestions on how to get started on the road to a formal structure.

  • Learn how upper management sees their own roles and how they divide their time currently. Ask them what they’d like to see improved internally in the organization and what sort of things they would do if they had more time. With this information, look for ways to suggest having BAs do some of the ground work on their behalf.
  • Talk to front-line employees and ask if a) they feel they understand the higher level goals of the organization and b) if they feel their voices are heard higher up in the organization. Use straw/anonymous polls to have some concrete numbers to discuss underlying needs with upper management.
  • Leverage the PMO or BA Centre of Excellence within your organization to cultivate ground-level staff buy-in and build awareness for Management by Wandering Around principles. Look for case studies that have demonstrated how such techniques improve financial and operational performance within an organization such as yours.
  • Get BAs on board through the Centre of Excellence. If you don’t have one, start an informal community of interest and discuss ways for BAs to play a more prominent role in the organization.
  • Implement the technique without the structure – find a relatively small opportunity that you can execute on and take it all the way. For example, let’s say BAs are hearing about how everyone dislikes the vacation approval process. Talk to HR about the chance of improving the process by getting people from around the organization involved. Hold a lunch session where people can break up into teams to come up with a new process. Have HR managers review the ideas and pick a winner (with a small prize going to the winning team). They don’t necessarily have to implement the idea as-is, but follow up with them to see how feasible it is to implement a variant to improve the process. Once you have some informal successes, present your results to upper management.

CEOs have many people they need to work with in order to achieve the goals of the organization. They simply can’t be everywhere all the time. Business analysts can extend the reach of the CEO by being a two-way conduit for information that will impact the strategic direction and operational excellence of the organization. A strong, formal structure to perform these tasks will help everyone in the company know that they have a chance to play an important role in the direction of the organization, regardless of their job description.

Do you already have a framework like this set up in your company? If so, do BAs play a part in the process? If so, let me know in the comments section below.

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Jarett Hailes is a Business Consultant with Larimar Consulting Inc. He has worked with large and small organizations as a Business Analyst and Project Manager, and is also a Scrum Certified Product Owner and ScrumMaster.