Monday, 08 February 2010 23:00

Disassembling Your Cube

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Most of us in Information Technology have seen the movie OfficeSpace. It's funny because we can relate to the situations that the main character, Peter, faced. I'm sure that many of us have experienced a "Did you get the memo?" situation but I question how many of us business analysts have disassembled our cube wall? In one scene, Peter disassembles his cube wall to connect with the outside world, and I'm suggesting that as BAs, we do the same thing. Now before you all take out your cordless drills and start physically disassembling your cubes, I'm speaking metaphorically. We need to break down the walls around us and understand the business that is looking for solutions.

Break Down the Wall

Many of us who practice business analysis sit within and report up through the IT environment. We may even have a title indicative of that such as Business Systems Analyst. But just because we are in IT, we need to stop constraining ourselves with IT thinking and understand what it is that our business does and how their processes work. In this age of telecommuting, multi-tasking, conference calls, and webinars, when was the last time that you actually sat with a business person as they performed their job to truly understand what it was that they did, and why they did it that way? Get out of that cube, get into the business, and learn what your business does. Better yet - see if you can learn how to do it and you try and do the work. This may be more challenging than you think; we often think that someone else's job is simpler than our own. For instance, you may be studying an easier way for a business user to produce a certain report. When you perform the steps that they tell you, you might get completely frustrated switching between three to four different computer systems, writing down information from one to enter into another, etc. By doing so, you experience the same frustrations that they do, and you will quickly start to think of a better way to do it. While not everyone can perform the work that they are analyzing (say, a BA designing flight controls systems for a military jet doesn't get to fly the jet - but boy, wouldn't that be fun!), if you are able to do the work it gives you great insight to the troubles that operators face daily. You start to see the world outside your cube, looking in at IT.

Looking at your profession from the outside is not easy. Be prepared to see things that you do not like, such as disjointed ways for users to interact with the software that your organization puts out. One example; most of us probably use Microsoft Office. This office suite of tools tries to standardize commands as much as possible between Word, Excel, and Powerpoint. Pressing CTRL+F in Word (or COMMAND+F for us Mac users) initiates a search, same as the other Office products. Now consider all the other applications that you use. Is CTRL+F the same in all? I can name a text editor that uses F3 as the search, another program that has no hot key for a search and in which I have to click a button. And that's just off the top of my head. Does your organization roll-out different applications from different product portfolios that have the design of Office's parallel commands? Do your accounting applications search in the same way that MS Office does? How about your other applications? By getting outside of your cube and looking in from the outside, you will increase your familiarity with the area that you support. The end result is that you will be able to see a lot more of the world by getting out into it than just looking at it from within your cube.

Don't Just Accept the Solution

By getting into the outside world, you start to see how the business operates and can start seeing solutions that you didn't previously know existed. Users may not tell you everything because they are smart and figure out ways to get things done either inside or outside the system (or problem area). What they may see within their span of control as a solution may be completely valid. Based on everything they know, they are requesting a change in the process, but what they are really doing is proposing a solution. It's your job to get out into the business to uncover the problem instead of just accepting their solution.

Consider this; you, as a BA, have a request from the business to create an Excel-based report from Application A. In your cube, you do your job as a BA and ask what the business need is for this new style of the report. The answer is that the business needs to input this report into an Excel spreadsheet and they cannot do this with the current MS Word-based report. Requirement captured, right? Almost! If you had been outside your cube and in the business, you would have seen users outputting the Word report from Application A and manually entering the data from the report into an Excel spreadsheet in Application B. If your requirement was to create the Excel report, it would have made the key-entry situation easier, but you still have a manual process in place (export from one system and input to another). By getting out of your cube and into the business, you would have seen that the real problem was that the business's process required getting data from Application A to Application B, and it was not the report format. Merely accepting the requirement at face value may have saved the business a little time, but in the long run, understanding the business problem by seeing it in action would have resulted in saving a lot more time, and would have been a better solution.

Partner with the Business

Because we are so comfortable in our cubes, we tend to stay there. Yeah, we do have nice chairs but we can't sit in them all the time. We have to get out into the business areas that we support and get them to trust us. Trust us to the point that they know that we really are there to help; to help uncover ways to improve their processes, and to help make their lives easier.

If you can show the business people that you are not just there to "take their order" as I'm fond of saying (like a waiter/waitress at a restaurant), they will become your trusted partner. But, you have to show them that you can bring something to the table. To do this will require that you understand their problems and bring a solution that shows you understand. If all you do is write down what they request, you provide no additional value. They received what they asked for, and they will wonder why you are even involved in the process in the first place.

Consider the difference from their viewpoint; they may be asking for that new report, but you find a better way to fix their business problem and make their jobs more efficient. Now they will see you as the change agent and the person who understands the problems that they face. They will start to contact you instead of their normal channels because they have seen that you were the one who sought to understand their problem and that you solved it. Instead of just the solution that you delivered on the first project, they may well start to contact you and suggest other fixes that you could make. The business has seen that you, as the BA, are the one that solved the problem on the original project, so now you are a trusted partner. While not all of the changes that they suggest will be something that you can make (or even have the budget for), they are problem areas that the business experiences day in and day out. They can be logged as future projects, or if in an agile development world, onto the project backlog.

So go ahead and break down those walls around you, and not by disassembling your cube. And while I welcome e-mails, I don't want to see any in my inbox from your management saying that I told you to take apart your cubes. Remember, I was speaking metaphorically.

Don't forget to leave your comments below


Paul Mulvey is a Lead Business Systems Analyst at UPS. He has just completed creation of a BA Certification program within UPS and is sitting for the CBAP exam in March. He can be reached at paulmulvey@mac.com.

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Comments  

0 # Kupe Kupersmith 2010-02-09 04:54
Thanks for the article paul. It reminded me of a great Pink Floyd album (yes I still say album, back off!) This topic hits on the importance for BAs to partner with the business. Thanks again.
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0 # Annie McGlade 2010-02-09 05:00
So very true and for most actually quite hard. I think deep down everyone want to be a solution designer and it is often very difficult to see past that, particularly when you are dealing with change requests within a specific system. I mean if a client has requested an enhancement to your software, then the solution is evident in most case isn't it? It is very hard to step back and understand why the client wants a field on this screen or an additional validation and communicate those stakeholder requirements in business terms. It is however extremely worthwhile. Sometimes what they originally asked for is what they get but going through that analysis process and understanding their actual business problem will enable everyone to be confident that it is the right solution.
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0 # A Kaseno 2010-02-09 05:12
Solutions are "fun" -- business partners like solutions, they feel like something concrete is being done, technical folks are in thier profession because they like to solve the problem. Defining the problem and stating the needs is hard and very few people find this part of the process any fun at all. It is therefore very difficult to keep focus on defining those needs and goals because everyone wants to rush off to the solutions. But when the solutions the technical folks deliver do not meet the solutions that the customer envisioned -- it gets ugly. So the BA has to be the "bad guy" and continually reel everyone back to focus on the vision, the scope and the requirements. Get out your black hat!
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0 # Srikant Patro 2010-02-09 14:51
Hey Paul, good article....
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0 # Paul Mulvey 2010-02-09 23:30
@Kupe - I'm 42, so I am familiar with the term album. And check the inside cover of that album, too - you may be surprised that Toni Tenille sang background vocals @Anniem ac - sometimes the best solution may be to include manual processes. Consider a $50k/year administrative assistant keying-in information instead of building a $500k automated solution. Sometimes we go too quickly down the automation path instead of looking at the most cost-effective path. @Onessa - true, true. How many times has the "bad news" always wound up back with the BA? I don't think that I have enough fingers and toes to count all of those!
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