Tuesday, 22 September 2009 00:00

Top Five Reasons BAs Need a Central Hub of Product Intelligence

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In the world of product development, and specifically requirements management, you hear a lot about building a "central repository of requirements" or a "single system of record". But, why does that matter? What problem does that solve? What's the real value in creating a central hub of product intelligence?

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First, let's define central hub of product intelligence. What are we really talking about? Naturally, we think of the data (aka. artifacts or items) - the ideas, feature requests, requirements, design specifications, analysis documents and reports, release plans, defects, etc. - all the data that explains the scope of the product the team is building. The difference in why we use the word intelligence instead of data is that product intelligence expands beyond the artifacts. It also includes two other important related categories of information that support the social nature of the product development process.

Conversations. There is an ongoing dialogue throughout the product development lifecycle. Customers provide feedback. Analysts capture insights. Teams discuss requirements. Managers communicate decisions. Organizations make commitments. By including the conversations in context to the requirements and other data, your team will have the complete story of what customers need and understand the discussion as to how your team arrived at the requirements you have. The context is huge. Without context, you have higher risk of misinterpretation and defects later on.

Relationships. Often referred to as traceability (the upstream and downstream relationships between requirements and other items), the links between the data and the people who own the data are important for understanding all the dependencies, and creating a dynamic environment where you can intelligently manage and communicate changes when they occur. As a practical example, for developers working on detailed functional requirements, having the visibility to look upstream to the high-level business requirements and original feedback from the customer is huge in providing full context to what they're on the hook to build.

Why This Matters

There are many reasons, but let's look at these top five.

  1. Information silos kill productivity - 42% of employees accidentally use the wrong information at least once a week.
  2. Employees and information are fluid - they flow in and out of teams and projects constantly - what info gets lost in transition?
  3. Employees spend 25% of their time just looking for information.
  4. Employees waste 20 minutes or more each day recreating information that already exists.
  5. The total information we're inundated with grows 66% every year, so this problem will only get bigger over time.

Unproductive Stat of the Day. "It's estimated that employees at U.S. companies waste over 5 billion unproductive hours annually just looking for information."
- Searching Kills Employee Productivity Blog

It's such a simple concept - capture all the relevant product intelligence in one place. Wow, that's a breakthrough idea, right? The reality is that it's difficult to eliminate this problem completely; it affects every organization on some level. We've worked at start-ups with 10 people in the same office and Fortune 100 companies with 75,000+ employees worldwide, and it exists at both. The question isn't whether it's an issue in your company. The more important question is, "What's the full impact it's having on your team and their productivity, and could a better solution make a significant difference?"

Solutions range from using back of the napkin/whiteboard to Word/Excel documents to Wikis to specialized requirements management software. You may use them all; we do. The solutions you choose will depend on your organization and the complexity of the products that you're building. One of the decision criteria to use to gauge whether you need specialized software is to determine what degree your team suffers from the Silo Effect. Borrowing from the infamous Cosmopolitan quiz style, use the list of questions below to determine whether your team is at risk.

Take the Silo Effect Quiz

[Yes] [No] - Do you have duplicated sources of data and multiple versions of requirements spreading across your organization like the Swine flu?

[Yes] [No] - Do you have departments that are disconnected and unaware of what the other is doing? Is the right hand talking to the left hand? Be honest!

[Yes] [No] - Do you operate in an industry with compliance standards, where detailed version history and specific requirements documentation are required for approvals?

[Yes] [No] - Do you spend more than 20% of your time hunting around for the latest product information and requirements specs?

[Yes] [No] - Is visibility into the product development process limited for stakeholders? Hint: if you've heard or use the term "black box" in a meeting recently, then mark "yes".

[Yes] [No] - Do you have communication gaps or blind spots related to customer commitments, feature request or other insights into what your customers need?

[Yes] [No] - Do you have frequent transitions of staff in and out of product teams?

[Yes] [No] - Do your business analysts match the 27 points of compatibility with your engineers? Sorry, ignore this one. We got carried away by the style of these quizzes.

In all seriousness, if you answer "yes" to two or more of the first seven questions above, then it's probably time to evaluate other options to help you eliminate the silos and bring it all together into a central hub that's accessible, searchable and reportable.

Productivity Gains from Eliminating the Silo Effect

  • Save time and money that's wasted searching for information
  • Reduce costly guesswork, rework and related defects
  • Eliminate redundant research and duplicate projects
  • Shorten ramp-up time of new employees to the team
  • Give complete context to the goals and scope to everyone involved
  • Improve the mental well-being and sanity of business analysts (it's not all about your company. You deserve something out of this too, right?)

Keep in mind, that having a central hub of product intelligence isn't the end-all-be-all solution for fueling innovation. It's just one capability in a list of many that are required to successfully plan and build products that work. If you have a broken development process, a central hub won't solve that. If your team doesn't have the right skill sets, it won't fix that either. However, what we've found over the years is that of the myriad of challenges we face managing product development, bringing all the relevant product intelligence together in a central hub is one of the immediate and practical steps an organization can achieve right away to speed productivity, reduce costs and improve quality.

Moment of Zen: Sometimes the first step is the most valuable one to take!

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John Simpson is director of customer outreach and marketing at Jama Software. John represents the voice of the customer in Jama's product strategy and communications. He has over 12 years experience working at software technology companies including Microsoft, WebTrends and Omniture. In his spare time, he chases his three kids around and raises awareness for cancer research in his local community, Portland, OR. You can reach John at http://www.jamasoftware.com or follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/jamasoftware

John Simpson, Jama Software: jsimpson@jamasoftware.com

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