Why I Love Being the Vendor

There are two sides to the business analysis community:  The internal business analyst and the external consulting companies or contractors … “Vendors”.  Being the internal BA just isn’t much fun sometimes and often, the internal policies and practices can work against your success.  Sometimes it’s the company itself that has created a requirements analysis gap and the individuals – however strong they might be – just can’t be successful.  Entrenched, hierarchical, corporate cultures will always work against the internal BA unless a company has made the leap to reset the value and position of BAs within this hierarchy.  In spite of all these challenges, I’ve also seen internal organizations transform themselves from being order-takers, to being considered highly valued business drivers.  So often the difference in mindset for those that succeed is they’ve started to think like vendors.

As a vendor, I get to dictate the process or our company does not do the engagement.  This is a strong position – we’ll only do engagements we know will be successful, or we (subtly) take a pass on working together.  Vendors work from a position of strength and build up our “referenceability.”  If I can say “we’ve done over 1,000 of these” and give specific examples, people generally listen when you tell them “this is the way it gets done if you want success.”  Sure, the vendor has to tune the process around the edges to improve the fit with existing internal processes and issues, but the essence of how the work will get done stays the same on every engagement.  By negotiating the process of requirements discovery up-front, by identifying precisely where additional costs might exist, or how to tune their process to meet their specific business objectives, a vendor walks into an engagement with a higher level of commitment to the process than you would see on most internal projects.  A good vendor pre-loads the deck for success by setting out process, roles, and the minimum involvement needed from stakeholders before they take the engagement.  A vendor’s project intake process is far more structured – even where we’re outsourcing and doing 20 large projects for the same client in a quarter.  A vendor can’t deviate from working this front-end because we know that eventually, if we don’t scrutinize it closely, we’re risking failure on an engagement.

Vendors have done their homework on the value they bring.  We also dedicate about 25% of our corporate resources to ensuring that people understand our value in communications and direct sales cost.  Since a decent vendor has done the research, they can prove to management what will happen in time and cost if their process is not followed.  For example, I can show someone hard data from live projects on the reductions in requirements change we bring, the timetable improvements we achieve, and how our process brings value to larger, more strategic projects.  Because a successful vendor has thought long and hard about what it does, they can be more concise and quantified about the value we intend to bring to a specific situation.  We also separate organizational value management (sales role) from value delivery (consulting function) to more deliberately manage client expectations and satisfaction.  For the vendor, high satisfaction is only achieved by a specific path, that starts with setting the right expectations on the value we bring, and ends with help people both see and showcase that they were successful in achieving their objectives.  The thinking is different: Internal analysts tend to focus on task achievement; good vendors think about value management.

A successful vendor’s delivery team has conviction.  Conviction is that deep-seated belief that a process is going to be successful IF an engagement is conducted a certain way.  You can have business analyst training until you are blue in the face, but unless there is the absolute belief that the new techniques will be successful, these techniques will not used.  Vendors make people document the success stories and show these to the new consultants.  At our organization, we make sure that people know that the process has worked over 1,000 times successfully, and we take the cost hit to put our new people on airplanes to observe an engagement done by an experienced team, so that they can success for themselves.  We also get them to co-pilot an engagement with a successful user of the methods before we ever let them go solo.  All this effort is part of building both competence and conviction.  At the end of the day, a vendor can only be successful if every person on the delivery team is able to do the methodology in EXACTLY the same way and get a consistent result.  In our world, there really isn’t a second chance – we do exceptionally well, or we get fired.  Analysts follow the process a vendor dictates not simply because they understand it, but because they absolutely believe that they will be more successful if they follow it.  The path to developing skills is fairly straightforward.  The path to getting consistent execution is much more complex and relies on first building conviction.

I like to relate success and momentum in general within organizations to a big, heavy, flywheel.  A big success gets the flywheel turning a little.  Get a bunch of successes… and the wheel turns a little faster.  The flywheel is an analogy for a cycle of positive change where small, incremental steps lead to momentous change.  If I go back 10 years, our company tended to do smaller engagements of one or two weeks and we really did not pursue large-scale engagements.  Today, it’s the inverse – our teams tend to be engaged on extremely large and complex projects, and the smaller one- or two- week engagements are a smaller proportion of our revenue.   Vendors must deliberately manage momentum.  With positive momentum, the strategic focus of the organization shifts over time.  An organization with no positive momentum offers basically the same value to the organization year-after-year.  A vendor can’t simply say “our strategy this year is to do more BA stuff”.  In the vendor world, clients can be a bit ruthless, so vendors must either show momentum and continuously strengthen the value proposition, or wane in importance as service providers.

A vendor as specialized as we are (we only do business requirements) lives or dies by how we scope and size an opportunity, and how we determine the optimal process, plan and strategy to recommend for a requirements engagement.  We simply cannot miss when doing estimation – ever.  In fact, in the last bunch of years, I can’t remember sliding over-budget on an assignment.  We have to closely manage the number of client days used on an assignment and commit in a statement of work that we are going to produce “X” deliverable in “Y” days.  Most analyst organizations really do not manage client expectations on the number of days required to do requirements.  In fact, a mere 25% of organizations we recently surveyed accurately estimated the amount of time needed from the stakeholders. The rest underestimated by an average of 192% (get the results from http://www.iag.biz/).   How do you expect to maintain stakeholder involvement over time if the team consistently overruns expectations by almost 200%?

Finally, vendors get access to all the neat toys.  It is perhaps one of the bi-products of working with so many clients that you see what is working and what’s not, but more importantly, a vendor has a deliberate R&D focus to continuously look at new methods or technologies and see what makes them tick.  It’s neat to get a freebie copy of the latest and greatest from a tools vendor like RavenFlow and fiddle with it on an engagement.  Having a substantial R&D budget for BA best practices and technologies development means the vendor is able to get ahead of changes in client demands and talk to them about how, for example, agile methods can be made to work well on very large scale engagements.  Having an R&D sandbox in which to play with new technologies and methods may be fun, but candidly, it’s the only way to determine the practical application of these technologies and methods, and help the organization develop the value it brings to clients.  In fact, internal business analysts and vendor organizations both have access to the toys, the question is, is there a managed process to turn that access into value?

Are these lessons from the vendors well implemented in internal business analyst organizations?  Take a little test:

  • Do your BAs take enough time negotiating the process of requirements discovery – especially on strategic projects – to ensure success? 
  • How good is your organization at selling your process internally?  Do you measure or manage the value delivered to the organization?
  • Do you have consistently high quality requirements from all BAs?  Do your people have conviction that they’ll be successful if they follow your internal process?
  • Do you have strong momentum?  Consistently enhancing value brought to the organization – and an expanding budget/mandate?
  • Can you accurately forecast (+/-10%) the number of days needed for conducting business analysis and in creating business requirements?
  • Do you have a practical, managed process for BA process and technology R&D? 

If any of the answers are “No”, ask yourself, “why not.”  Why not force your BAs to do better elicitation planning, or publish your success stories, or benchmark your team against best of breed performance to showcase their strength?  Maybe you already have strong momentum.  But, maybe, you’re looking for ways to build that momentum and acting more like an external vendor is the path to help get you there.


Keith Ellis is the Vice President, Marketing at IAG Consulting (http://www.iag.biz/) where he leads the marketing and strategic alliances efforts of this global leader in business requirements discovery and management. Keith is a veteran of the technology services business and founder of the business analysis company Digital Mosaic which was sold to IAG in 2007.  Keith’s former lives have included leading the consulting and services research efforts of the technology trend watcher International Data Corporation in Canada, and the market strategy of the global outsourcer CGI in the financial services sector.  Keith is the author of IAG’s Business Analysis Benchmark – the definitive source of data on the impact of business requirements on technology projects.