How to research a case for business change?
Following on from our previous article on defining business systems we will now have a look at the investigative stage of gathering requirements. What I do before I go in to advise a client is to some external research. Check out the website, not just the products and services page but the about us, meet the team, News sections, anything that gives an indication of the internal workings of the company. Some of this may be aspirational as the reality on the ground generally turns out to be quite different, but at least you will get to see how they view themselves.
The company accounts tell a story.
Next is the company accounts. These are freely available from the company’s house website and if you know how to read the balance sheet correctly then you can gain a lot of information about how a company is run just from those few figures. If there is a large figure in the debtors compared with turnover, then have problems collecting monies from their customers. If the level of stock is higher than the year before, then they usually mastered the art of just in time stock. If the director’s dividends are high compared with profit, then I’m looking at a business owner who is more interested in their Sussex mansion rather than investing in their business.
Involve all stakeholders in research for business change.
Once on-site I can determine the important stakeholders from the organisational chart and who reports to who. This may not always include the highfliers in management who may pull the strings. The guy in warehouse who has been there for years may have leverage over decisions as he may know how everything operates and the business owner wants to keep him on side. Internal politics is always a nightmare and coming in from outside has its advantages of not being entangled in this relationship but also you could inadvertently clip some of those tripwires as issues arise.
Once a quote is signed off, I have compulsory 1-day inspection where I speak to everyone from the cleaner to the accountant. Each department has its own perspective, and each has its own validity within the overall picture of how the organisation operates.
The use of visual aids to facilitate discussion.
For one client I commandeered a wall which was turned into a giant white board. Each department had its own section from a lead in the sales department to archiving existing records, the whole lifespan was covered. I then drew arrows to cover the workflow of information between each area. A red line was used to indicate a potential blockage or an issue that needed to be highlighted. Staff would wander in and comment on how they didn’t realise that what they did affected another section. They would often contradict one another as different perspectives where fleshed out to discover the full significance of what that process entailed. These turned into informal interviews where department politics was laid aside and genuine discussion take place. Out of that, people would gripe about double processing of information or something that took ages to do or incomplete information. From that basis you can delve a bit further into what could improve the situation, to dream of a perfect world and then peg it back to what would be realistic. How does it operate now, what are the problems, and can it be improved? This process not only gleans essential information that otherwise would not be expressed but also gains the trust of staff and gets them on board. It allows them to participate in a situation that could result in significant change. One thing that comes out of the process is the difference between how the management see how things should be and what is happening. That leads to interesting discussions and a series of reality checks.
About the Author:
Malcolm Ford has been advising business on their software requirements for over 10 years. He has developed particular tools and training methods to assist staff and management identify the distinct needs of their business.