Find Your Subject Matter Experts

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No matter what requirements gathering process you subscribe to-waterfall, unified, or another approach-your discovery will be markedly easier if you can identify the right subject matter experts from the beginning. Whether they exist inside or outside your organization, people who intimately know your project's product or service, its actors, and its building tools will help you create more inclusive requirements, identify your unknowns, and grow in your own knowledge of the industry.

Unfortunately, few organizations keep a handy list of subject matter experts that you can consult before you begin your next project. In his blog, Web Technology and Culture for Business, Scott G avin notes that "knowledge networks exist inside all companies, either explicit or implied, but more often than not these networks are not accurately documented or identifiable."[1] But if your discovery is to be thorough, you must first identify and document the knowledge networks that relate to your project, and then mine the knowledge of the experts in those networks. Basically,to be a thorough business analyst, you mustbecome a subject matter expert on subject matter experts.

Even if you have a roster of experts that you normally turn to, eventually we all face something new. Nailing down the right new sources can be daunting, taking equal portions of advance planning, relationship building, and journalistic doggedness. How do you find these people?

Look within your organization
If your discovery starts with an existing system or process, ask around until you find the original designer and stakeholders. If they are no longer with the company, there's no reason you can't still speak with them. Explain the need to your manager, and arrange a phone interview. You may want to take them to lunch, and then ask them to give you a tour of the existing system. If they are not available, see if the person who was their manager at the time is still with the company; he or she may have some knowledge of the business need for the project, if not all of its details. If no one in your company knows who the original designers were, you'll have to limit your interview to the current operators of the system (whom you should be speaking with anyway).

Interviews with the original designers, their managers, and current operators can garner more leads. When your interviewee talks, listen for specific words that pop up again and again, such asorders or receipts, then ask "Whom would you say knows more about receipts than anyone else in the company?" Then make an appointment to go interview the receipt expert. Also ask: "Whom do you/did youwork with daily on this project?" Not all your leads will turn out to be relevant, but the ones who do will be invaluable (and the irrelevant ones may become relevant in your next project). Be sure to ask each person you interview for any existing documentation that they may have related to your project. If none exists, use your notes to start an archive.

After you follow this process for a few projects, you'll have compiled a reasonable, if not exhaustive, archive of leads for project experts and corresponding documentation within your organization.This archive will be more relevant to your work if you treat it as a living document that is continually expanded and updated.

When you're not against a hard deadline for a specific project, you may want to take another, more proactive approach to building relationships with subject matter experts within your company. Schedule a meeting with a representative from each division or department, and ask for an overview of their current and past projects. Ask how they view their role within the company. Invite other analysts to attend. When new projects arise, you'll already have some familiarity with other areas of the company, saving you some research time.

If you are starting discovery for a new product or system with no previous designers or related subject matter experts, the business owners who decided on the need for it are likely to be your best leads to start with. Why do they want the new product or system? Whom did they talk to that made them think it was needed? Ask if you can speak with those same stakeholders or users.

For completely new projects with no existing system or product to use as a precedent, you may have to look outside your organization for insight.

Look within your industry
Looking outside your company for knowledge is generally more of a challenge than looking within; your colleagues are there to help your company, too, and likely to quickly come to your aid even if they've never heard of you. Finding subject matter experts outside your company takes a bit more relationship building and research. To that end, you will need to start a bit earlier in your discovery process for eliciting feedback.

  • Look in industry trade magazines (and around trade shows, if your company has the budget to send you) and build relationships with subject matter experts who write or speak about issues related to your research. Remember to ask them whom they turn to for research and new ideas, and if it's convenient, you can also build a relationship with those new leads.

  • Go to blogs that are dedicated to your industry and see who weighs in the most. Blog writers generally have a lot to say, and they will probably be happy to set up an interview with you. Also, you may want to post your own questions on the blog to see how people weigh in. (But proceed with caution when posting to blogs. Be vigilant not to use your name, your company name, or reveal any details about your project to avoid violating any company ethics rules or nondisclosure agreements.)

  • Investigate associations and web sites related to your new project. Look for members and speakers who are local in your area. To avoid wasting your time and theirs, briefly explain your needs over the phone or email before actually setting up the appointment to do an in-depth interview. If the initial inquiry turns out to be a dead end, ask if they know anyone else in the business with extensive experience in the area you're researching.

  • Though experts immersed in the daily work of an industry are generally the most knowledgeable, academic sources may be helpful for select projects, such as emerging technologies or user psychology. Many universities' web sites have lists of experts available for interview, along with a detailed list of the subjects they can cover. (Here's an example: http://main.uab.edu/Sites/MediaRelations/Experts/?g.sc.entries=true.) Choose your university based on reputation. This list is from a medical university, so medical technology experts are available. But there are also aerospace, bioscience, and other technology universities. If you can't find such an expert list online, contact the university's press department and ask for an expert related to your subject matter.

As your subject matter expert list grows, make your contacts and documentation available to your colleagues, and be sure to keep your manager apprised of your growing list of experts. You may choose to invite other analysts to contribute to the archive and place it in a public folder, but you will need to assign a business owner and introduce version control to be sure it remains organized and relevant. Either way, it will be invaluable to your company for years to come-and your relationships with each of those hard-found experts will help make you invaluable as well.

References:

  • [1] http://scottgavin.info/?p=278

Author: Morgan Masters is Business Analyst and Staff Writer at ModernAnalyst.com, the premier community and resource portal for business analysts. Business analysis resources such as articles, blogs, templates, forums, books, along with a thriving business analyst community can be found at http://www.ModernAnalyst.com





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