Frequently Asked Questions

Why expert project planning is important

It is generally accepted that more than 50% of software projects fail to achieve their expected benefits and that many fail completely. A lot of money can be wasted. Those risks of failure are likely to fall disproportionately on small and medium organisations.

Large organisations usually have dedicated teams with advanced skills in business process management and IT project management. They can avoid many of the risks involved in planning new business system projects, notwithstanding some spectacular and well known failures on very large IT projects.

Most SMEs do not have expert business process analysts and project managers available internally. Further, most staff are already busy with their regular duties. As a result, most SMEs are at a distinct disadvantage in project risk management. If your organisation lacks project skills internally, engaging an expert, independent system planning consultant will help you minimise risks and maximise the project benefits.

Planning a new system is not initially about being IT savvy. It is really about being business and system savvy. Even more importantly, it is about being able to take a strategic view to question current practices and processes, identify improvements and mediate between different groups within an organisation to build a vision for change.

Reliance on non-expert personnel in small to medium organisations is likely to lead to acquisition of the wrong software or software that does not support the system that is actually needed. A lot of money may be wasted.

Expert planning is needed for the acquisition of all software that is to be part of a business system.

A single user licence for packaged software is just a tool, the decision to purchase it may not require much planning. However, where the software involves interactions between multiple stakeholders, the software is the core of a business system. To create an effective business system, the needs of all stakeholders must be fully understood and catered to so that the software delivers all the required services.

Software requirements

Requirements benefit you and the solution provider. Written requirements are a way to tell prospective solution providers what you want from software to solve specific problems. The solution provider can assess if they can actually meet your needs, how they will do it, and at what cost. Without requirements, this is not possible.

Requirements also enable you to test if the solution provider is actually delivering what you expect. If you don’t have clear requirements, there is no way to hold the solution provider to account and ensure you receive value for money.

Unfortunately, this is a common mistake. It is easy to assume that the supplier of a particular product must regularly deal with other organisations like yours and that they can help you to get the maximum benefits.

Occasionally, that may work out but, more usually, it leads to disaster. Every business is actually quite different, even within similar markets. Your business has specific needs, based on the needs of your customers, the way you work, the other systems you use, and many other factors. If you don’t develop your own requirements, you won’t be able to obtain competitive quotes for a solution, you risk being captured by a vendor who may not deliver what you expect or really need.

Actually, you should ask your users what they want. But, you should do so in a very structured way.

Often the promoters of new software have not really focused on the real problem they are trying to solve. Is it actually necessary to buy new software or are there other problem causes? It is critical to really understand the problems the software is to solve and your business objectives.

Most users focus on the way they do things now. They also do not necessarily appreciate that each software feature costs money. Another problem is that often the people driving the purchase of new software do not consult all relevant stakeholders, thus limiting its potential benefits.

The way you work now may not be the optimal way to work for a new software system. It is very important to analyse business processes and the reports that you need to make sure that you don’t try to automate an obsolete way of working. You may miss out on many benefits that new software can provide.

It is very important to prioritise requirements based on their real business value to ensure that you focus scarce financial resources on high value benefits.

It also critical that all stakeholders are identified and consulted so that the system is planned with a complete understanding of how it may be used.

It can be useful to understand what functions the market can provide but this question misunderstands the true nature of good requirements.

There are multiple levels of requirements in solution development. In this instance, we are talking about the highest level, business requirements.

Good business requirements do not define features in software, they tell the supplier or developer what you problems you have and what you want to accomplish. What is the business outcome that you want?

If you define your requirements as a set of problems and expected business outcomes, a solution provider can work out if they can meet your needs. You also can assess if those needs are met by the delivered solution.

There may be many different approaches to meeting your needs and your requirements should not tell the solution provider how achieve a result. Your requirements should only define expected outcomes.

There are two ways to think about what it is you want. One is to assume that you need specific features in software. That approach often leads to disaster.

The other approach is to define you problems and business needs in terms of expected outcomes. If you don’t understand the problems you wish to solve and the expected outcomes, then you are not ready to talk to solution providers.

Sooner or later, it will be necessary for someone to define requirements down to a fine level of detail, specifically around the kind of data that you have and the way that you wish system users to interact with the software.

Initially, the level of detail will depend on the nature of your business and the likely source of a solution. If you expect to purchase off-the-shelf software without customisation but only configuration, you might start with high-level business requirements to select the best solution provider. You may not need to define detailed requirements for common, standard functions. Then, based on the way that a solution works, you might refine the requirements to accommodate the specific limitations and features of the software.

In other cases, you may need more detailed requirements, particularly around issues such as connectivity with other software and business data reporting.

Requirements should be planned to meet your specific business needs, with just enough detail to get the result you want, and no more.

How Elkera works

The key elements in understanding client needs are:

  • Experience and skills, particularly relating to business and communication; and
  • Analytical process.

Elkera’s consultants have the experience and skills to efficiently understand a client’s business context and to engage with SMEs and other stakeholders to dig down to fully understand how the business works, its problems and its opportunities.

Elkera’s consultants will listen, question and always try to place themselves in the other person’s shoes. These qualities are essential to understanding client’s real needs.

Elkera adopts a rigorous analytical process that is designed to reveal the detail of business processes and stakeholder needs, and to then record that information in a practical and accessible way.

Many consultants have only some of those skills. Elkera’s consultants bring them all together.

Elkera is very experienced working with teams who are off-site and has conducted complete planning projects without visiting the client office after the initial introduction. Elkera’s agile way of working on projects to complete backlog tasks within fixed time increments aligns very well with remote working.

Elkera is completely independent. We have no conflicting relationships with any other organisation. We never recommend or promote specific products or suppliers.

A system planning consultant for a business system project needs to have a range of capabilities across business analysis, stakeholder communication, risk analysis, software requirements, project management and change management.

On large projects, multiple experts may be needed to obtain all capabilities. That fragmentation of skills makes it difficult for small to medium organisations to acquire the full set of skills they require. Elkera addresses this need. Elkera’s experienced consultants have the full range of capabilities that are needed for small to medium projects.

Elkera’s main area of expertise is in knowledge based operations such as government, publishing, professional services, not for profits, education and training, and arts organisations.

We have strong experience in areas involving content production, publishing, legal processes, content and records management, work flows, work flow reporting and project management.

How to prepare for the project internally

Acquiring new software for a business system usually involves major change for the organisation. Change planning is difficult and one of the most important elements of success is genuine senior executive buy-in and ongoing support. If the highest levels of management are not clearly behind the project, few others in the organisation will devote much effort to it and your project will be doomed to failure. So, the first item is active, consistent support from the CEO, Operations director or equivalent.

Once you have senior executive support, you can set about establishing a project team and management structure. The essential elements to get you started will include:

  • The executive sponsor (see above).
  • A steering committee with representation from all top level stakeholders in the project. This may include those overseeing project financing and governance.
  • An internal project administrator or manager who will coordinate between internal and external stakeholders, including the system planning consultant.

More detailed planning can occur after receiving recommendations from the system planning consultant.

Almost certainly you should expect to change some aspects of the way you work. This is one of the most critical risk areas when planning a new business system. Let’s consider two common scenarios:

  1. You want to improve the way you work by using software to replace manual process. For example, you may want the software to store and report information that is currently held in multiple, manually generated spreadsheets. This is the “new software scenario”.
  2. You have software that is obsolete and needs to be replaced. This is the “replacement software scenario”.

A common mistake in the new software scenario is to try to automate things that you do manually, right down to replicating manually produced spreadsheet reports. Invariably, this is a disaster. Well-designed database and reporting systems can give you far richer data and better reporting than is possible through manually created spreadsheets. Existing processes must be analysed to uncover exactly what it is that various stakeholders need to accomplish. It is almost certain that a new system will help you streamline processes and greatly improve your data and reporting.

The replacement software scenario is only a little bit different. It is very likely that the business has evolved considerably since the original software was acquired. It is also likely that many requirements were not fully addressed by the original software. It is essential that all processes and reports are thoroughly examined to identify areas for improvement in the new software.

The value of planning

A system planning consultant will help your organisation maximise the benefits of the project and avoid the pitfalls that lead to project failure. The consultant will help you to clearly identify your business objectives, manage risks, define requirements, plan the procurement and plan change.

Critically, the consultant will help to correctly align the expected benefits of a new system with the investment required to develop or acquire it, thus maximising your return on investment.

The consultant also will help you avoid acquiring the wrong software, or software that does not support your real business needs, so you don’t waste money.

Strictly, you can never be certain because you can never know how an alternative scenario might have played out. However, it is generally accepted that more than 50% of software projects fail to achieve their expected benefits and that many fail completely.

If you achieve a successful deployment at a cost that is consistent with business case expectations, and the system users are satisfied with the new system, you can be confident that the system planning consultant has provided excellent value.

We don’t know the staff time that may be applied to an alternative planning approach. However, by engaging an expert project planning consultant, you can be confident that your staff devote no more time than is necessary to achieve the benefits you want. Without expert assistance, you may under-utilise critical staff, simply by failing to consult them. Alternatively, their time may be wasted if they become involved in inefficient ways of working or trying to communicate with people who don’t efficiently understand their needs.

Elkera’s project planning consultants avoid those problems. We always collaboratively plan our interactions with stakeholders, follow an efficient analytical process and provide clear draft deliverables for review.

You should expect that improvements to the project return on investment will more than justify the planning costs.

Most likely, you will devote more time to planning if you engage a planning consultant, so the early stages of the project may take longer than you initially expected. To properly consider project duration, we have to look at the time to achieve a solution that meets actual business needs. That can be assessed after deployment by surveying the satisfaction level of the system users. You may install a new system quickly, but if the system users are dissatisfied, the project does not deliver what is needed. Such a system may be abandoned or require extensive re-work.

You should expect that it will be faster to achieve a system that meets business objectives and satisfies its users if you engage an expert system planning consultant, rather than rely on inexperienced personnel.