Julian Fletcher MBCS provides an overview of how business analysis techniques can be applied to ensure online learning materials provide a cost-effective and efficient means to deliver the training an organisation’s staff need to know about their products, processes and regulations.

The last decade has seen business analysis emerge as a major subject discipline. Business analysis (BA) is the application of techniques to enable the development of systems that better support business objectives.

A simplified business analysis process model for developing such learning materials is to identify the gap between the client’s existing ‘as is’ business model and its desired ‘to be’ business goals for which the prototype learning material is written to help deliver.

This process depicts how a client will often have some business targets they need their staff to meet and that some form of training is required to make their staff suitably equipped to achieve them.

A business analyst’s task is to ascertain what the client’s staff training needs actually are through carrying out a ‘gap analysis’; in other words identifying the gap between the staff’s current level of knowledge and the level they need to get to in order to achieve their set targets.

Once this gap has been identified, modelled and documented, a set of requirements can be drawn up and used to produce prototype learning material in a format that can be reviewed and incrementally refined in collaboration with the client (in an agile manner) until it is fit-for-purpose.

There are a number of relevant business analysis techniques that can be used in this gap analysis and prototyping activity. These will be illustrated through the use of a case study exercise in which the client has requested that the BA design learning content to teach Chinese business culture to the client’s salesmen.

1. Investigating the ‘as is’ situation

First of all the BA seeks to identify all those stakeholders who are in some way impacted by the learning content to be developed. These stakeholders can then be included in a Peter Checkland ‘rich picture’, which informally captures, in sketch/ cartoon format, the existing business context in which an e-learning intervention is to be deployed.

For this example: the client and their salesmen, the target Chinese market and the learning material and its desktop, tablet and mobile delivery mechanisms would all be sketched.

Through a combination of one-to-one interviews and stakeholder workshops, with both the client and staff trainees, the BA can gain further insight into this business context and use this to develop training that is relevant, engaging and sympathetic to the learning styles of the trainees.

It is also important for the BA to carry out sufficient research to acquire the requisite domain knowledge of the subject matter to be taught. In our Chinese business example that would include understanding how to apply the business etiquette of ‘Guanxi’ (networking) and ‘Mianzi’ (face/social status) in negotiating sales.

The ‘context diagram’, uses a UML (Unified Modelling Language) notation to represent the proposed learning content (as an IT system) in relation to the wider world (the stakeholders and other systems interacting with it) based on stakeholder interviews, workshops and the BA’s acquisition of domain knowledge of the client’s business.

In the context diagram, the learning material is regarded as a ‘black box’ with the internal details of how it is to be defined and constructed, in terms of its curriculum and content, yet to be defined.

Having drawn such a diagram the BA can then review it with the stakeholders (referred to as ‘actors’ in UML and depicted as matchstick characters in the diagram) to check that it does indeed represent their proposed training needs.

Context diagram

Click the image to enlarge it

2. Eliciting the requirements for the ‘to be situation’

Now that the existing context for the proposed learning solution has been analysed, attention can be turned to techniques used to specify the requirements for this learning - the desired ‘to be situation’. To begin with, a short scenario can be written to describe the desired impact of the learning solution, encapsulating the stakeholder perspectives.

Peter Checkland’s CATWOE (customer, actor, transformation, world view, owner, and environment) can be used as a framework for writing this:

‘The e-learning solution is a system purchased by the client (O), to enable his sales staff (A) to carry out online training (T) to help them make sales in China (W) by familiarising themselves with the cultural aspects of doing business in that country whilst living and working there (E)’.

Individual user stories could then be written from the perspective of each of the stakeholders, to provide further detail. Once these stories have been written and agreed with the client, the BA can add the internal details to the aforementioned ‘black box’ in the Context Diagram, so that it is transformed into a UML ‘use case diagram’, with each use case (displayed within the boxed system boundary) representing a piece of functionality, used by a stakeholder.

Each of the individual use cases in the use case diagram can then be broken down into more detailed steps to show the interaction and flow of information, which will form the ‘blue print’ for the learning material.

The basic flow (and alternative flows where applicable) of use cases can be presented in further detail in the form of the ‘swim lane diagram’ used to model the online assessment activity of a trainee. This diagram, based on a swimming pool metaphor, shows the process steps carried out by a user to complete their assessment with the steps being distributed amongst the appropriate swimlanes representing the user, user interface and data store.

The use cases such as the client’s supervision of training can also be used as the basic building blocks to model the system data for the e-learning training through incorporating them within ‘entity relationship (ER) diagrams’ and/or ‘class models’.

The ‘ER model’ represents this use case as a series of connected ‘entities’ each of which the client wishes to collect and store data about e.g. trainee scores (in this example the entities are ‘client supervisor’, ‘online assessment’ and ‘trainee’). This ER model can be used as the template for the training system’s underpinning database.

The ‘class model’ consists of three classes (or types) belonging to the use case. These classes represent the client, sales trainee and assessment respectively and form the templates for producing the actual use case objects (occurrences). Each class is named, contains a series of data items or attributes constituting its stored properties and has a series of functions or operations that it can carry out.

Where appropriate, this class model can be used to implement the data model for the training system using a high-level object-oriented language such as C#, Visual Basic or Java.

3. Producing the prototype learning material

Having modelled both the ‘as is’ training requirements of the client’s business and the ‘to be’ goal for their sales staff to win business in China, prototype online training to bridge the gap between the ‘as is’ and ‘to be’ situations can now be built and reviewed by the stakeholders.

Their feedback can then be used to incrementally improve the prototype. This is an example of agile development. A wireframe application can be used to ‘mock up’ the initial look and feel of this training from which a more polished final version can evolve.

Summing up, the judicious application of business analysis techniques can help to ensure that e-learning courses are developed to fully realise those desired business benefits.