Q&A: Modifying an Existing System

I recently received an email from Anthony who asks:

How would you go about gathering and documenting requirements for modifications to an existing system?

Let me start of by saying that I LOVE getting questions – because it always gets me thinking of things that I sometimes take for granted. It makes me step back and really think about the details of things that I sometimes do on auto-pilot. And it gives me a chance to reach out to others to get their input to constantly refine and tune how I do what I do.

So…below are some of my thoughts on how I might tackle such a project. Add your comments below and help both Anthony and I think about what we might consider in this type of situation.

And yes, my advice starts with “it depends”. This is probably frustrating for new business analysts, but the truth of the matter is that there is no “right” or “wrong” way – but there are lots of things you can consider for crafting a plan that will work for you in your specific situation. With that in mind, I have three suggestions for things you might want to consider when starting on this type of project.

1. Define the Purpose of the Change

What is the purpose, pain, or need that is driving the change? Are they looking for minor changes that can improve inefficiencies? Are they looking to implement entirely new modules or functionality that is not already is use? Understanding this will help you to devise a plan to work with the right stakeholders to understand their need and also gives you a sense of the size and scope of the project.

2. Get Your Hands on the System

If you’re not already familiar with the system that will be modified, get your hands dirty! Get familiar with the existing functionality and its interdependencies. How are users using it today? What systems feed data to this system, and what systems rely on data from this system? No matter what the scope of the requested changes, you’re going to want to perform thorough impact analysis to fully understand how a change in one area could impact other areas.

3. Review Existing Documentation

If there is existing system/process documentation, study up! Hopefully there is at least some (although don’t be alarmed if it’s incomplete or non-existent because that happens sometimes too). But if you can get your hands on any system, process or technical documentation, it will help you to understand the intended purpose of the system and also may be helpful in identifying impacts. You hopefully will be able to see business rules and decisions that the system makes that might not be obvious from an end-user’s perspective.

What else would you recommend that someone consider when preparing to elicit requirements for modifications to an existing system? Help us out by posting your comments below!

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4 Responses to Q&A: Modifying an Existing System
  1. Eric Provost
    April 10, 2011 | 3:19 pm

    These are all good strategies, but probably the best one is to meet actual key users of the system to:

    1) understand how they use it (this may be different from the current system documentation);
    2) understand the system role in their business process (some key activities might occur outside the system scope, such as interactions with other systems);
    3) get their input on the proposed change (they might provide some interesting thoughts about the way to implement the new or modified functionality).

    You don’t want to work too much on planning your work before getting this kind of input, as it might significantly impact your analysis work.

  2. Real World BA
    April 10, 2011 | 3:40 pm

    All great suggestions, Eric! I particularly like #1 and #2 – if you can talk to actual end-users to see how they’re using the system, it often varies from what management “thinks” is happening.

    I’m a little leery about #3 since end users aren’t often savvy enough about systems to provide actual solutions, and I like to keep the users focused on “what” they need and allow the BA to focus on “how” to implement it. But if they do have specific ideas, it’s definitely good to understand those – as long as you still conduct your full solution analysis to find the option(s) that are most appropriate.

    I appreciate that your feedback focuses on better understanding the users’ needs directly! A great expansion of understanding the problem or need.

  3. Claude Bourgoin
    May 18, 2011 | 8:32 am

    Many project’s that I have been involved in lately required a database overhaul, solutions that call for designing a solution from the ground up, integrating features, more UI with more refined data access control and better analytics requires a data base redesign.
    Whenever a database redesign is part of the solution data migration headaches will become a bottle neck in the delivery process of this new shinny solution. The problem lies in the old data will not always fit when the new solutions BI is applied to it. Therefore QA will need to play an increase role in the process and more intelligence qui be required in the data import scripts in order to palliate with the old data’s shortcomings. As you would get acquainted with the old solutions processes and its business rules you also need to get acquainted with the data and data structure of the old solution. The goal here is properly identifying the scope (profit/costs) and managing customer expectations, two tasks that fall in the lap of the business analyst also.

    • Real World BA
      May 21, 2011 | 9:32 am

      Welcome to the discussion, Claude! Yes, when a database overhaul is involved, an entirely new set of work is introduced. Detailed data analysis and mapping, along with data validation, will become a key task. I have seen this component take entire teams many months to do – and the testing and verification are significant.

      Based on your experience, do you have any tips you can suggest for what we should be thinking about if we have this component in our projects? It sounds like you’ve done this quite a bit, and I’d love to add some of your ideas to my arsenal.

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