by Jack Keen

Five Tips for Using Data to Support Your Business Case

Nov 01, 20035 mins
IT Leadership

Business cases done right are powerful tools. When they include impressive-looking tangible benefits, powerful intangibles and clear business alignments, they gain attention.

But all is for naught if no one believes them. That’s why getting the evidence right is a crucial step when building a successful business case. Weak evidence spawns distrust from inherently skeptical decision-makers, thus heightening the risk of rejection of business case recommendations. While losing the funding is bad enough, the harm to the reputation of the people who created the business case can be even deeper. The trustworthiness—even honesty—of these individuals may be called into question on other issues. Fortunately, evidence building is a skill that is easy to strengthen. Just as lawyers must prove their cases based on evidence believable to judge and jury, CIOs and their teams must argue the evidence to other executives to prove a business case. Try these five “courtroom savvy” techniques for making your evidence the best possible.

1. Know when evidence is most needed. Controversial conclusions around central themes of the business case need strong proof statements. Also watch out for unsupported statements you consider self-evident; others may beg to differ. For example, rather than boldly asserting that “more fact-based management is a key to success,” buttress your declaration with strong supporting evidence, such as “Last year’s ’Top Business Practices’ survey of 25 industry CEOs revealed that analytic-focused management was the number-two driver of superior shareholder return.” Sensitivity analysis can also point to areas needing sound evidence. For example, if an important calculation, such as dealing with improvement in employee turnover, is highly sensitive to variations in its value, take the extra time to find support concerning why the specific quantity selected is trustworthy.

2. Decide how strong the evidence must be. The more surprising, arguable or obscure a business case claim, the better the evidence must be. The American legal system provides some guidance: In courts of law, as well as in “courts” of IT investment funding, reliable evidence must be material (that is, relevant to the issue at hand) and directly affect the probability that the claim is true. In these courts, evidence comes in multiple flavors. Direct evidence, such as that from trusted colleagues or subject matter experts, is usually the most powerful. Circumstantial evidence (such as third-party surveys reported in public records) can also be useful, although often less effective than direct evidence. Hearsay is the least desirable. For example, if a proposal for a new system asserts a controversial claim that customers will make 5 percent larger purchases, and such a claim is central to the power of the business case, then taking the time and effort to focus on direct evidence is best.

3. Know the rules of evidence. Unlike courts of law, the rules of evidence for business cases are often unspoken. Don’t tolerate this situation. All decision-makers carry in their heads a set of rules concerning what they consider as admissible and not admissible for business case evidence. Does your CEO give great weight to evidence from industry trade associations in which he is active or to surveys from his blue-ribbon business school alma mater? Uncover the other executives’ preferred types of evidence by asking them directly or by studying evidence characteristics of investment proposals they have supported.

4. Discard the bad stuff. Learn to identify bad evidence disguised as good. Found a mouth-watering evidence statement? Pass it through this four-way “evidence truth test”:

  • Is the source of the evidence readily identified? Publicized quotes and metrics without precise sources are not credible. Even cited sources, if ambiguous, are warning flags. For example, stating “Source: ABC Global Research Corp.” can be frustrating to a business case reader who wishes to quickly investigate the information further. If ABC has been in business for 20 years, has 1,000 employees and publishes more than 500 documents annually, it may appear that the business case writer is daring the reader to try and hunt down this needle in a haystack. Not a good way to engender trust in a business case.
  • Is the evidence applicable? Ten CEOs who swear to a 20 percent productivity improvement from using Vendor X’s CRM system may, upon deeper investigation, be talking about different modules within the CRM system itself. One person’s CRM system may be for sales-force support. Another person’s CRM may be for customer service help desks. If the source of the evidence was loose about definitions of key terms, make sure your CRM definition matches it.
  • Is the quoted metric a guess or a measurement? “We saved 25 percent of our budget within one year of installing Gizmo Model H” may turn out to have originated from a flippant guess over drinks with the vendor, rather than a carefully measured benchmark.n Is the evidence objective? Beware of quotes from a vendor’s clients. Make sure hidden incentives, such as special discounts, are not encouraging the singing of artificially high praises.

5. Document your evidence well. Succinctly and completely documenting evidence in the business case can go a long way in encouraging its acceptance. Make it easy for the business case reader to both understand and believe in each nugget of proof. When citing publications, be precise concerning publication name, pages referenced and date of publication. When using published quotes, explain who said it, the date it was said and under what context.

Trusted business cases get funded more often. You don’t need to go to law school to get good at evidence discovery and usage. Pointing your evidence-building team toward the guidelines above is a great start.