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Don't Just Write a Business Case, Tell A Story: Part 1 of 3 - Reflecting on the Needs of the Business

Shawn Flynn

AVP of Global Thought Leadership & Advisory Services, Cornerstone OnDemand

Have you ever been in a position where you had to write a business case for a technology investment, or were a part of a team working on one? I have the privilege of running a Global Value Practice, and our team receives this question at least once a week: "Can you help me and/or my client write a business case?" Out of sheer curiosity, I recently Googled "How to Write a Business Case?" I was not surprised by the result: 1 billion+ returns. One might say there’s noise out there when it comes to ’how to write a business case.’ I felt compelled to add to the racket, but hopefully, offering a more approach-oriented lean on the topic in this three-part series.

First, what is a business case? It’s a story. As any good story, it requires thought, preparation and execution. For this paper, let's frame our Power of Three:

I will caveat that I work for Cornerstone, a Global HCM SaaS Software company, so my insight in this paper is HR- and Talent-centric. That said, the overall approach is applicable regardless of industry or software considerations. Now with the disclaimer out of the way, let's dig in:

STEP 1: Be Reflective

Be reflective concerning where your company is focused and where it’s going. Identify what you see as threats, obstacles, inefficiencies and goals of the organization. In other words, what are your company’s top business strategies? As Human Capability Management professionals (yes, that's my lean on ’HCM'), it’s imperative that we know where the business is going.

According to PWC’s 21th Annual CEO Survey, ’Availability of Key Skills’ was a top 5 concern for global CEOs. My point? Talent and capability concerns are top of mind, even outside of HR. Further, recent research from Brandon Hall shines a light on this point by highlighting a company's ’people strategy' as being the primary strategy for meeting business goals.[1]As a result, it’s critical that HR and talent executives know the vision of the CEO, the vital areas of measurement for the COO and what moves the business through the eyes of the CFO.

For a percentage of HR & talent professionals, the exercise of reflecting on where the business is focused does not come naturally. Even a greater number of professionals find it challenging to align their priorities with the business. When you take a step back, that increase is not surprising when you consider that more than 70 percent of HR professionals' time is administrative[2]. Now that I've laid out the challenge, let me highlight the opportunities to align the business and HR:

  1. 67 percent of businesses see above-average financial performance when business and HR goals are aligned.[3]
  2. 60 percent of businesses see above-average revenue growth when business and HR goals are aligned.[4]

To indeed be reflective, you have to do just that— reflect. A colleague of mine refers to it as ’mirroring up.' Have you ever put a mirror on the ground and looked up? You might not like what you see. Have you ever seen someone take a selfie from the ground up? Never. Always at a downward angle. Why? We're prettier, thinner and look better, right? No! We're the same regardless, but in many instances, we choose to take the path with the least amount of friction. To quote my colleague Dr. Tom Tonkin, "Different isn’t always better, but better is always different."

Take an honest look at where you see a real opportunity to help the business. Start digging into what your executives are saying. Quarterly earnings call transcripts are an excellent source for this material. For a private company, dig through the ’About Us' page. For an SMB company, many times we find executives’ quotes in local newspapers. You may not always find something, but it never hurts to do a little up-front research to see if there’s an executive message to evangelize.

Once you feel you have a substantiated hypothesis of your company’s business priorities, outline your view of the strategies and begin to tell your story. When we work with a client, we prefer to do this on one slide: Business priorities on the left, and Talent priorities that support the needs of the business on the right. Whether you choose to line them up item by item is a style choice. I prefer not to, because here can be overlap. Many times it will take more than one talent/people strategy to support one business strategy. The point here is not to create a linear connection, but instead to demonstrate an understanding of the business and offer an opinion on how you can support those needs.

If you find it helpful, below is a copy of a template we put into every business case:

With the strategic business and talent alignment identified, you are now ready to move on to part two. Be on the lookout for the next installment.


[1] Brandon Hall Group

[3] PwC, Project Management Institute. Talent Management - State of the Market

[4] PwC, Project Management Institute. Talent Management - State of the Market


Header photo: Creative Commons

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