How Business Analysis Can Help a Non-Profit Organization: Emily Tom and the Ottawa IIBA BA-Blitz

Today, it’s my honor to introduce you to Emily Tom, of the Ottawa IIBA chapter, and organizer of their first “BA Blitz” – a hack-a-thon type of event where 21 local business analysts of all career levels used business analysis techniques to find creative solutions to the organization’s most pressing business problems.

You’ll learn:

  • How to establish the value of business analysis in a non-profit organization (and why it’s important to do this even when you are volunteering your time).
  • The key factors in planning and structuring an event like the BA Blitz.
  • How these types of events help spread the mission and the value of business analysis, locally and worldwide.


For those who prefer to read, here’s the full-text transcript of the interview:

Laura Brandenburg: Hello, and welcome, everyone! I’m here today with Emily Tom from Ottawa. Hi, Emily.

Emily Tom: Hi, nice to see you.Emily Tom

Laura Brandenburg: Nice to see you as well. Emily just, like as in the last couple of days ran this amazing event for the Ottawa Chapter called the BA Hack-a-thon, and it was all about helping business analysts help a nonprofit organization.

I was really inspired when I met you at BBC and you were talking about this event, and I wanted to learn a little bit more about it, and I thought I could really benefit our community as well, as well as just the business analysis profession as a whole learning more about these events and how they can see.

Emily Tom: Sure.

Laura Brandenburg: Kick us off by just talking about how did this even come about?

Emily Tom: Yeah, the inspiration continues. How this came about? I’m the past president of the IIBA Ottawa Chapter. I’ve been on the Board for more than seven years now and it’s something that I thought was useful because I know our BA community and I understand its strengths and what the community has to offer.

I knew about Hack-a-thons in the traditional sense in Silicon Valley with the tech companies letting their developers have free reign on what to produce for their companies. So I thought why don’t we leverage the skills and the knowledge of our local BAs; do the same thing for an organization. And I thought what better way to do this than to do some work, some pro bono work for a nonprofit organization.

Out of this, the idea of doing a BA Hack-a-thon, which our chapter has named BA Blitz, has come about. What we did was we assembled 21 BAs to come together to do some free business analysis work for a nonprofit organization, Women’s Economic Council (WEC), and they are a Canada-wide organization. Basically, everyone descended upon Ottawa to do some business analysis work to help events, WEC, in their mission and vision.

Laura Brandenburg: That’s just phenomenal. Some of the challenges that I often hear is it’s business analysis. Does it apply to a nonprofit? How do we get that nonprofit to see the value of the work? Obviously, if they brought in people and you brought in people, everybody was seeing the value in this. How did you position that to both the Women’s Economic Council and the business analysts that volunteered?

Emily Tom: We actually put a lot of thought into this. We produced a flyer. We prepared a flyer that talks about the benefits; the benefits to the business analysts and the community. All the BAs ranging from the senior BAs, intermediates, all the way down to the novices. They’re getting experience to work with a real life problem.

In the Hack-a-thon format, they’re allowed to use any tools and techniques and tasks that they wish in order to solve a set of problems. There’s great benefit for these BAs to roll up their sleeves and learn from each other and produce something good for the community.

I have to admit. It did take a little bit of effort to sign on WEC as a partner or to get a nonprofit organization to join us in this pilot project.

The profile of a nonprofit organization is that they’re always really busy, they’re short on resources, so many of these organizations didn’t have time to sit down and meet with us. But we were very fortunate to have Women’s Economic Council meet with us and try this out. For them, the value proposition is to have a fresh set of eyes, teams of BAs who have the skill set to come and solve business problems or opportunities.

Laura Brandenburg: Yeah, and so they got excited about that.

Emily Tom: Yes, and I was really appreciative that they were willing to try this out. It was a complete experiment, but what was great was that we had collaborated with them ever since the beginning. Over about a three month period, we worked with WEC to understand their organization.

I had a couple of senior BAs do some preliminary analysis on their organization – what their profile was like, what are some of their challenges. We prepared a case study that was the focus of the BA Blitz event day.

Working with WEC ahead of time to understand their organization was instrumental in having a good set of problems to work with on that one hack-a-thon day.

Laura Brandenburg: You kind of came into the day with problems that they were hoping to have solved?

Emily Tom: Right. And I also gave WEC the reassurance that we’re going to assemble a group of BAs, three or four teams to come together, and they’re coming with a skill set that nonprofits might not have considered when trying to address their business problems or opportunities.

Laura Brandenburg: What was their expectation coming into the event?

Emily Tom: They were rather open-minded. I think that having met with them during the preliminary analysis, they saw where this was going; the kind of thoughtful questions that we were able to ask them ahead of time gave them the reassurance that we had their interests in mind when coming up with recommendations.

As a good BA, what my team had done was we had ensured there was transparency. Every step of the way we told them what we were planning to do, what involvement we expected from them, and how we might circle back if things needed to be changed. We were with them right from the beginning and the collaboration led up to the big event day.

Laura Brandenburg: Is there anything else you want to share about what happened before the event, or should we walk through the structure of the event now?

Emily Tom: Well, I’ll say that there’s quite a lot of logistics involved. Our chapter is pretty strong at running workshops and live events; however, this was something a little different. There wasn’t an actual instructional portion of this, and we had to work really hard at thinking about what are the types of participants that we wanted to come and join us?

We put a lot of thought into this. We structured our event to carefully, you know, the wording of the event was such that it brought a good variety of people, and I think that’s important to have the diversity. Having 21 people in the room with different perspectives led to a lot of different solutions.

Laura Brandenburg: Yeah, I can bet, and different skill levels, too.

Emily Tom: That’s right.

Laura Brandenburg: Did you mix the skill levels on the teams so newer BAs were learning from more senior BAs?

Emily Tom: Yeah. That was one of the logistical things we had set up. Our chapter uses an event management system to sell tickets. So we structured our event tickets, all at the price, a very nominal fee, for different BA levels to sign up. We had participants signing up with their respective BA experience levels, and we ensured that we had at least one senior BA per team, and that’s how we set up the tables at the actual event.

Laura Brandenburg: Okay. You only had spots for X people at X level?

Emily Tom: That’s right.

Laura Brandenburg: You curated who was there?

Emily Tom: That’s right. And it turned out really well. That was the feedback we got from people offline during the event as well, that they appreciated having that mix of experience and knowledge background.

Laura Brandenburg: Lots and lots of planning went into this.

Emily Tom: That’s right. Now, I’ve written everything down, or I’m in the process of writing everything down so we’ll be able to replay this.

Laura Brandenburg: Very good. How did the day go? Sounds like you had four different teams. Is that right?

Emily Tom: We ended up with three teams. There were three major business topics to cover. And so each team had been assigned one particular area to cover.

Amongst the team there were maybe five or six people. It was interesting, because you would see that they gelled right away, even though half the people in the room were new to the whole group.

There was a lot of cohesiveness. We’d see people writing on sticky notes at their desks or going up to the wall and moving these sticky notes on the business model canvas. You could see the definite teamwork there. It went on from beginning to end all the way through lunch.

Laura Brandenburg: Can you share? I don’t want to step into any confidentiality concerns, but what would an example problem that they were working on be?

Emily Tom: Okay, a very common problem for nonprofit organizations is funding. They’re funded, typically, through foundations or governments or other types of charities. In our case, Women’s Economic Council gets most of their funding from the government. Funding is always a challenge. They’re given a set amount of dollars that they have to work with. They’re a small number of people and they have to make those dollars stretch.

Laura Brandenburg: You were working on like a problem to obtain more funding, or to use that funding in a very efficient way to deliver the services?

Emily Tom: We stayed rather high level in our case study. The teams took it where they wanted to. That particular team, they actually did address both sustainability and getting new funding and stretching the dollars that they already have.

Laura Brandenburg: So they had the license to kind of look at how to solve, really, a very high level business objective vs. what we might think of as like the scope of a particular project.

Emily Tom: That’s right. And as a BA, we’re used to looking at problems from all the different angles and they came up with all kinds of solutions and issues. As a good BA, they went through the whole prioritization exercise.

This particular team, they used some dot voting to vote on which particular areas they felt were the most important for the organization to focus on.

Laura Brandenburg: Were stakeholders in the organization also involved?

Emily Tom: Yes. That was extremely helpful. Two of the people from WEC were in the room and they were there to provide feedback, input. They were there for consultation. It was very useful for the teams because they could get clarification on the problems. And then also bounce ideas off the two stakeholders with this kind of solution work. It was really nice to have them in the room.

As well, they could also see business analysis in action.

Laura Brandenburg: What was the final output or deliverable that they created?

Emily Tom: We were thinking of making it a competition, but we didn’t. We wanted to give everyone a fair shot of being praised for doing a good job.

What happened was at the end of the day each team presented how they did their analysis, which techniques and tasks they performed, they provided their assessment of the problem, and they also provided recommended solutions. That was really cool. The two teams were very keen in putting together PowerPoint slides right away in 10 minutes. Another team did a full business model canvas, and the as-is and to-be scenarios. That was really interesting.

I also emphasized to the teams that they were to also think about solutions. As BAs, typically, we kind of step back and only constrain ourselves to thinking about requirements. But I was pushing these folks to come up with solutions, because that was our expected outcome to give to WEC so that WEC could run off and execute them. WEC has a whole bunch of homework to do.

Laura Brandenburg: Sure, like that overwhelm of, “Oh my gosh, so many great ideas.”

Emily Tom: Right. They have handouts. They have PowerPoint slides that they can work with.

Laura Brandenburg: Will there be some ongoing engagement there?

Emily Tom: Our work isn’t completely done. In the next couple of weeks they’re going to be doing a lesson learned exercise, of course. We’re going to be meeting with WEC to review the recommendations that came from the teams, help prioritize and make sense of what these recommendations were so that WEC can go ahead and execute.

I would like to circle back with them over in the next couple of months or a year from now to see how that worked. That’s all a part of our solution validation. To see how that worked and see if we can provide further assistance.

Laura Brandenburg: Obviously you’re going to be meeting with them more to get their reactions and things, but any initial assessment from them of what they felt the outcome or value was of the hack-a-thon, or the BA Blitz?

Emily Tom: One of the things that struck us is that each of the teams, when they were interviewing with the subject matter experts from WEC, the teams were asking very specific questions to understand the problems. The feedback from WEC was that these BAs were being very gentle and kind and asking about these problems and not finger pointing and pointing out the weaknesses of the organization.

I think that’s one of the strengths of business analysts. We do customer empathy. That’s what we saw in the room. There was a lot of customer empathy. Thinking about the organization and coming up with solutions that are appropriate for them.

Now, WEC also commented that these are a lot of things that they had thought about in the past but never really wrote down and never really prioritized. So it was really nice having the teams come together and provide recommendations on prioritization.

Laura Brandenburg: What about the participants? How did they feel at the end of the day?

Emily Tom: Exhausted.

Laura Brandenburg: Was it a full day event or a half day?

Emily Tom: It was a full day event. A lot of participants, they stated that they learned a lot. They learned about the nonprofit sector, and it’s actually quite big in Canada. It was a stats Canada report back in 2007 that said about 7% of Canada’s GDP flows through nonprofit organizations. It’s a lot of money.

These teams learned about the nonprofit sector; some of the challenges that are unique to that sector as opposed to for profit or public sector which our community is more used to.

I learned about that and I think there was some interest in serving that sector even more going forward. So there was that learning experience.

There was also learning and mentorship happening between the different levels of BAs. They basically appreciated that.

Laura Brandenburg: If you’re at that entry level, you’ve probably never seen something like a business model canvas. To see that in action and see somebody do it and be able to participate in that would be a big experience.

Emily Tom: It was also refreshing for some people to be given free rein to use whatever techniques they wished.

Oftentimes in our industry here in Ottawa, we’re constrained to certain techniques when we have to do real work for a real organization. But in this case, they were doing real work for a real organization, but they were allowed to apply any of the 50 techniques in the BABOK and more. I think they appreciated that because it stretched their creativity.

Laura Brandenburg: And how about for the chapter? What’s the value add for the chapter?

Emily Tom: Lots of exposure. Now we’re being asked when we’re going to do the next one, which I’m not sure. I’m working on writing up a playbook to allow our chapter to do it again without starting from zero. So, hopefully that’ll be easier next time. We’re going to share this playbook with other IIBA chapters because we feel that there’s a lot of value to doing this kind of event in different regions across the world.

Laura Brandenburg: For sure. A hugely valuable asset.

Emily Tom: We do believe in chapters helping chapters. It’s also creating exposure for our other events, too, because we’re able to cross promote some of the other events that we’re running in the next couple of months.

Laura Brandenburg: That’s exciting. What do you have coming up in the next couple of months?

Emily Tom: We have our holiday social, of course. We have our monthly study groups happening. We have our monthly topic presentations as well. There’s a topic presentation happening in January on story-telling. So that should be quite interesting. We also do a speed recruiting event every year. As opposed to speed dating; speed recruiting where we line up different, five or six different employers or recruiters and we run job seekers through them in a fast pace. That’s exciting.

Laura Brandenburg: It sounds like you just have a phenomenal chapter. I’ve worked with various chapters mostly across the USA, and some in Canada. There are varying levels of maturity and all of them are hugely valuable to that local community. But when I see chapters doing things like yours, it’s really like the next level.

Emily Tom: Well, I appreciate that. Sometimes you take risks and it works out. It’s a lot of fun. We like to share our results with other people as well so they can learn from them as well.

Laura Brandenburg: Final question, what about for you, personally? Obviously you put a ton of work and effort into this. What’s been the reward for you?

Emily Tom: For me, when I came up with the idea of us doing this hack-a-thon, I always had faith in the BAs in our community. And I really wanted to create that level of awareness that this is something that we can use to take the BA profession forward, expose what we can do for the community. This is just one example of all the creative things that I want to do.

Laura Brandenburg: I love it. It’s really about establishing the value and the recognition of the profession through demonstrating it for this organization.

Emily Tom: That’s right. I think BAs can be extremely flexible, and that’s what we’re trying to do with all these creative types of events.

Laura Brandenburg: Anything else you’d like to add?

Emily Tom: Well, I appreciate this time to talk about our event. I hope that this will have a positive ripple effect across the world through the different chapters. I’m counting on some chapters taking this up and running it on themselves.

Laura Brandenburg: And if people do have questions, they want to get in touch with you about that, what is the best way to do that?

Emily Tom: Our chapter’s on LinkedIn. I’m on LinkedIn as well.

Laura Brandenburg: Perfect. We can include the link to that, too, if you’re okay with that.

Emily Tom: Sure.

Laura Brandenburg: Thank you so much, Emily. I really appreciate it. I learned a lot and I’m inspired by what you put into organizing such an amazing event and how relevant, of course, business analysis is in any kind of organization, including a nonprofit organization.

Emily Tom: Well, thank you for this opportunity. I appreciate it.

Laura Brandenburg: You’re so welcome. Thank you for your time.

Emily Tom: You’re welcome.

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