How to Build Business Cases

By Meta S. Brown

As a data miner, you want data-mining tools, time to devote to a worthwhile data-mining project, or maybe just the opportunity to do something new and different from the usual routine.

In your business case, you’re not setting out to make anyone and everyone desire data mining. You’re setting out to convince a specific group of people that their pain is too much to live with, that your plan can make that pain go away, and that you can be trusted to do that. You must convince them that your proposal is more valuable than the money they have to spend.

Elements of the business case

The elements of a data-mining business case are . . . the elements of a business case. Nothing is unique about a data-mining business case other than the fact that the solution it proposes will call for data mining.

If your management is unfamiliar with data mining, be prepared to provide sufficient details to make a convincing case that your proposal will work. But you should be doing that anyway!

Because a business case is an evidence-based document, you’ll need to collect some evidence.

Before you sit down to write your business case, gather materials that you will need for reference. You’ll need to explain the problem and how it is affecting the organization. Look for reports, records of complaints, and other documentation that describes the nature and the magnitude of the problem.

You may already have explored some options for addressing the problem. Did you conduct interviews, obtain literature from vendors, or find industry reports that you’ll use to make your recommendation? Get all of that material together where you can find it easily to use for reference. Don’t worry about what’s missing yet. You can always obtain additional information as you work through the process.

The table shows you the elements of a business case, arranged in the order that they should appear. This is the information that you should be gathering and the questions that you should be asking as you conduct your research.

The Elements of a Business Case
Topic Questions to ask
Background What organization(s) is involved? What is its business?
Problem statement What’s going wrong? When did it start? Whom does it
affect? Is the cause known? Is this a common or unusual type of
problem? Have we or others fixed problems like this before?
Action alternatives What solutions have been suggested to address the problem? What
are the advantages and disadvantages of each alternative?
Preferred action Which alternative do you judge to be the best? Make your case
for it above all others.
Connection of preferred action with strategic goals Some organizations emphasize such goals and some don’t.
If yours does, you must explain that your proposal aligns with at
least one of those goals, and how.
Expected benefits What value will the proposed solution yield? This should be
expressed in dollars, even if the benefit isn’t cash. If you
expect to save labor, for example, get an estimate of labor costs
per hour and multiply by the expected hours saved to translate the
benefit to a dollar figure.
Mechanism How will the proposed action cause the expected benefits?
Metrics How will the benefit be measured? (In other words, how can
management check the results later?)
Costs What’s the proposed action going to cost? Provide a
detailed budget with cash and noncash costs, and a timeline.
Costs of taking no action How much will the problem cost if we take no action at
all?

What if you’re missing an important piece of information? Don’t leave it out! Go find out what you need to know. If you can’t find exactly what you want, get the best substitute that you can manage.

Putting it in writing

Gathering information is the most time-consuming part of the creation of a business case. After you’ve collected the supporting information and taken time to think over each element of your business case, writing it down should be quick and simple by comparison. You can write the same information, organized in the same order, that you have just reviewed. You don’t need to be fancy. You’re writing a business case, not poetry.

You also have some freedom to change the structure of the business case when you write it. If you feel that the case would be expressed more clearly with some changes in organization, that’s fine.

For example, you may want to put the cost of the problem early in the report, with the problem statement. Or you may want to state costs and benefits immediately after each alternative option that you describe. As long as all the elements are included and your business case is easy to read and understand, you’re doing fine.

Any business case that is more than a couple of pages long must have an executive summary. That’s a one page (no longer) summary of the key points, especially the conclusion (your recommendation and the benefits). The executive summary should be the very first page of your business case. Don’t forget it, because this may be the only part that a busy executive reads.

The basics on benefits

In a business case, it all comes down to money. Even if the benefit your business case offers isn’t obviously money related — that is, if your business case merely saves time, improves working conditions, or provides better information — be sure that you’ve phrased that benefit in terms of money.

You must get in the habit of defining a cash value for the advantages that your business case offers and in all your discussions with decision makers.

When you look at it that way, you find only two kinds of benefits:

  • Increased revenue

  • Decreased costs

A key part of preparing your business case, then, is to identify and quantify all the ways that your proposed solution will do either of those two things.

It’s a little known dirty truth that a business case that balances project costs with cost savings is more convincing, by far, than one that promises revenue increases.

This is mostly because estimates of revenue increases require more guesswork, and often, more things go wrong along the way. Many executives have learned from experience that it takes more cooperation from others to achieve revenue increases, and you may not get the cooperation that you are expecting.

That’s not to say that revenue increases aren’t desirable. In fact, greater potential value often exists in a revenue increase. You can only save as much as you spend, though, which is a limiting factor. Revenue, on the other hand, has no limit.

Still, make it a priority to identify cost-savings potential and build your business case on that, even if your personal goal is to increase revenue. (If you’re successful, nobody will turn down bonus revenue!)