The story of the Chinese Whisper and Business Analysis


Have you ever played “Chinese whisper”? I think you might have played this game at-least once in your life time. For those of you who do not know what Chinese whisper is, let me explain. We collect at least 5 people, get a message which has more than 10 words and makes sense. Get the players to sit in a circle or in a line and show the piece of paper with the message to one person. Make that person goes through the message and ask him to whisper the message to next person quickly so that no one else would hear. Then at the end of this message passing chain ask the last person to tell the message out loud. Well I don’t know about you. But few times I played this game there were hilarious messages at the end.

Why “Chinese whisper and Business analyst?

So how does a business analyst and Chinese whisper fit in? Would you agree if I say Business Analyst role itself is like playing Chinese whisper? Puzzled? Let me explain.

Capturing the idea expressed correctly and passing the same thing to someone who is down the line is a complicated thing itself. And when it comes with technical jargon and product specific terminology to top it off it could be more complicated to grasp what is being expressed. Under such circumstances, it might be bit difficult to provide a solution at the first shot itself that precisely fits customer expectations. This is the first thing I felt when I started off as business systems analyst almost one and half years back.

May it be a very small improvement that a customer wants or a major design change and functionality changes, all of that started from one point. The “Customer”. Focusing on the customer is something of high priority when it comes to any industry. I remember during a job interview I was asked the question, what do you think is the role of a business analyst. I answered business analyst is the person who bridges the gap between customer and software engineer. After one and half years I have no doubt about the part of the answer of bridging the gap. But how to bridge the gap better is what interests me more.

Most modern information systems are powerful applications that enables business entities to achieve great heights. Sometimes there are customers who are not taking the full advantage of a powerful application. Their knowledge on usages of the application may be limited where as another set of customers using the same application extensively in ways we never imagined when application itself was designed. So there will be different levels of complexities in the requirements or questions raised. Different needs different questions and different industries and complex scenarios to most trivial questions. Each situation needs to handled with care. Bridging the gap and providing a good solution to customer, something exactly that he expected has become a challenge and something of great importance by the day.

What is restricting us

There could be many reasons why gaps could exist. The result would be a customer who questions the solution provided or a customer who is dissatisfied. One thing is the language barrier. In Chinese whisper if the first person to take the message didn’t understand the language how can the correct message pass When your problem or requirement is communicated incorrectly or with lesser information. In such instances answer provided could be far away from problem.

Another factor that induces Chinese whisper effect is the distance to customer gives space for distortion in the message being communicated. When communicating from person to person there are plenty of instances where the idea expressed is not properly grasped. So just imagine the communication going through a chain? If even one of the intermediate communicators had a weakness in grasping the idea and passing it, the rest of the chain will be affected.

But sometimes this distance from customer is unavoidable with certain organizational hierarchy as well. Sometimes this distance from customer is intentionally kept when the application is larger and when company wants to avoid different small requirement of each customer, which may not have a business value from company perspective. I see that minimizing the distance to customer would be one way of reducing the Chinese whisper effect on requirement passing. But sometimes distance is there for a reason has its pros and it could be something which is not avoidable.

Words are another key factor that plays an important role. We are enabled today with tools and structured ways of communication. But with all these mechanisms sometimes there could be just three sentences describing the requirement. It’s sometimes frustrating when the need of the customer is not properly being explained. But when digging deeper it tends to expand and the real issue could be far away from where it started. Description relating to customer requirement, may it be bug that needs fixing, a functional enhancement should not be vague. This only reduces the probability of giving a quality solution to customer.

Understanding what is restricting us and bridging the gap between customer and the information systems vendor who designs solutions to customers’ requirement is vital. Above mentioned are actually few of many aspects that needs fine-tuning when it comes to business requirement passing. This totally is dependent on understanding of the consultant or analyst and how passes on to software engineer who creates the solution is vital.

What could be done

One thing that could be done to reduce the Chinese whisper effect in business requirement gathering would be to always work in teams and discuss and gather viewpoints of a team whenever possible. It might be difficult to always difficult to discuss everything always. But each one of us perceives the same in different ways. Hence a collaboration of perceptions where the issue is discussed would give a better meaning and increased accuracy. Whenever possible might be a good approach.

Language shouldn’t be a barrier anymore. I’d much rather see the problem in pictures or graphically rather than reading a thousand-word essay, which could be incorrect and misleading which could lead to a lot of misinterpretations. But in the case of expression, if words are the only mechanism to express ideas, then I’d rather go with a thousand-word essay than a five-word sentence. The underlying story could be better understood with more information.

I feel that we as business analysts should make it our responsibility to grasp much information as possible and pass to the next person down the line. Also when we grasp information we should always keep in mind to properly document. Proper documentation avoids the need to re-invent the wheel and reduce the Chinese whisper effect as next person to come across similar scenario would know what was done before, the reasoning behind why such actions were done. We as business analysts have capacity to empower others through proper documentation while reducing the Chinese whisper effect.

Increased involvement of users during the design phase of a solution is also another thing that could be done. It is them who use what we make. So, they’d have much more insight on to practical aspect of the application.

In above kind of a complex environment intermediary roles, we call them in different names, functional consultants, business analysts have a responsibility to effectively bridge this gaps. Companies on the other hand have a responsibility to empower the intermediaries with the right tools and processes to capture and pass requirement effective down the chain. Easier said than done some might think. But for me this seems way forward and something worth putting the effort.