Activity Data Synthesis

Friday, 8 April 2011

Developing a business case

Purpose of Business case

The most important thing to remember when developing a business case is that its purpose is to persuade someone to release resources for the proposed activity. This will primarily be money or staff time in most cases. It makes little difference whether this is re-allocating staff to a new project, employing new staff or contracting for the service.

The person who will have to make the decision has a wide variety of competing requests and demands on the available resources, so that what they need to know is how the proposed project will benefit them. Note that while this should be about benefits to them in their role they are people with particular interests and desires (including keeping their job and their next promotion). The question that they need the answer to is why should I use the resources on this project rather than some of the others?

The answer to this question should be that it helps them move towards their strategic goals. So the first thing that you need to find out is what their strategic goals are. These could be around cost savings (very likely in the current economic climate), improving the student experience, increasing the use of resources. You should then select one (or at most two) of these goals and explain how the project will help to meet this goal (or goals).

You may feel that the project can address many goals, and it is possible that this is true, but you need to choose the ones that are central to the person you are writing the case for. Aligning the project to many goals has the danger of diluting each of them and having less impact than a strong case for a single goal.

The business case is intended to enable the decision maker to make an informed decision based on the (potential) benefits, the costs and the risks and how this particular project would further their strategic goals. It doesn’t require academic rigour, but it does require evidence


A business case, like a bid for funding or a student essay, must answer the questions that the person reading it has. A typical business case of the type we need here will have the following structure:

Title. Should be short and descriptive (eg Proposal to use data from the VLE and SRS to identify students at risk of dropping out).

Intended audience. While this would not normally form part of a business case this would, it will be helpful for other people reading this business case and considering how they might use it for themselves. Essentially, the intended audience should be the budget holder who will benefit from the project. Why would the librarian want to pay for a project that only benefits student services when there are plenty of projects that they would like to fund of benefit to the library? Examples might include head of student service, librarian, PVC for teaching and learning.

Brief description of what is being proposed. This should focus on the effect that will be achieved when the result is delivered. It is best to avoid technical descriptions, and to give the reader some concrete benefits from the project. (See panel for a brief example). The level of detail should be appropriate to the size of the project and the audience that it is intended for. The description will be fleshed out further in the main part of the business case, the idea is that the reader can quickly understand what the proposal covers and provides some context for all that follows which will include the details needed to support an informed decision.

Brief description
For a VLE activity data project
The University of Wigan has a significant problem with non-completion by students. Currently 21% of all undergraduate students fail to complete, with half of those dropping out in the first year. Evidence demonstrates that early identification of students at risk of dropping out followed by active intervention could reduce this to 18% gaining the University £3million per year in additional HEFCE and student income. This project will use data that is collected by the attendance system and VLE to automatically identify students displaying at risk patterns of behaviour, thereby enabling student services and personal tutors to focus their efforts where they will have the greatest impact.

Alternative options. There are always alternative options that could be implemented to achieve the same business goal, and it is important to show that you have considered them and explain why the proposed option is superior. Note that these are not technical alternatives (or at least not only technical alternatives), but alternative approaches to achieving the same benefit that this project is seeking to achieve. For instance, an alternative to using activity data for the early identification of students at risk might be reports from tutors. The important thing in these business cases is to demonstrate that you have considered alternatives and have valid reasons for the choice that you made. This may be because the cost is lower, the benefits are higher or the risks are lower.

For each alternative you should:

  • Provide a brief description of the approach, highlighting the key differences from the approach proposed,
  • Describe the benefits of the alternative approach (lower cost, less staff development, fewer risks, no legal implications…..)
  • Describe the costs and risks associated with the alternative
  • Summarise the reasons for rejecting this approach in favour of the selected approach.

Do not “over egg the pudding” in terms of overstating the costs and risks or understating the benefits. If the alternatives are not credible then the business case may be rejected as it appears to be not offering realistic alternatives.

Benefits. This is where you outline the benefits of the project. Remember that the business case is aimed at a particular person (role), who will be funding the project either with cash or by allocating staff time. They are primarily interested in benefits that address their strategic goals. Or, to put it another way, why would they pay for a project if the benefits fall elsewhere, they would expect the beneficiary to pay for the project.

The benefits should be realistic and quantifiable. If your project will, if successful, reduce student drop-out from 28% to 27% then that is what you should claim. If you over claim you might be asked to deliver that, and then when you deliver what is actually very worthwhile the project may be seen as failure as it did not deliver what was promised. It may even be worth under claiming the benefits (so long as they still exceed the costs), as delivering more than promised is usually seen as a good thing. Wherever possible the benefits should be quantified in monetary terms, this allows the decision maker to compare the benefits and costs (which usually can be expressed in monetary terms), and so see the return on investment.

Return on investment

Formally this can be calculated as:

ROI = benefit - cost

But more usefully it can be considered to be the amount of time taken for the investment (cost) to be covered by the benefit.

Costs. This can be expresses in financial terms or in terms of staff effort (which can easily be turned into financial costs. A breakdown of the main headings is useful. If you want to relate the costs directly to the project plan then this may be more appropriately put after the project plan.

Project plan. You have all produced these in the past, so I don’t think there is any need to go into any great details. I would expect a fuller description of the project, the main tasks involved and how much effort or cost each will take.

Risks. This is similar to the type of risk register that you might include in a JISC bid, though it is useful to give an indication of the cost that risk will incur if it occurs. This could be expressed financially (pounds) or as effort (person days).

Data formats incompatible IT manager Low 5 days Map between formats
Sued for breach of privacy Data protection officer Very low >£10,000 Ensure agreements are in place and signed by students

Recommendation. This is likely either to be to take action (ROI is positive) or not (ROI is negative).

Additional information

Guidance and templates


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