In the times of sequential IT delivery many IT people hardly needed to know a thing about the business they were working for. As long as you created software exactly according to the detailed specification that someone else had created, your software was supposed to be OK.
In today’s high-performance IT delivery, it is no longer common that detailed specifications are created. On the other hand, it is common that team members, together with the product owner, discuss what a user story should do, and based on that information create the software.
So, the short answer to the question “do cross-functional team members need business knowledge?” is “yes!”.
But of course, not all team members can be ultimate experts in the entire business of their organization. To what extent do they need to know how the business processes run? In this blog, we’ll discuss this.
(This is the sixth blog in the series “How to train cross-functional teams”, for links to previous blogs please go to the end of this blog)
Different roles need different business knowledge
Team members need to understand how parts fit in the whole, therefore they need to understand the bigger picture as well as details that are relevant for their role. This varies depending on the roles that team members have. It is obvious that a team member with the role of business analyst needs business knowledge. But other team members need business knowledge too. A developer needs to have enough understanding of the purpose of a user story to develop the software to support the business process. An operations person needs to know the business process to understand how IT should be implemented and also assess the urgency to solve problems when these arise. As a last example, the team member with a testing role needs to understand the normal use of the IT system in the business process but also what edge cases may exist. This shows that team members have different needs depending on their role.
Business expert in the team
It’s beneficial to have a business expert in the team. Not just for having the knowledge available, but especially in order for the other team members to be able to quickly ask questions, learn a lot and discuss when new situations pop up. This way the business knowledge in the team as a whole, will grow during the progress of the work, which is good since cross-functional teams usually work on the same IT system for a longer period of time.
How to learn
For a team to be able to deliver a system that meets the business needs it is essential that the team understands the business. There are different levels of business knowledge. Not all team members need to be experts, but they all need enough knowledge to understand the goals and purposes that the businesspeople have to deliver business value.
How can team members acquire the knowledge they need?
The main advice to any team member that wants to support their team and the business is: “Be willing to learn”!
No one can know everything when they join a new organization and/or team. But when you are curious, interested, willing to learn and eager to grow, you will be a valuable member of the team. And remember that asking questions is a virtue (there is a lot of truth in the joke that QA means question asker!!).
Apart from knowledge-sharing between the team members, an organization can support the learning of the team members by interactive sessions, for example a business process walkthrough where businesspeople explain to the team members what they do and why they do it.
Also, a lot of business knowledge can be transferred by general and specific training courses, as an example: if you work for a bank, you can take a generic training course about financial transactions, which is basically the same for many banks. On top of this an organization can create a specific training course tailored to their situation.
If the businesspeople have difficulty in explaining how their process works a powerful technique is “observation”, in which team members closely watch the business process and ask questions about what is happening. To take this even further team members may even participate in the business process themselves so that they get first-hand experience with the actual operations in their organization.
So, our conclusion around the question “Do team members need business knowledge” is:
Just as with technical knowledge and skills, all team members together must make sure that the team has the right knowledge and insights of the business process(es) to ensure that their IT products properly support the businesspeople to achieve the business value they pursue.
Be curious and willing to learn and you will be a valuable member of your cross-functional team!!
What do you think about the need for business knowledge in a cross-functional team? Please, let us know in the comments below.
This blog has been co-authored by Rik Marselis
This is the sixth blog in the series How to train cross-functional teams, the second blog is here How to be a good cross-functional team member, the third blog Does every team member need coding skills, the fourth Five different ways to train a cross-functional team member and the fifth Challenges of agile at scale