Using Interviews to Document Business Processes

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Business Relationship Manager - Product Lifecycle Management, Chevron Corporation

There are many approaches to documenting business processes. These include group and individual interviews, white boarding, reviewing existing documentation, and job shadowing.

Interviewing the people doing the job is an effective method to understanding how a business process is currently done. Whether you are documenting the current state or future state, successful interviews require planning, communication and a high-degree of people skills and intuition. Following are some ways to ensure that your interviews achieve the desired results.

Identify Participants and their roles. The first role to understand is that of the interviewer. Is the interviewer a scribe or an analyst? A scribe records what they are told about the process and may also develop detailed process flows from their notes. Their task is to capture the information and put it into a format that can be easily understood and communicated. The analyst not only records what is said, but questions and analyzes the information to ensure that the process detail is captured and modeled accurately with issues clearly identified. The analyst looks beyond the obvious steps for the more intuitive aspects that are often overlooked when explaining how something is done.

Selecting the right people to interview is critical to its success. Sometimes a manager will volunteer to explain what their people do to avoid impacting the daily operation of the business. Insist on interviewing the people actually performing the process. You will get a more accurate view especially if the manager is not involved with the process on a day-to-day basis.

Limit group size. When doing a group interview, limit the number of participants. The number of side conversations and digressions will increase exponentially by the number of people involved. Managing the direction of the interview and maintaining focus will be easier with fewer people. Four to six participants is good number.

Interviewing and brainstorming. Make sure the participants understand whether it is an interview or a brainstorming session. Brainstorming is stating an objective and then allowing the participants to use their imagination and experience to come up with ways to reach the objective. While an effective brainstorming session will have rules of conduct, the format is intended to enable innovation and ‘thinking outside the box’. No idea is judged or rejected and all ideas are captured for further investigation later. An interview, on the other hand, follows a more structured format using a question and answer approach. The questions need to have enough clarity to focus on the particular issue but be open-ended enough so that the responses are not predetermined. Asking for ways to improve a process is valid in an interview and is not the same as brainstorming.

Bring people into the discussion. Often one or two people will dominate the meeting. To make sure that all participants have an opportunity to respond, direct the question to specific individuals. However, sometimes one person will try to answer for everyone. Be polite but firm. Thank them for their input and ask again for the other person’s response. You may need to schedule individual meetings with those you need more input from.

Watch for disagreement. Pay attention to any side comments, facial expressions and actions. People may disagree with what’s being said but not want to speak up. Draw them out by asking what their experience has been for a particular task. By focusing on their experience or how they would handle a situation, creating a right, wrong or confrontational atmosphere can be avoided. People may be concerned with giving the ‘wrong answer’ and getting in trouble especially if they are concerned that their job will be eliminated. Be aware of the group dynamics and adjust your approach accordingly. If you sense information is being withheld or manipulated, set up another meeting with the individual.

Send questions out ahead of time. This will prevent people from feeling put on the spot and allow them to think through their answers to provide more accurate and detailed information. Ask them to bring samples of forms and other documents used.

Be respectful of people’s time. Control the flow of the meeting by having well-prepared questions, ensuring you have the right participants, and keeping people on target but allowing them to fully answer the question. Follow the rules for an effective meeting.

Use real scenarios. Make some of your questions in the form of scenarios and document how it would be handled. This may include demonstrating the tools used to complete the process. Ask for copies of training material or user manuals.

Ask for clarification. Even if you believe you understand the process, ask detailed questions and record the answers. Don’t judge or interject your own ideas and don’t be concerned with admitting you don’t understand. Get definitions for any job-specific terminology used. (41)

For more information on conducting business interviews, read Case Method Business Interviewing by Linda Hickman and Cliff Longman, Addison-Wesley Publishing.

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