ISACA Journal
Volume 4, 2,014 


The Business Case as an Operational Management Instrument—A Process View 

Kim Maes, Steven De Haes, Ph.D., and Wim Van Grembergen, Ph.D. 

Many business cases are weakly developed or gather dust after the investment has formally been approved.1 It is, however, recognised that using a well-developed business case throughout the investment life cycle can increase the investment success.2, 3 Looking from a process perspective, a conceptual model of a business case process can facilitate continuous business case use throughout the investment life cycle.

To understand through which practices such a business case process can be implemented, a group of international experts from academia and practice were surveyed. In total, 31 business-case practices were defined, evaluated and labelled into categories of business case development, maintenance, review and accommodation. The findings show that practices focusing on stakeholder inclusion and what the investment wants to realise are fundamental. Taking into account the return on effort, organisations can preferably focus on practices that support business case development and maintenance.

Conceptual Model

A business case is a formal investment document that includes a structured overview of relevant investment information and provides a justification to support well-founded decision making.4 Using such a business case throughout the investment life cycle requires a transformation of the formal business case static document into a living document.5 A conceptual model can take a more process-oriented view towards the business case supporting its continuous use (figure 1). This business case process runs in parallel with an investment life cycle and consists of three distinct, but consecutive phases (development, maintenance and review) supported by an accommodating layer (figure 2). The four components are further operationalised through a set of logically related practices.

Figure 1
Figure 2

Expert View on Business Case Practices: Approach

Twenty-four academic and practitioner experts distributed across various countries and industries were surveyed. The overall objectives were to determine initial definitions (obtained from literature and case research) of the business case practices validated and to examine the perceived effectiveness and ease of implementation of each practice to learn about its potential contribution. The research process employed to achieve the first objective will not be discussed here, but the resulting business case practice definitions can be found in figure 3. These definitions are necessary to discuss the research findings of the second objective. The background information of all experts is included in figure 4.

Figure 3
Figure 4

Overview of Business Case Practices

An initial set of business case practices was identified during a systematic literature review complemented with five exploratory case studies. In a preliminary round of the Delphi study, several experts were interviewed individually to get feedback on the suggested practices and their respective definitions in order to derive a validated set of business case practices. The resulting 31 practices and definitions can be found in figure 3.

Perceived Effectiveness and Ease of Implementation

What has been learned about the perceived effectiveness and ease of implementation of each business case practice?

In the online survey, each expert was asked to score the practices on the two quality criteria by way of a five-point Likert scale. During the analysis, the number of experts who perceived a practice as highly effective (score 4-5) and easily implemented (score 4-5) were aggregated per practice. Figure 5 displays the aggregated percentage of experts who attributed a score of 4-5 on the two quality criteria. The figure shows that the majority of experts (greater than 70 percent) perceived the upper 23 practices in the grey rectangle as highly effective. The highest levels of consensus were achieved on practice BCD03, BCD07 and BCPA07, while eight practices did not reach the 70-percent-consensus level for being perceived as highly effective.

In general, it was observed that stakeholders’ attention is found to be highly effective; identifying their expectations (BCD03) and ensuring their active involvement (BCPA07) are positioned within the top three of highly effective practices and reach a very high level of consensus among experts. This does not come as a surprise as various academics have stressed the importance of stakeholder involvement and commitment.6, 7 Another set of practices that is perceived to be highly effective deals with what the investment wants to realise. One expert clarifies, ‘It is of utmost importance to (1) know exactly what problem you want to solve, (2) understand how this will be solved, and (3) obtain and maintain the desire to achieve this’. Although the latter refers mostly to the importance of stakeholder attention and involvement, the other two can directly be linked to BCD01, BCD02, BCD05 and BCD07. Indeed, the development of a business case should start from these fundamental practices.8

The consensus levels on perceived ease of implementation are much lower and analysis demonstrated that experts have great difficulty agreeing on the ease of implementation. In figure 5, the light grey bars for 25 practices do not reach the 30 percent consensus level indicated by the vertical black line. In other words, experts reached a high consensus level (greater than 70 percent) that these 25 practices are difficult or moderately difficult to implement. Likewise, many organisations still struggle with business case usage.9, 10 IT people are often in the driver’s seat when developing a business case, although the responsibility should be positioned on the business side. IT people are less able to perform this job as they have difficulties estimating the added value that comes from strategic and tactical business opportunities such as flexibility, service and market innovation.11

Figure 5

Figure 6If an analysis is performed on the consensus levels per the business case process component, one can observe that the business case maintenance (BCM) component has achieved the highest consensus on its effectiveness, closely followed by those in the business case development (BCD) component (figure 6). The consensus level for business case process accommodation (BCPA) practices is still within the high consensus cut-off level (greater than 70 percent), while only 64 percent of the experts perceive business case review (BCR) practices as effective. Although all four components received a low to very low consensus rate on perceived ease of implementation, again, practices from the BCM component achieved the highest rating. Hence, one might reason that organisations will achieve the highest return on effort when they implement the practices from the BCM component. Following up on the relevance of the business case is certainly important,12 because the business drivers and objectives can be impacted by a shift in market, organisational or technological issues. If an organisation wants to understand how it needs to react to these changes, this impact should be investigated. In case a dramatic change threatens the business case relevance, one should reassess the fundamental assumptions and perform a new cost-benefit analysis.13, 14 It seems experts perceive the effectiveness of these BCM practices as high since they possess the ability to have a direct impact on last-minute changes and to contribute greatly to the effects of ongoing investment decision making.

The lowest return might be expected from practices in the BCR component, as those score lowest on effectiveness and ease of implementation. Potentially, experts have reasoned that the job is done by then and that these practices have no direct impact on the final result. This is, however, not entirely true because monitoring benefit realisation is included in BCR02 and believed to be critical after the resulting products and services from the investment have officially been launched.15

Business Case Process and COBIT 5

After reviewing how a business case process can be executed and which business case practices are most effective to realise a successful investment outcome, how does one apply these findings? COBIT 5: Enabling Processes offers various opportunities. For instance, the Manage innovation (APO04) process from COBIT 5 helps an organisation be on the lookout for innovation opportunities and plan how it can benefit from innovation in relation to business needs. The business case practices BCD02 and BCD04 can be of direct help by identifying technology opportunities and capturing the business drivers of these opportunities in relation to the enterprise environment (COBIT 5’s APO04.02 Maintain an understanding of the enterprise environment and APO04.03 Monitor and scan the technology environment). To understand how the organisation can benefit from these technology-enabled innovations, it can employ BCD09 and BCD12 to assess the potential of emerging technologies and innovation ideas (APO04.04). While BCD09 helps with the identification of the anticipated benefits, BCD12 outlines when these benefits should be realised. Practices from the BCM component can be of specific value for management practice APO04.06 by monitoring ‘the implementation and use of emerging technologies and innovations during integration, adoption and for the full economic life cycle to ensure that the promised benefits are realised’.16

COBIT 5 process BAI01 can be used as a second example. It covers the entire investment life cycle of a programme/project, so it can be argued that multiple practices spread across the business case process can be of importance. As a practice to develop and accommodate the business case process, stakeholder inclusion is perceived to be highly effective in achieving a desirable investment outcome (supporting BAI01.03 Manage stakeholder engagement). As part of the management practice BAI01.02 (Initiate a programme), confirmation should be achieved from stakeholders on their active participation as a sponsor or member of the programme board or committee. The development of a benefit realisation plan (BCD12) and the continuous act of reviewing and updating the business case (BCM05 and BCPA09) are also foreseen in this management practice (BAI01.02). In addition, it is advisable to use practices BCM01 and BCM02 to evaluate whether the investment is still in line with the drivers and objectives and on track with the implementation of the required changes (BAI01.06 Monitor, control and report on the programme outcomes). The practices BCR01, BCR02 and BCR03, on the other hand, help to evaluate the investment contributions against predefined review criteria (BAI01.11 Monitor and control projects). The management of programme and project risk (BAI01.10) can be safeguarded by way of the business case practices to identify and monitor investment risk (BCD11 and BCM04). These two examples demonstrate that the business case process and its individual practices can be of use in parallel with the execution of some enabling processes from COBIT 5.

Figure 7


Observing the findings of this study, it is strongly advisable that organisations consider the application of a business case process with regard to their IT-enabled investments. As an essential starting point, organisations need to spend sufficient time and resources to understand what the investment is about and what they want to realise. The inclusion of relevant stakeholders, their active involvement and formal confirmation can be considered a second critical ingredient to achieving a successful outcome. Organisations do not need to start with the implementation of all 31 business case practices, but they can start with those practices that are considered to be most effective by experts.

This study can be used to help in the selection of appropriate business case practices in order to start implementing a business case process. Moreover, organisations that have already implemented COBIT 5 can benefit from the link between these business case practices and the COBIT 5 enabling processes.

This study was executed within the context of large for-profit organisations, but it would be interesting to undertake future research on the applicability of the business case process and practices in other environments. For instance, small- and medium-sized companies or governments might need other, or more focused, practices in each specific context.


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1 ISACA, COBIT 5: Enabling Processes, ISACA, 2012
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5 Op cit, ISACA
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8 Op cit, Ward, Daniel and Peppard
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12 Al-Mudimigh, A.; M. Zairi; M. Al-Mashari, et al; ‘ERP Software Implementation: An Integrative Framework’, European Journal of Information Systems, vol. 10, no. 4, 2001, p. 216-226
13 Op cit, Franken, Edwards and Lambert
14 Op cit, Jeffrey and Leliveld
15 Iacovou, C.; A. Dexter; ‘Turning Around Runaway Information Technology Projects’, California Management Review, vol. 46, no. 4, 2004, p. 68-88
16 Op cit, ISACA

Kim Maes is a Ph.D. candidate in the department for information systems management at the University of Antwerp (Belgium) and IWT Fellow of the Agency for Innovation by Science and Technology.

Steven De Haes, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the University of Antwerp and Antwerp Management School (Belgium), co-editor-in-chief of the International Journal on IT/Business Alignment and Governance (IJITBAG), and academic director of the IT Alignment and Governance (ITAG) Research Institute.

Wim Van Grembergen, Ph.D., is a professor at the University of Antwerp and Antwerp Management School (Belgium), academic director of the ITAG Research Institute, and co-editor-in-chief of the IJITBAG.


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