Test Managers Toolkit: The Model Office (Part 1)

I am constantly amazed at how many Test Managers have never used my favourite (and to date, most effective) Testing technique – the Model Office. In fact, I’m even more amazed at how many Test Managers have never even heard of a Model Office. Where have you all been the last 20 years?? A search on Google supports my assertion – that it is an under-utilised technique. Only one of (what I consider to be) our Testing thought-leaders (Paul Gerrard) mentions it on his website, all other Google references are from non-Testing practitioners, generally Program/Project Managers or Architects.

So, what is a Model Office? Simply put, it’s is a (scaled) replica of an entire business (or sometimes a clearly defined sub-set of functions or departments within a business). It is a model (generally) defined in both business and technology terms to depict how an organisation works. Typically, at the centre of this model is a level 3 process/workflow map (or maps) depicting how stuff happens, who does it (and when) and what outcomes occur as a result of stuff being done. It’s major benefit is that everyone gets to see what the organisation looks like today and how it will look in the future, once the changes you are making have been implemented. Some folks describe a Model Office as a simulator, but I prefer to think of it as scaled-model where real-world scenarios can be tried and tested – even before you start to build the solution.

My most successful applications of a Model Office have been on significant organisational change type projects where we have built a physical manifestation of the current state and overlaid it with the proposed solution. We do this by expressing the current organisation as level 3 process maps using sticky notes and then covering these with a see-through material and then placing more sticky notes on this cover where the changes occur. This provides a before and after series of images that can easily be modified by simply replacing the offending sticky notes. Once we have these pictures approved (by the various stakeholders) we commit them to whatever software we are using to build the long-term process maps.

Examples of Model Offices we’ve created include:

  • A Branch of a Retail Bank – so realistic that customers tried to come in and perform their daily transactions (we set it up in the foyer of the bank’s Head Office for maximum visibility)
  • A complete online Supermarket that encompassed everything from product-line buyers, a mini warehouse, real delivery trucks and “friendly” customers who ordered and received free produce for 3 months
  • A Supply Chain business that was being transformed via a complete technology overhaul
  • A Business Bank that was undergoing a major merger
  • A government department implementing a new Training and Development package

Four of these program’s of work were delivered successfully, while the fifth was canned based upon information gathered using the Model Office during the solution design phase.

I have been using this technique for over 10 years and the biggest challenge is generally gaining buy-in from the technology stakeholders – business stakeholders are always supportive of a business-centric Test Strategy.

So, why haven’t you set up (or considered setting up) a Model Office in your organisation? The most common reasons I come across are:

  • Lack of strategic knowledge or technical understanding of the Model Office technique (you won’t find it mentioned in the ISTQB syllabus or glossary)
  • Lack of insight/foresight as to the short and long term benefits
  • Lack of ability to convince potential sponsors to fund it
  • Lack of a suitable location or space – some Model Offices require significant physical space

When we were Testing the Supply Chain business we were allocated a (spare) warehouse with an office that overlooked the main storage area, so that we could monitor and record all the warehouse-based functions in real-time.

Unfortunately, not every organisation is willing to provide this level of support; however, this is not a show-stopper and your powers of creativity just need to be exercised a little more. As I said a couple of weeks ago, I’m currently on the road in Europe and therefore don’t have access to my entire Test Managers toolkit and therefore I can’t attach a multitude of photos of some of the Model Offices I’ve designed and implemented, but I will rectify this once I am back in Australia.

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