Get What You Need: How to Build a Business Case

By Sue Iannone

We all…well, maybe some of us…remember the chorus lyrics from a famous Rolling Stones song:

You can't always get what you want
But if you try sometimes you just might find
You get what you need

It’s tough to argue with that.  It holds true in everyday life, and it holds true for leaders of Learning & Development (L&D) organizations in pharmaceutical and biotech companies.  The fact is, L&D organizations aren’t always given the resources they need to deliver the results expected of them.  However, your chances of getting the resources you need are much greater if you know how to make a compelling case for them.

In this article, we’ll discuss how to build a business case that can help an L&D team secure the resources it needs for a project or initiative.  Specifically, we’ll answer the following questions:

  • What is a business case?
  • When is a business case needed?
  • How do you build a business case?
  • What are some best practices for building a business case?

Let’s get started.

What is a Business Case?

Simply put, a business case is a document that makes the argument—or outlines the rationale—for investing in an initiative or a related group of initiatives.  Business cases can range from simple to highly complex.

A simple business case can be as basic as a conversational e-mail with some supporting data that gets sent to the relevant stakeholders.  A complex business case might be a lengthy, sophisticated, and formal document that’s chock full of charts, graphs, and data from primary and secondary research that must be presented to a committee of decision makers.

Whether a situation calls for a simple or complex business case really depends on two things:

  1. Who’s making the investment decision
  2. What resources—and how much resources—are being requested

If, for example, you’re making the case to your boss, with whom you have a great working relationship—and you’re only asking for a relatively small amount of money for a project—then the business case should be simple.  On the other hand, a more complex business case is typically justified if:

  • Multiple departments or functions can be affected by the decision to move forward
  • Multiple high-level decision makers must be involved
  • Large sums of money will be required
  • Additional headcount will be required

Any time larger amounts of money and headcount are required, a robust business case is going to be essential to getting approval.  To move forward absent a well-documented rationale and plan would be irresponsible.

When Is a Business Case Needed?

Typically, any time the L&D team needs to secure additional resources, a business case will be needed on some level.  Consider a new product launch.  A pharmaceutical company is going to make a range of resources available for something as important as a launch.  However, budgeting decision makers don’t always understand the nuances of every component of a launch and may under-resource the learning needs.

The L&D organization should be proactive in identifying the things it needs to help facilitate a successful launch.  It must then make the case for them.

Here’s a real-world example.  We have worked with two different clients in the past few years that had robust development pipelines with significant numbers of global launches coming up over a multi-year period.  The companies were budgeting for the launches and providing some resources for L&D to support them.

However, there were some unmet needs that decision-makers didn’t seem to notice.  In both cases, the companies lacked clear processes, tools, and guidelines for curriculum and content development related to global launch.  Absent these things, efficiency would suffer, costs would rise, and the L&D teams would have to “reinvent the wheel” for each launch.

We worked with the L&D organizations to build business cases for developing global launch processes and tools.  Ultimately, those business cases were successful, and we moved forward with the initiatives.

Business cases are often required before adopting new technologies.  For example, an L&D team might need to make a business case for adopting a new virtual classroom tool, particularly if the company already uses a virtual meeting tool.  Such decisions often have impacts beyond the L&D team, affecting the Information Technology department, Human Resources, etc.

How Do You Build a Business Case?

As we’ve established, business cases can range from simple to complex.  Here, we outline the key components in a more complex business case, but the principles apply to simple ones, as well.

Executive Summary

Be sure to include an executive summary up front that summarizes the need, why it’s important, the expected benefits, and what’s requested.  It should be a “micro” version of the larger business case.  Often, key decision makers are busy, and they won’t read further than the executive summary.

Background and Current Situation

In this section, review the current state of affairs, focusing special attention on the needs that must be addressed, the gaps that must be filled, or the risks that must be avoided.  Explain why the status quo is unsustainable or sub-optimal, and why it must be changed.  Use data and research to make the case as appropriate.


Clearly outline the objectives of the initiative you want to pursue.  Presumably, the initiative would solve the problems or close the gaps highlighted in the Background and Current Situation.  Articulate specific goals and objectives related to doing that.

Initiative Overview

In this section, define the initiative.  Describe what it is and how it would work.  This is where you will provide a high-level overview of what is needed in terms of dollars, headcount, and so on.

Benefit / Risk Assessment

It’s important to spell out the initiative’s expected benefits.  If you’re asking the company to invest time and dollars in software, tools, personnel, and more, then it’s critical to explain what the company will get in return for those investments.  Benefits can be qualitative or quantitative, but it’s usually better to thoughtfully outline benefits in a quantitative manner when possible.

It’s also important to outline the risks associated with not pursuing the initiative.  In addition, moving forward with an initiative can bring risks of its own in some cases.  Outline those, as well, but include suggestions for mitigating those risks.

Detailed Plan of Action

This section should clearly spell out how the initiative would be implemented.  In particular, it should include:

  • Key deliverables and who’s responsible for them
  • Delivery timelines
  • Budget and headcount needs
  • Key stakeholders and required champions or sponsors


The conclusion should reinforce the overall business case.  It’s a concise restatement of the need, the initiative, the investment required, and the expected benefits.

What Are Some Best Practices for Building a Business Case?

There are a lot of best practices for building a business case.  However, we’ll relate just a few here.  These are the best practices that have served our team well over the years.

  1. Align the initiative with the company’s strategic imperatives or business objectives – This is paramount. If the initiative is not related to the company’s overall strategy or business goals, then it’s probably not worth doing.
  2. Tell a story – Be engaging and compelling when you make your case. This is particularly important when outlining the status quo and why it needs to change, as well as when describing the expected benefits. Use real-world examples or case studies to illustrate why the status quo is bad.  Use similar techniques when outlining benefits.  Creatively connect the initiative to better business results.
  3. Make it pristine – Do not turn in a document (even if it’s just an e-mail) with spelling, grammatical, or math errors in it. Formatting is also important.  If you’re using PowerPoint, make sure its layout is attractive, neat, and consistent.  Use good charts and attractive graphics.  Poorly constructed documents reflect negatively on the L&D team in general, and will hinder your case.
  4. Get feedback – Share your business case with some “friendlies” before delivering it. Ask them to provide feedback and let you know whether the:
    1. Case makes sense and is easy to follow
    2. Arguments are compelling and rational
    3. Graphics are easy to understand and help the document do its job

So, there you have it:  A quick overview of how to make a business case.  Let us know about your success stories in making the case for resources!

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Bull City Blue is an end-to-end learning agency created to address the needs of training and development organizations within the life sciences industry. Bull City Blue is headquartered in Durham, N.C. and is a subsidiary of BCL, a full-service learning development and consulting agency.
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