Once upon a time…not too long ago… in lands not so far away… the role of business analysis lacked a widely accepted definition and set of expectations. Those filling the role were often limited to (and labeled by) subsets of business analysis that we now understand to be knowledge areas that are supported by various techniques and underlying competencies. For example, it was not uncommon for practitioners to be viewed simply as Requirements Analysts. While the industry certainly recognizes that Requirements Analysis is key, we have come to understand that the scope of business analysis involves so much more.
With the maturity of the business analysis domain–driven in large part by the International Institute of Business Analysis (IIBA)–we now have a more common view of business analysis. We see business analysis as a discipline in which practitioners deliver value by understanding an organization (it's people, processes, technology and so forth) and by proposing recommendations that enable the organization to make informed decisions about change–in order to achieve its goals. The changes the organization decides to make (or forgo) may include process change, organization change, and technology change. In addition to having a common understanding of the definition of business analysis, we also now have a more widely accepted understanding of the key areas that provide context to the overall discipline. These key areas are addressed below.
- Why is business analysis important?
- What are the responsibilities of business analysis practitioners?
- How does a practitioner accomplish the responsibilities?
- What competencies should a practitioner possess?
- What are some of the key challenges a practitioner may face?
- What are some strategies for overcoming key challenges?
Why is business analysis important?
In line with the definition discussed above, business analysis helps stakeholders achieve a shared understanding of the organization’s needs. This shared understanding puts the team in a position to make legitimate recommendations for those needs, and ultimately puts the organization in a position to move forward with the set of recommendations that best meets those needs. Further, with a shared understanding of the needs, legitimate recommendations, and agreement to move forward with a certain set of recommendations, business analysis helps teams create the map for moving from the current state (where needs are unmet) to the desired state (where chosen recommendations are implemented and needs are met). Having this map puts the team in a position to keep stakeholders informed regarding progress, as teams navigate from the origin to the destination.
Time and time again, we see that practitioners who are able to help an organization achieve its needs (as described above) also help to establish themselves (and their teams) as trusted advisors with that organization. This trusted advisor role is important when the practitioner is internal to the organization, as well as when the practitioner is an external consultant. Practitioners who have established the trusted advisor role with an organization rarely have to work their way onto a project, they are often requested in advance by the organization.
What are the responsibilities of a business analysis practitioner?
As mentioned in the opening paragraphs, the responsibilities of a business analysis practitioner span several knowledge areas. Those knowledge areas are listed below and are fully described in the Business Analysis Body of Knowledge (BABOK 2.0). For more details on these areas, please reference the BABOK 2.0–available on the IIBA website.
- Business Analysis Planning and Monitoring
- Requirements Management and Communication
- Enterprise Analysis
- Requirements Analysis
- Solution Assessment and Validation
A practitioner needs to consider the responsibilities described by these knowledge areas when following a more change-driven approach (iterative and incremental like agile), as well as when following a more plan-driven approach (like traditional waterfall). The BABOK 2.0 (from the IIBA) describes the very dynamic relationships between the knowledge areas, which support practitioners working on both change-driven and plan-driven development. While the way each responsibility is planned (and the techniques applied) may differ, each responsibility itself needs to be considered.
It is important to remember that depending on the complexity of an initiative, the structure of the organization, and other factors, these responsibilities may not be owned by a single practitioner. Accordingly, it is imperative for practitioners to establish a framework for who will share in which responsibilities, if that framework is not already established.
A final note regarding responsibilities: The practitioner must understand that he too is a stakeholder on every project in which he is involved. This means that although some tasks will begin to seem routine (like attending meetings and taking notes); the practitioner is expected to think about what he is doing and why he is doing it. He is expected to regularly evaluate how his responsibilities tie back to the overall effort, and how they ultimately support the agreed upon set of needs to be achieved by the effort. In the event the practitioner notices a risk or issue that has not been properly understood and accounted for, the practitioner has the responsibility to speak up.
How does a practitioner accomplish the responsibilities?
A practitioner may apply a wide variety of techniques to accomplish the responsibilities addressed by each knowledge area. Although the BABOK 2.0 lists many techniques that have demonstrated value amongst the BA community (from brainstorming to process modeling to user stories), it is important to recognize that other techniques may also be useful. It is the practitioner’s responsibility to acquire and maintain a balanced set of techniques in her BA arsenal, as well as be able to choose the best technique for a given situation.
What competencies should a practitioner have?
How well a practitioner is able to accomplish the responsibilities of business analysis is reflected by the practitioner's underlying competencies. These underlying competencies really fit together like pieces of a puzzle that (once properly joined together) support effective business analysis.
It is important to note that while a practitioner should possess enough of each underlying competency to be effective, it is expected that certain efforts, organizations, and situations will require the practitioner to draw on some underlying competencies more than others. As with techniques discussed earlier, it is the practitioner’s responsibility to maintain a balanced set of competencies, as well as to be able to determine which competencies are more relevant in a given situation. A thorough description of each competency is provided in the BABOK 2.0 (from the IIBA).
What are some of the key challenges a practitioner may face?
As with any discipline, practitioners of business analysis (as well as the stakeholders with whom they interact) should expect challenges to arise. Not to worry though, as we will learn from the next section, a practitioner can take certain steps in advance to prepare herself and her team to better handle such challenges. For now, let’s take a look at some of those key challenges.
- Poor understanding of the business analysis role and value it brings – While the business analysis discipline has matured substantially over the last 10 years, practitioners still face situations in which organizations (or maybe certain stakeholders) are not really familiar with what the role is and how filling that role with a capable practitioner brings value to the organization. Sometimes the lack of understanding is on the part of the practitioner assigned to fill the role. In either case, whether on the part of the practitioner or other stakeholders, failure to understand the role and the value it brings can lead to practitioners focusing a large amount of time on non-value added activities (for example, maintaining over-engineered traceability to the wrong requirements) and too little time on those things that bring greater value (for example, establishing the right requirements). Without the proper focus, the practitioner is at risk of not being able to help the organization meet its needs.
- Lack of individual passion for business analysis – As described earlier, business analysis not only requires a practitioner to be capable in the various knowledge areas (achieved through an array of techniques), it also requires practitioners to possess certain underlying competencies. It is one thing for a practitioner to need improvement in a knowledge area or underlying competency (addressed a little later in this section); it is a completely different situation when the practitioner has no individual desire to obtain, maintain or apply those capabilities. This later situation can be true for practitioners new to the business analysis domain, as well as to those who are more seasoned. A practitioner newly introduced to business analysis may (after having a better understanding of the role) determine that he does not wish to continue in the business analysis domain. A more seasoned practitioner (while really appreciating the role and the value it can bring) may determine that he has gone as far as he would like to go down the business analysis path. In either case, when a practitioner truly lacks the passion for the role and the value it brings, it is noticeable to stakeholders – especially those with whom the practitioner works on a regular basis. When this lack of passion is noticeable (and sometimes before it is noticeable to others) it tarnishes the practitioner's ability to effectively carry out his responsibilities. Imagine a not so passionate practitioner trying to apply the Interaction Skills competency mentioned earlier by leading and facilitating agreement amongst a large group of passionate stakeholders who have conflicting views. The practitioner without passion will have difficulty enduring the grind through lengthy discussions, necessary research, decision analysis, iterations of compromise and so forth.
- Gaps in individual skills and knowledge – Even when an organization understands business analysis and the value it brings AND when the individual practitioner is passionate about fulfilling the role, the practitioner may have gaps in her individual skills. Organizations and individuals that do not take a proactive approach to assessing and addressing gaps are more likely to find themselves in the middle of ongoing efforts without the necessary expertise. Accordingly, the organization's needs are at risk of not getting met.
- Poor understanding of the development lifecycle and approach – As mentioned earlier, the responsibilities of business analysis apply regardless of the development approach. It is the practitioner's obligation to understand enough about the general development lifecycle and the business analysis discipline in order to discern how best to fulfill her responsibilities, given the situation. Failure to understand the development lifecycle (whether the development produces processes, technology, organizational change, etc.), impedes the practitioners ability to facilitate results that meet the organization's needs.
- Insufficient organizational support for the business analysis role – While there are a number of reasons an organization may not support the role of business analysis, one of the key reasons is that the organization has a poor understanding of the role, as addressed earlier. Even within organizations where there is a general understanding of the role, there are sometimes other reasons for insufficient support. The organization may simply not be mature enough in its capabilities to fully support the role the way it should be supported. Also, there may be political forces operating in an organization that inhibit full support of business analysis. Despite the reason, lack of sufficient organizational support puts the practitioner in a position in which it is difficult to meet the needs of the organization.
What are some strategies for overcoming key challenges?
While we understand there is no way to prepare for every possible challenge a practitioner may face, we have seen some strategies effectively put the practitioner and the organization in a better position to mitigate the key challenges discussed above.
- Support practitioners in obtaining and maintaining knowledge and credentials from external sources (like the IIBA and the Association of Business Process Management Professionals (ABPMP)). This will promote understanding, application, and growth in the role. It will help to close knowledge gaps and may even help practitioners discover (or rediscover) their passion for business analysis.
- Establish internal business analysis forums and/or centers of excellence. This will allow knowledge sharing amongst practitioners, which will help to close knowledge gaps. It will also promote a unified message back out to the organization. A unified message communicated to the organization will further prompt organization support for the role.
- Share stakeholder-appropriate views of business analysis throughout the organization. This will help stakeholders in the organization understand business analysis from the "what's in it for me (WIIFM)" perspective. Stakeholders who understand the benefits of the role to their specific discipline are more apt to provide a sufficient level of support for business analysis.
- Support a practitioner in changing roles, if he cannot discover (or rediscover) his passion for business analysis. Given the type of interaction, communication, and other personal competencies required for business analysis, it is best for those who truly cannot discover (or rediscover) their passion to be redirected to a more appropriate role. When redirected to the appropriate role, the individual is likely to be more passionate about his new path and more satisfied with the responsibilities. More passionate and satisfied team members typically mean better productivity and results for the organization.
- Publish the successes of properly applied business analysis. Publishing the success of properly applied business analysis achieved within the organization will help establish understanding of the role and the value it brings. It will help to garner and maintain organization support. It may also help other practitioners discover (or rediscover) their passions for the role.
- Support practitioners in obtaining and maintaining general development knowledge and experience. Practitioners who are trained on general development concepts will be better prepared to apply their business analysis skills to various development situations. Practitioners having actual hands-on experience with different types of development (process, organizational, technology across varying platforms, different approaches like iterative/incremental versus waterfall, and so forth) are even better prepared to make decisions on how best to apply business analysis in a given situation. While there are some challenges to assigning inexperienced practitioners to certain types of projects, many of those challenges can be overcome by pairing the individual with a more seasoned practitioner.
- Support the regular assessment of practitioner knowledge and competency, according to industry standards and per organizational gradations. Regular evaluation of one’s knowledge and competency is appropriate for almost any role. It will help determine areas of strength, as well as opportunities for improvement. A practitioner can be assigned to lead complex efforts in areas where he is strong. On the other hand, a development program can be created for a practitioner in the areas where there are opportunities for improvement. As mentioned earlier, a practitioner who is not as strong in an area need not be omitted from a project requiring that skill set, but may be paired with another practitioner who can provide mentoring throughout the effort. If a practitioner or an organization struggles with assessing knowledge and competency, the IIBA Business Analysis Competency Model is a great place to start. It provides a means to assess practitioner competency, identify areas for professional development, and set goals for managing the practitioner’s career path.
As the business analysis discipline matured over the last several years, we've come to understand that business analysis goes beyond requirements analysis. We know that business analysis is really about delivering value to clients (be they internal or external) by enabling them to make the right decisions about change – in order to satisfy specific needs. Practitioners of business analysis have the responsibilities described by certain knowledge areas and are accountable for determining which techniques should be applied to fulfill those responsibilities. How well a practitioner is able to fulfill her responsibilities depends on the level of underlying competencies she possesses. Practitioners and the organizations they support will no doubt face some challenges with applying business analysis. While not all challenges can be completely mitigated, we have come far enough in the business analysis discipline to identify common challenges and to apply key strategies to help us address those challenges.
It is appropriate for us to take advantage of all that has been learned over the last few years. At the same time, we must keep in mind that the business analysis discipline continues to progress, even as development in general progresses. As the business analysis discipline matures, we as practitioners (and the organizations we support) must be willing to evolve in kind.