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Business Analysts: More Important Than Ever or a Dying Breed?

The role of the business analyst can often be a hard sell to organisations, particularly smaller organisations that have yet to develop a more mature approach to projects. Business analysts can be seen as just another level of bureaucracy, adding little value but additional cost. However, in organisations with a well-honed project management structure BAs are seen to be, and are, facilitators for better communication between the stakeholders concerned with the business objectives and those delivering the project. They add value by contributing positively to project success.

So for many companies the role of the Business Analyst is increasingly important in order to deliver complex projects successfully and the lack of a BA (or an ineffective BA) can contribute to project failure. They are the ones on the front line clarifying requirements and negotiating compromises that will keep all parties happy. A BA’s responsibilities can be different in different companies or even on different projects but the main purpose of the role includes a certain set of skills and personal characteristics.

The Skills Every Business Analyst Should Possess

  1. Understanding the business objectives. For a BA to contribute effectively to the end-product of a project that actually meets the needs of the business they must fully understand the problem that is trying to be solved or the vision of a new product. It is only by fully understanding a problem or a vision that a proper solution can be devised. Unfortunately it is still all too common for projects to be solving the wrong problem and so never entirely meeting the business aims.
  2. Being a good negotiator. Whilst complex projects may have one over-riding objective there are often competing needs amongst the different stakeholders and this is where the negotiation skills of the business analyst come into play. The best BAs will be able to negotiate a compromise that satisfies everyone: stakeholders and project team delivering the work. Their independent position allows them to do this much better than, say, the project manager who might find it difficult to be impartial and also may not understand the business aims as well. A good business analyst will also understand both the business terminology and the project terminology, especially important on IT projects when both sides can seem to speak a different language.Top of Form
  3. Understanding the limitations. No project will solve all problems, many struggle to even solve the one problem they are assigned, but it is understanding what cannot be solved and articulating that to the stakeholders that is another essential part of the business analysts’ role. Even with our advanced technology many things are still impossible to solve, or impossible to solve within the cost boundaries of an organisation. Business analysts can explain these limitations in a way that everyone involved understands.
  4. Soft Skills. The best BA’s know instinctively how to interact and communicate with people at all levels of the project. They are visible and involved when things are going well and when things aren’t. The type of soft skills a BA requires to be successful are often hard to pinpoint as they don’t necessarily relate to their academic and professional qualifications.

 

Project strategy meeting

Business Analyst’s Role

A business analyst is effectively the liaison between those people or departments who need the end-product of a project and those people or teams who will deliver the end product. Their role involves working with both of these groups to ensure the final deliverable meets the business needs. Typically a BA will interface between IT teams and business teams, which could be any functional area within an organisation. They usually work closely with the project manager, especially in the early stages of the project when requirements are being thrashed out but equally throughout the project when changes may be requested or problems arise.

Because organisations rely so much on technology and regularly embark on new projects the role of the business analyst on complex projects is more important now than ever. Projects tend to arise because there is some problem that needs solving, some gap in capability or an opportunity for a market-leading product; and it is the BA who can help to devise a solution to meet the business need whilst at the same time being able to assess the feasibility of the project and the risks involved. A good BA can, therefore, help avoid project over-spend or over-run but, more importantly, ensure the project delivers on its promises.

 

More than just documenting requirements

The role of the business analyst started out as simply gathering, analysing and documenting requirements but it is increasingly a much wider role for many BAs in larger organisations, including identifying both problems and opportunities at a strategic level and promoting business change in organisations.

They can be influential in helping different business areas to work together to prevent the “silo” effect so that all projects are viewed in terms of the wider organisational goals rather than departmental goals. They can conduct feasibility studies for new products and projects, and suggest ways to streamline functions across different departments and locations.

As the role of the BA has expanded more organisations have realised that business analysts can provide an impartial overview of the business that enables better assessment of opportunities for growth and cost-saving in a way that a Chief Information Officer (CIO) perhaps cannot. A BA has a more down-to-earth view of the business than a CIO or IT Director typically has in the boardroom at executive level.

 

An Evolving Role?

But even though the value of a business analyst is recognised, whether they have an IT-focussed role or a more business-focussed function, the role is still poorly defined. There are still no standard skill sets, academic qualifications, professional qualifications and development that enable a business analyst to follow a well-defined career path. But maybe well-defined career paths are no longer expected or, indeed, needed for a successful career as new technologies obscure the traditional divisions between business and IT.

Forrester Research analysts Carey Schwaber and Rob Karel had already begun referring to business technology analysts back in 2008 in their paper The New Business Analyst to describe those with a combination of a high level of business/operational knowledge and a high level of IT knowledge. They believe that purely business-focused or purely IT-focused business analyst roles will gradually be superseded by business technology (BT) analyst roles.

Even in a world of fast-paced technological change, large corporations are slow-moving beasts so this change may yet take some time. But business analysts themselves can start to effect change by seeking opportunities to participate in strategic business discussions and learn new technologies so that they can evolve into business technology analysts with unique skill sets.

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