Who am I? Defining What a Business Analyst Really Is.

A common misunderstanding is that a business analyst is a “jack of all trades,” implying they are generalists rather than specialists, and that their skills may represent a breadth of disciplines but not depth. The reality is that both are an oversimplification of the role a business analyst may play and an incorrect definition of their abilities. What is critical to understanding the definition of a business analyst is:

 

  1. Different types of business analysts exist.
  2. There is a difference between the techniques they practice and the domain knowledge they must possess.

 

Just as neurosurgeons and pediatricians are both examples of physicians, there are many types of business analyst roles in the professional world. The International Institute of Business Analysis (IIBA), A Guide to the Business Analysis Body of Knowledgeâ (BABKOKâ Guide), defines business analysis as “the set of tasks and techniques used to work as a liaison among stakeholders in order to understand the structure, policies, and operations of an organization, and to recommend solutions that enable the organization to achieve its goals.”[1] You can see where this might apply to almost any kind of business or industry from software development to healthcare to aerospace. However, that is not to say that all business analyst roles are created equal.

 

The IIBA Competency Model argues that analysts can be broken into three general role categories: Generalist, Specialist and Hybrid. A generalist will use “a variety of techniques to adapt to varying circumstances,” and “may or may not have specific domain expertise.” In comparison, specialists “usually apply a smaller range of techniques, but possess a much greater level of expertise in the application of those techniques and are capable of using those techniques to resolve extremely complex business problems in their area of expertise.”[2] Hybrid analysts are individuals that perform a business analysis role, but are also tasked with other complementary roles.

Within each of these categories, IIBA has attempted to provide common job titles that might exist within an organization, such as “Management Consultant” in the generalist category. “Agile Business Analysts,” “Business Intelligence Analysts,” “Product Managers” and “Systems Analysts” are all examples of specialists. Common hybrid roles are “Project Manager,” “Developer,” “Quality Assurance Manager” and “Graphic Designer.” The definition and scope of each of these roles often varies by organization for a variety of reasons. For example, as a consultant for Catapult Systems, my responsibilities are dependent upon the project scope and my role within that project. With my background in database programming and analysis, I have the ability to fulfill the need for a specialized business intelligence analyst. However, based on staffing needs, my background in project management may also be required and I will be dually tasked as both the business analyst and the project lead, which fits more of the hybrid role definition.

So now that we have a framework for describing the role, what is it that business analysts actually do day to day? Communication is a critical element of our job as we have to work with multiple layers of the business, from the technical subject matter expert to the executive management team. Possessing the ability to translate needs and requirements across that diversity is crucial, as well as being able to effectively analyze the information gathered. In this, the ability to rapidly absorb information and extract vital elements is important. This is particularly true of consultants who are often brought in to evaluate their client’s business but initially lack the specific context of the problem they are being asked to solve. Group facilitation, authoring, negotiation, and a whole host of other business skills are also necessary to effectively function as an analyst.

To supplement these general skills, business analysts are required to apply a variety of techniques to elicit requirements, analyze them and provide the resulting recommendations. Examples of these techniques are:  Brainstorming, interviews, process mapping, cause-and-effect diagramming, statistical analysis and others. Not all techniques are applicable on all projects. For example, writing use cases or performing usability analysis is most traditionally associated with software development and may not be appropriate for a manufacturing process improvement project. Factors that influence the choice of techniques vary such as the type of project, project phase, organizational maturity, intended audience or other considerations. However, the fundamental skills needed to select the appropriate techniques and competently execute them are core to the definition of an expert analyst.

However, even with techniques in hand, an expert analyst will not succeed without an understanding of the business they are evaluating. As stated in the IIBA Competency Model, a generalist may not have specific domain knowledge and may be reliant on other subject matter experts (SMEs) to provide a better understanding. Even specialists who have a depth of knowledge on a given subject may lack a broader understanding of other business practices which affect the project and may require additional sources for this information. These sources range from formal training to informal resources such as customer documentation, whitepapers or online forums. Often this learning is done prior to the project initiation or “on the job” as part of the analysis activities.

So who can be a business analyst? There is no hard and fast rule. Business analysts tend to come from an educational background in business administration or transition into the role based on a given technical path that lent them sufficient domain knowledge to specialize in an area of the business. The techniques described above are often evolved over time by the practitioner.  At some point in that evolution, an analyst might develop sufficient experience to transfer those skills to other different operational areas or project types. Fundamentally though, they should all possess critical thinking skills and a desire to solve problems.


[1] A Guide to the Business Analysis Body of Knowledgeâ (BABOKâ Guide), 2.0 ed., International Institute of Business Analysis, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 2009, pg. 3

[2] IIBAâ Business Analysis Competency Model, 2.0 ed., International Institute of Business Analysis, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 2010, pg. 6

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