By Edward Ngubane
What is the role of the business analyst? A typical response to this question is that he is a bridge between IT and business. Often this view is reinforced by textbooks and training material covering the business analysis domain. The reality is that there is still much confusion about business analysis as a discipline.
In my opinion, this view is flawed, and it inadvertently leads to a limitation of how most business analysts see themselves. It renders them incapable of offering real value to the businesses they serve, and more importantly becoming top of mind to their business owners. I would argue that business analysts are a triangle connecting three parties: business, IT and the customer, instead of being a bridge connecting two sides.
In some cases, organisational structures further exacerbate the limitation of the business analysts’ ability to deliver value. This happens when business analysts fall within the IT reporting lines and get assigned to various businesses from time to time. This structure has unintended consequences. Business analysts see themselves as IT resources first, and business resources second. At the face of it, this might seem like an insignificant side effect. However, I would argue that it is at the core of the mindset that is adopted by the business analyst. It is responsible for the ‘us’ and ‘them’ situation where the business analyst refers to the business he is servicing as ‘them’, and the IT team to which he belongs as ‘us’.
So how does the business analyst become top of mind?
There is a definite need for the business analyst to be closer to the business and to be a true ambassador of the customer. I have seen that in most cases, business analysts who report to IT struggle to make a ‘business’ mindset shift. Wearing the business hat and ultimately that of the customer within the IT structures often makes the business analyst feel like he is betraying his IT colleagues.
Confidence is required for the business analyst to change the reporting dynamic. Reasoning with the IT team as to why it makes business sense and not necessarily IT sense takes courage. Business may want to adopt a phased approach in rolling out a solution versus the IT team’s big bang approach. The business analyst will need to address this with the teams in a confident manner.
An essential area of understanding for the BA is the customer’s pain points and how a particular solution will solve them. Knowledge of the market, the client’s competitors and which projects will yield the highest ROI is a prerequisite. Questions such as which projects are strategic or need to go ahead from a compliance perspective, and how to reach a particular market need answers.
A business analyst may need to explain to the technology team why his business requires certain information from his customer or potential customer over others. A full understanding of the business rules is needed, for instance, an RSA ID field as a mandatory field but not a Passport field as an option. Alternatively, why one type of design will have an adverse effect on the customers’ user experience and possibly result in a huge customer drop off through the journey map.
It is an undeniable fact that business analysts should have a fair, if not solid, knowledge of what is going on in the technology space. Requirements will need to be documented and in turn translated into system functionality. The BA is likely to spend most of his time in system design sessions with the IT teams to bring these requirements to life. If the BA has no technical background, he is likely to end up frustrated when engaging with the system developers, solutions architects and the rest of the IT team members.
Having an understanding of IT will help to earn the respect of his IT colleagues as well as to gain acceptance. At the end of the day, real collaboration is necessary to deliver value to the customer.
Talking of value - never before has the demand been so high for businesses to deliver value to their customers using technology. The advances in mobile technology and the ubiquity of smart mobile devices has created an exponential increase in the demand for mobile apps as platforms to service customers. Organisations are almost forced to digitise their service offerings through mobile apps – or they will lose out to their competitors.
Moreover, techno-savvy customers are demanding convenience and searching for time-saving ways to get what they want. Services have also been commoditized and delivered via systems. The business analyst is required, now more than ever, to marry IT and business to enhance the customer experience through self-service channels via mobile devices and kiosks. Therefore, understanding the technical arena, while showing a solid grasp of the business has enormous benefits.
What skills should the business analyst have?
While the above criteria are crucial for the business analyst to master, there are specific skills needed to achieve top of mind status. The first of these skills is the ability to listen attentively in what is called active listening. To do this successfully, one needs to learn to switch off the internal monologue. This usually happens whenever we are listening to someone else. It requires attentive listening without thinking about your response while the speaker is still talking.
The value of getting this right is that it will allow the business analyst to pick up on and appreciate the nuances inherent in the priorities between IT and business. It is important to note that these parties have different mandates to carry out within an organisation. A common misconception is that IT should not or will not dictate to business. However, the reality is that if business has no clue of what is happening in the IT world, then this dictation happens all the time. A technically informed business analyst who actively listens to both parties stands a better chance at success.
Also, if inactive listening is applied then the finer details that inform the different mandates may be missed, and this might result in conflicts and confusion. Listening actively to both parties during the requirements elicitation and/or JAD sessions can save the business analyst much pain in the future. Active listening is not a talent, but a skill that can be learned and developed.
It is important to note that during system development, especially within an environment that uses a waterfall methodology, a lot of clutter and noise can easily creep in between the time of the initial request (from business) to the time of the final delivery of the solution (by the IT team). A business analyst needs to use active listening skills to identify what is said (to ask for confirmation), what is implied (to ask for validation) and what is not clearly stated (to ask for clarification) to remove this clutter or minimise its impact.
A business analyst tends to be a leader from the side meaning that no official authority has been given to lead within an organisation. However, coordinating and managing roles and responsibilities between the business, IT team and the customer puts a huge leadership role on his shoulders.
Good leaders rely on influence, and as such a good business analyst needs to develop and master this art. To be top of mind to his stakeholders, the skill of encouragement and influence may shift the viewpoint of others. However, the ability to change minds does not happen by chance; it comes from the respect which the business analyst has gained through demonstrating a strong understanding of the business and domain skills. The latter also builds confidence to educate his or her colleagues about the discipline of business analysis.
The ability to deal with conflict can also earn the business analyst more brownie points towards achieving a top of mind status. When conflict is not resolved within a project, it can add to delays and increased stress levels. Ambiguity can also create tension and conflict in a project. It is an expectation that while the business requirements from the business analyst should be devoid of ambiguity (especially in the waterfall driven environment), the business analyst should be able to handle ambiguity and make sense of it.
Proper stakeholder management also requires a careful study of his participants and engaging with them appropriately. It is not a one-size fit all approach. Knowledge of which stakeholders may throw a spanner in the works during that big walk-through session is necessary. Getting their buy-in before the meeting is just as important.
Some stakeholders require a one-on-one consultation before the big meeting; others are happy to know about your requirements during that big meeting. Some are satisfied with a one-pager or an email highlighting what you expect from them; others require the full story before the meeting. Some prefer a pictorial view of your requirements, while others would like a fine print.
Dealing with expectations efficiently will find the walk-through sessions a walk in the park!
Managing stakeholders go hand-in-glove with relationship building. The business analyst must realise that specification documents (whether as business requirements, functional requirements and even user stories) are not, and cannot be written in isolation. A business analyst who does this runs a risk of creating a ‘disconnect’ between himself, his business and the development team.
Furthermore, adaptability and flexibility together with knowing which skill to use and when are also essential characteristics. With good relationships, the business analyst can quickly put pressure on the delivery team, without alienating them, or begging them without feeling humiliated, and even convince them without offending them.
A business analyst cannot be top of mind without showing innovative ways of solving business problems. To do this effectively he or she needs to demonstrate an understanding of strategic objectives, i.e. why is his business going in a particular direction? Often, it requires a ‘big picture’ view which takes the business analyst from a departmental to an enterprise level. Presenting this big picture view builds confidence to identify the alignment between an individual project and what the organisation is trying to achieve.
With this comes the confidence to challenge the business if there is a misalignment regarding the organisational strategic objectives and the project. Arguing a case against a project that does not contribute value will put the business analyst in good stead with the business owner – especially after it has been proved correct by the lack of return on investment.
Lastly, nothing can replace passion, enthusiasm and dedication. These attributes cannot be measured, however, when they are not there – they are conspicuous by their absence! Business owners will notice a lack of passion for their work and a reluctance to do what is necessary. It is also self-evident when a business analyst only does the bare minimum. The business owner needs someone who can energise the team and ultimately go the extra mile!