The Scope and Value of Business Analysis: Beyond Requirements
Not too long ago, the role of business analysis lacked a widely accepted definition and set of expectations. It was not uncommon for practitioners to be viewed simply as requirements analysts. While the industry certainly recognizes requirements analysis is key, we’ve come to understand that the scope of business analysis involves much more.
What is a business analyst?
Previously, those filling the role were often limited to (and labeled by) subsets of business analysis we now understand to be knowledge areas supported by various techniques and underlying competencies. With the maturity of the domain — driven in large part by the International Institute of Business Analysis (IIBA) — we have a more common view of business analysis.
A business analyst critically examines a company to understand the organization (its people, processes, technology and so forth) and proposes 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:
- Why is business analysis important?
- What are the responsibilities of business analysts?
- How does a business analyst accomplish the responsibilities?
- What competencies should an analyst possess?
- What are some of the key challenges an analyst may face?
- What are some strategies for overcoming key challenges?
Why is business analysis important?
Business analysis helps stakeholders achieve a shared understanding of the organization’s needs. This, in turn, helps the team make legitimate recommendations for those needs and, ultimately, puts the organization in a position to move forward with the best set of recommendations.
Further, business analysis helps teams create a roadmap for moving from the current state (where needs are unmet) to the desired state (where chosen recommendations are implemented and needs are met).
Time and time again, we see business analysts who are able to help an organization achieve its needs also help establish themselves (and their teams) as trusted advisers with that organization. This trusted adviser role is important when the business analyst is internal to the organization, as well as when the practitioner is an external consultant. Practitioners who have established the trusted adviser role with an organization rarely have to work their way onto a project; they’re often requested in advance by the organization.
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What are the responsibilities of a business analyst?
The duties of a business analyst span several knowledge areas:
- Business analysis planning and monitoring
- Requirements management and communication
- Enterprise analysis
- Requirements analysis
- Solution assessment and validation
A business analyst needs to consider the responsibilities described by these knowledge areas when following a more change-driven approach (iterative and incremental, such as agile), as well as when following a more plan-driven approach (such as traditional waterfall).
The Business Analsyis Body of Knowledge (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. Although the way each responsibility is planned (and the techniques applied) may differ, each responsibility itself needs to be considered.
It’s 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. In this case, establish a framework for shared responsibilities.
A final note regarding responsibilities: The analyst must understand he or she is also a stakeholder on every project. This means that although some tasks may seem routine (such as attending meetings and taking notes), the practitioner is expected to think about what he or she is doing and why.
The analyst is expected to regularly evaluate how his or her 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 business analyst accomplish the responsibilities?
The analyst 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 business analysis community — from brainstorming to process modeling to user stories — it’s important to recognize other techniques may also be useful. It’s the analyst’s responsibility to acquire and maintain a balanced set of techniques, as well as to be able to choose the best technique for a given situation.
What competencies should a business analyst have?
How well an analyst is able to accomplish the responsibilities of business analysis is reflected by the practitioner's underlying competencies, which fit together like pieces of a puzzle that, once properly joined, support effective business analysis.
Certain efforts, organizations and situations will require the analyst to draw on particular aptitudes more than others. It’s the analyst’s responsibility to maintain a balanced set of capabilities, as well as to be able to determine which competencies are more relevant in a given situation.
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What are some of the key challenges a business analyst may face?
As with any discipline, practitioners of business analysis (as well as the stakeholders with whom they interact) should expect challenges to arise. Here are a few examples:
Poor understanding of the business analysis role and value it brings
Although 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, 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 (such as 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, but it also requires practitioners to possess certain aptitudes. It’s one thing for a practitioner to need improvement in a knowledge area or underlying competency; it’s a completely different situation when the practitioner has no individual desire to obtain, maintain or apply those capabilities.
When a business analyst lacks the passion for the role and the value it brings, it’s noticeable to stakeholders — especially those with whom the practitioner works on a regular basis. Disineterest in the role tarnishes the practitioner's ability to effectively carry out his responsibilities.
Gaps in individual skills and knowledge
Even when an organization understands business analysis and the value it brings, and the individual practitioner is passionate about fulfilling the role, the business analyst may have individual skills gaps. Organizations and individuals that don’t 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 being met.
Poor understanding of the development lifecycle and approach
As mentioned earlier, the responsibilities of business analysis apply regardless of the development approach. It’s the analyst’s obligation to understand enough about the general development lifecycle and the business analysis discipline in order to discern how best to fulfill his or her responsibilities, given the situation. Failure to understand the development lifecycle (whether the development produces processes, technology, organizational change, etc.), impedes the practitioner’s ability to facilitate results that meet the organization's needs.
Insufficient organizational support for the business analysis role
An organization may not support a business analyst role because it has a poor understanding of the job. Even within organizations where there is a general comprehension of business analysis, the organization may not be mature enough in its capabilities to fully support the role. Also, political forces may be operating in an organization that inhibit full support of business analysis. Regardless of the reason, lack of sufficient organizational support puts the practitioner in a position in which it’s difficult to meet the needs of the organization.
What are some strategies for overcoming key challenges?
While there is no way to prepare for every possible challenge a business analyst may face, we’ve seen some strategies effectively put the practitioner and the organization in a better position to mitigate the key challenges discussed previously.
Support practitioners in obtaining and maintaining knowledge and credentials. These should come from external sources, such the IIBA and the Association of Business Process Management Professionals (ABPMP). This will promote understanding, application and growth in the role. It will help 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 among practitioners, which will help close knowledge gaps, promote a unified message back to the organization and, subsequently, 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" 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.
Given the type of interaction, communication and other personal competencies required for business analysis, it’s best for those who truly cannot discover (or rediscover) their passion to be redirected to a more appropriate role. When this happens, the individual is likely to be more passionate about his or her new path and more satisfied with the responsibilities — which typically drives better productivity and results for the organization.
Publish the successes of properly applied business analysis.
This will help establish understanding of the role and the value it brings, garner and maintain organization support, and may also help other practitioners discover (or rediscover) their passions for the role.
Support analysts in obtaining and maintaining general development knowledge and experience.
Practitioners who are trained in general development concepts will be better prepared to apply their business analysis skills to various development situations. Having actual hands-on experience with different types of development (such as process, organizational, technology across varying platforms, different approaches such as 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.
Although 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.
Regular evaluation of one’s knowledge and competency according to industry standards and organizational gradations is appropriate for almost any role. It will help determine areas of strength, as well as opportunities for improvement. A business analyst can be assigned to lead complex efforts in areas where he or she is strong.
On the other hand, a development program can be created for a practitioner in the areas where there are opportunities for improvement. If an analyst 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.
Business analysis is really about delivering value to clients (internal or external) by enabling them to make the right decisions about change in order to satisfy specific needs. The business analysis discipline continues to progress. As practitioners, we, and the organizations we support, must be willing to evolve in kind.