The role of the business analyst is changing, providing more value than ever to the organizations that employ business analysts.
Even ten years ago, BAs might expect their career to progress into project management if they wanted to move up the career ladder.
Nowadays, there are plenty of lead BAs managing teams of business analysts on complex projects, others working on business architecture and Target Operating Models at the enterprise level and many large organizations have business analysis practice or even capability managers.
It seems that the role of the BA has moved from something focused on detailed requirements, and relatively junior, to one, which, at senior levels, can make a huge difference to a company’s ability to execute their strategies.
Let’s consider this role change in different ways:
1. The growth of complexity
If there is one thing that business analysts are better equipped to deal with than most other professionals, it is complexity.
With their ability to work in great detail where necessary and their deep skills in analysis and modeling, BAs have plenty in their toolkits and their experience to help them to understand what is needed.
The simpler projects of yesteryear are no longer typical. I remember working on a project re-engineering business processes and implementing SAP as the supporting software solution for a large fast-moving consumer goods manufacturer in the 1990s. This project affected just one site. A few years later, I was involved in a similar project; this time thought it affected all the sites in one country. Typically today, such projects are rolled out across the world, involving over two hundred countries and many more individual sites.
I often meet business analysts in global companies who are working on such major change programmes.
2. The constant development of technology
Organizations produce more data than ever before. Many are drowning in it! Those who are able to draw insights from these data and to use data to tell stories, are much in demand and there are many business analysts who specialise and are very skilled in this area.
I interviewed one such: Mercy Obi, a business analyst based in Glasgow, Scotland. She calls herself a data storyteller and she suggests that data is one of the top areas of growth for business analysts right now.
Technology is developing faster than ever, with cloud and mobile enabling innovative new business models. Think of AirBnB, founded less than ten years ago, now providing over two million listings worldwide without owning a single hotel! Examples like this, which would not have been possible until recently, are popping up in many different spheres of life.
3. Virtual working becomes the norm
Another cause of complexity is virtual teams.
With companies keen to use the best, and the cheapest, labour available, outsourcing and offshoring has taken off, leading to virtual teams becoming the norm. This means working closely with remote colleagues, which brings its own challenges, including the use of virtual working technology, plus grappling with differences in language, culture and time-zones. As ever, soft-skills are needed to deal with all of this, on top of objective, analytical skills.
4. The rate of change and Agile
Change in companies is no longer something that happens for a time and then everything settles down.
Change appears to be constant, with organizations evolving to suit the changing conditions they face.
One way that many are seeking to grapple with the increased rate of change is to move to more Agile methods for their projects, both software development and beyond.
Business Analysis is key to success when using Agile methodologies. This is something that has been hotly disputed – after all, many Agile methods, such as SCRUM, don’t refer to a business analyst as one of the necessary team roles.
Lynda Girvan, co-author of ‘Agile and Business Analysis’ published by the BCS in 2017, says that, ‘Business analysis is very much part of the combined skillset, required and utilised within Agile teams.’ She continues to say that some Agile projects fail because there is too much work given to the Product Owner, an individual who comes from the business, without the support of someone skilled at business analysis.’ I take this to mean that business analysis is crucial to Agile success.
So how can business analysts really add value at a strategic level for organisations? Let’s explore a real example, a business analyst working for a major financial services organization based in the South of England. I’ve changed her name to Nicola to protect her identity, but all the other facts are true.
Fig 1. Nicola the strategic business analyst
Nicola has been a business analyst for many years, building up considerable experience inside this large, multinational, financial-services organization. She is known for her facilitation skills and her understanding of the business.
In Nicola’s previous role, she worked with senior managers to help develop the target operating model for the business, exploring different possibilities to deal with the rapidly changing world we live in.
She manages a team of lead analysts, develops their skills and supports them in challenging assignments.
Nicola is called in to help the board develop their strategies, tapping into her considerable skills as a neutral facilitator and she has helped the board to communicate these to larger groups within the company.
Nicola adds great value to her company, with her mix of analysis and people skills. This is a far cry from where many business analysts start out – working on detailed requirements…
Let’s look at the breadth of the business analysis space using the Strategy Execution model developed for the refresh of their business analysis curriculum to explore how the role has grown beyond requirements management.
Fig 2. The Business Analysis Field, taken from Strategy Execution
The bottom right hand quadrant: Requirements Management is the traditional focus for business analysis, consisting of eliciting information from stakeholders, analyzing requirements, designing a solution and at the same time managing the solution scope.
The top right hand quadrant: Strategy Analysis, takes the understanding and definition of business needs right up to the strategic level, as Nicola has done, recommending solutions and approaches that will fit that particular business at that particular time in the particular circumstances they find themselves in.
At the top left quadrant, Enterprise Business Analysis, Nicola is involved in business architecture and designing the business, which is where her work with target operating models would come in.
The bottom left quadrant, Benefits Management, shows a renewed focus on organizational value. Here business analysts evaluate whether a solution will meet business needs and deliver that value and focus on continuous improvement beyond projects.
This expanded business analysis view calls for business analysts to step up their leadership skills, which echoes the book I co-edited in 2013: ‘Business Analysis and Leadership: Influencing change’ (published by Kogan Page and co-edited with James Archer).
I developed a model for business analysis leadership, which called for leadership at several different levels: self, project, organization and the wider world.
The first step is to decide to lead. This is a decision made by a business analyst.
The next step is to be a leader on their project, working alongside and in productive partnership with others, such as their project manager.
The business analyst always looks beyond their project, though, looking at the benefits and value for the organization as a whole, avoiding shortcuts where they would deliver the project to the detriment of the organization as a whole. I notice too that many of the best business analysts contribute beyond their organizations, writing blogs, speaking at events, supporting not-for-profits and encouraging and mentoring new and developing business analysts.
Fig. 3 The BA Leadership Model, taken from ‘Business Analysis and Leadership’ Kogan Page 2013, edited by Penny Pullan and James Archer.
In my recent Business Analysis Summit, there was a theme that came up in almost all the sessions.
Outstanding business analysts don’t wait for someone to tell them that they are a leader.
They step up and do what is needed, building on their existing strengths and asking for feedback as they go. They work with their stakeholders, without any line management authority, to create a shared vision for the future and encourage people to follow. That’s BA leadership.
Too often, though, business analysts don’t think like this. Often I hear rather frustrated business analysts complaining that their business doesn’t recognize their skills and won’t offer them more strategic work. They find this disappointing and hope that one-day in the future things will change. I hope that any BA reading this article, waiting for change, will decide to step up instead of hanging around. So, to echo Joseph da Silva from the Business Analysis and Leadership book:
‘Don’t wait for someone else to anoint you as a leader’.
To echo Ghandi: ‘Be the change you want to see in the world!’
How can organisations tap into value that business analysts have to offer their strategic execution?
I suggest that there are two steps:
- Identify the BAs with the potential to work more strategically;
- Develop those BAs so that they can take on wider, more strategic work.
Let’s take these in turn.
Identifying business analysts with the potential to work at a much more strategic level:
At this higher level, the ability to work with people of all levels in the business is key. So-called soft skills are important, especially facilitation skills. Potential strategic business analysts need to have the potential to support groups of people through conflict to consensus and be able to work with very senior people, being honest and diplomatic about problems they encounter. Influencing and negotiating are important too. Look for people who have worked on scoping out projects and shaping them in the early stages. If someone is happiest working on detailed requirements, then I’d suggest that they are not used for strategic work.
Developing business analysts to take on much more strategic work:
Many business analysts, though brilliant, don’t push for the limelight. Their focus tends to be on serving others, on understanding and supporting other people’s requirements. So I suggest that, once you have identified potential, that you empower your analysts. This can take many forms. Confidence is key for these more senior roles and I’ve seen how powerful mentoring can be, when the person doing the mentoring is fully behind the success of their mentee. Training has its place too. I’d advise that training should provide the chance to practice skills with others and with the advice, support and coaching of someone who has current experience of working in strategic business analysis roles.
In conclusion, business analysts possess very valuable skills and some of them will be able to go beyond requirements to help your organization succeed with strategy execution.