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19 September 2011

How a BA is like a print newspaper

One of my favorite bloggers right now is Timothy B. Lee. Several months ago (yes, I'm working through my backlog of articles to write about) was about how the online news business had caused major disruption in the business model of traditional news media. If you've watched any media in the last decade or so, you can't help but see this as true. 10 years ago, I had already started consuming a large portion of my fairly small news consumption online. Its been 6 years since I disconnected my cable TV service (but kept the cable internet service) and now, the entirety of my small news consumption is done online.

What makes me interested in this, despite it being about news coverage which I am almost completely uninterested in, is the way in which I think it parallels the work I do as a BA. That might seem like quite a stretch on the surface, but hang with me a minute and think about my logic. First, lets look at a couple quotes from Lee to see where I'm going with this:
It’s only a matter of time before somebody figures out how to apply the low-costs tools of the web to high-value reporting. And the nimble, collaborative nature of the web means that successful models will be copied rapidly... But that was a misunderstanding of the economics of disruptive technologies. They always start at the low end of the market, but they rarely stay there.
One of the things (but by no means the only thing) that BAs do really well is to help our business users relate to technology and how it can help our businesses thrive. In a way, our jobs are dependent upon technology being a 'black box' to people forever. When our customers no longer need us to explain technology or how technology is created to them, then we'll not be in the jobs we've been in for years now.

Don't get me wrong, I think this will be a long time coming, probably 2-3 generations at the least, but I believe it will come. Lee gives us the reason in that quote above; disruptive technologies always start at the low end of the market.

The last decade has seen a large amount of work done on helping the consumer become more acquainted with and accepting of technology in their everyday lives. In some areas, cell phones, music players, the change has been striking. The mp3 player as it existed a decade ago held very few songs and did little else than play music. Now they're so large you can hold not only your music collection, but movies, pictures and even create digital content on a device that fits in your pocket with room to spare.

These consumer devices are the low end of the market. Remember the first time you had to show someone how to use an mp3 player? Now look at an iPod touch and you'll realize that one of the things that is great about the progress of the last decade is that we don't have to show someone how to use the device (at least for the common things).

Disruption has been tracking in the low end of the market for sometime; now its starting to move up the chain. For this, look at all the project management apps that are eating into Microsoft Project's territory. Tools like BaseCamp allow less knowledgeable PMs a tool that, while it may not have all the bells and whistles of Project, can help them successfully manage a project without needing to attend weeks worth of classes first.

But so far, we're not really into the territory of what BAs do with technology, namely when it comes to enterprise applications. While the trend isn't quite yet as encroaching on us as it is the lower segments of the market, it is coming up fast.

I used to work with ERP and CRM applications when I started out almost a decade ago. Those apps I worked with then look largely exactly the same today. Sure, engineers added some backend functionality, updated for modern browsers and tacked on a few modules, but the apps themselves are largely unchanged. What is different are the applications that are their main competition. 10 years ago the only competition these applications had were other enterprise applications. Today, anyone with a Kickstarter account and a good enough idea can take the large, incumbents on head to head.

The thing is, I don't have a problem with any of this change. If my role as a BA disappears in 30-40 years, even if I am long retired, I'm good with that, so long as whatever replaces it is sufficiently better. If we get to the point where children born around the time of my 80th birthday can 'get' technology as intuitively as kids born 600 years ago 'got' farming, that's great.

In the end, its the skills of a BA that will live on, even if the role itself is eventually discarded. Technological change happens, no matter if we accept those changes or not. If we don't, someone else will and they will eat our lunch. In our role, we are uniquely equipped to not just deal with change, but to cause it. As long as we continue to do that, our skills will always be needed.