14 December 2012

The frustrating thing about the label "business analyst"

Put your hand up if you want more fun at work!
For the last several years the business analyst role has been hyped as one of the most in demand roles in industry; the pathway to better It solutions, improved business processes and untold wealth. At the same time Linkedin has been telling me that interest in the role has been declining for t least the last 2 years.

At the same time I have had conversations with project managers, hiring managers and recruiters about what we are calling the 'two tier' business analyst market. At one level there are people who are capable at drawing flow charts and other diagrams, and can create lists of requirements, but are not particularly useful, and often decried and an imposition applied by 'head office' that need to be paid for at the expense of someone else who would make a better contribution to the team's goals.

At the other end of the spectrum there are these renaissance characters who are able to do the above, but also manage people through change, do a good job of product and project management, coach project and stakeholder team members, act as scrum masters, create and deliver training and just generally get stuff done.
Pete and Ed running a UX workshop for our local community
The later are often consultants and contractors that find the limits that hierarchical corporate cultures impose frustrating. They gravitate to projects where there is a sense of urgency and where the stakes are high enough for the organization to allow them to transcend the notional boundaries of the job description.

The term "business analyst" gives a pretty clear indication of the focus of the role; analysing businesses so that  people can better understand how they work and how they should be changing (often in the course of IT, product or process improvement projects.) This implies that the role is most valuable where people who operate the business today don't understand it sufficiently to plan for the future.

A fish and chop shop won't be needing a business analyst in the near future. At least not at the going rates.

But is this enough? And are there better ways to understand the business? Knowledge management, internal social media, organisational designers, more mature IT platforms and good old fashioned management are all conspiring to deliver better access to information, in competition to the BA.

Another consideration; Is understanding how the parts of the machine interact enough to plan for the future? We are in an age where transformational leaps need to be made frequently and sometimes with little certainty about whether they will work out.

Analysis is not enough. Synthesis is required. To synthesize knowledge and use it in a truly valuable way you need to work from values and principles and you need to be considering things like your mission and purpose. How often do things like this get addressed when analysts perform their role? Not frequently enough I expect.

We don't need to have a corporate mission to do this. You as a human being have values and principles which are probably already guiding the way you do work. You may or may not be aware of them but they are there. The same applies to your personal mission and sense of purpose. Take a moment to reflect on what is important to you and when you are comfortable with it start letting yourself be more confident in doing the work you do do in the way you think is most valuable for the people you care about.

When I started working as an analyst I used to describe my job as a 'customer advocate'  because I felt like my job was to go in and advocate the customer's needs and perspective when we were on business improvement projects. I am still doing the same thing, although I have expanded my view to include staff and community advocacy.

I wonder if Customer Advocate will ever catch on as a job description?


  1. An interest article. There are a lot of poor business analysts out there. Having worked in the business does not qualify you or suggest you might have the vision to add real value

  2. Good article, I talk a lot about the death of the "business analysis" paradigm for Social and collaboration platforms and a need for facilitation and a lot of the characteristics you point out.

  3. Good points - the 'two tier' description is spot on - there is a massive difference between a business analyst working on specifying a series of small incremental changes to an existing system / set of processes etc and one working on catalysing new, greenfield systems and processes. Both useful, but (a bit like project managers) both covered by a single sweeping job title.

  4. Craig,

    I agree with the two-tier description. I think there's another dimension with which to segment this too:

    At one end there are:

    Type 1. BAs that do what they are told and are seen as subservient to Project Managers and SMEs (Scribes, "order-takers": These will be BAs with typically working on a small part of the project lifecycle -- for example, JUST detailed requirements, with little context of the overall change).

    Through to:

    Type 2. BAs that work to understand the problem up-front, and "lead from the side-lines". These BAs add value throughout the whole project lifecycle, and act as a "critical friend" to the business. You know, the kind of friend that says "That shirt looked great when you were in your 20s... but now your 45 you really should wear something new". Businesses need that same kind of challenge -- from a place of rapport and curiosity. These BAs help define strategy and help the business to understand the business.

    The challenge for the BA community is that SMEs, Project Managers and organisations often expect a BA to behave, act and work like description number (1). They *actually* need Type 2 BAs.... but when a type 2 BA appears, they can be branded a trouble maker.

    Not only this, but sometimes Type-1 BAs are happily in their comfort zone. Meaning that they shun Type-2 BAs too! In fact, they might not even consider a Type-2 BA role a *real* BA role (e.g. Type-1 BA: "Well, stakeholder management isn't my job, that's the PM's job"
    Type-2 BA: "I need to ensure I have a good understanding of the stakeholder landscape."

    Things are changing. I've met a number of really inspirational BA practice leads who are coaching and supporting their Type-2 BAs. I hope this continues!

    Thanks for the thought provoking article. It really resonated with me.



    Twitter: @UKAdrianReed
    Blog : www.adrianreed.co.uk

  5. Great post and comments. From the time a colleague and I saw Alec Sharp speak about synthesis we agreed it was an essential way forward for BA practice, but it's not a term that translates well to stakeholders. I've increasingly attempted to draw upon upon Ideo's Design Thinking concepts to nudge analysts and the stakeholders who commission them from the cataloging Type 1 end of the spectrum to the creative Type 2 end. By asking not just what's Desirable (requirements or we want that solution) but also what's Feasible (through process improvement and technology) and what's Viable (developing business capability and organisational design) the analyst has the opportunity and critical framework to guide and challenge the team constructively through the process of change. It's a lot easier to be a critic than a creator and being at the forefront of change is hard work but hugely rewarding and great fun.

  6. Craig, thanks for the article, and Adrian thanks for your great reply. The combination of both echoes my perspective on the matter and provides some handy labels that I have been searching for a while.

    I'd like to add a bit more flavor to the discussion:
    1) I'm pretty sure that current efforts to label Business Analyst as a profession and Certifying the Type 1 activities will not ultimately result in business analysis being truly viewed as valuable by organizations. Only when people who refer to themselves as business analysts start acting as the Type 2 sort will organizations see the value.

    2) Craig mentioned that "Knowledge management, internal social media, organisational designers, more mature IT platforms and good old fashioned management are all conspiring to deliver better access to information, in competition to the BA." I think those forms are competition to Type 1 activities which at their core are really about Knowledge Transfer. However they can actually be great tools for Type 2 Activities as ways to generate that knowledge that needs to be transferred.

    I think the business analysis community needs to focus on helping people expand beyond type 1 activities to be able to utilize type 2 skills in addition to the type 1 skills that are still necessary, just not sufficient to be an effective business analyst.

    Go ahead, brand me a trouble maker.

    Kent McDonald

  7. A Depth of skill VERSUS a depth and breadth of skill - to me this is the difference between Type 1 and Type 2 Business Analyst. Skill refers both Technical and Interpersonal

    Both have their place, I like the horses for courses approach.