Business Analysts often delve into business requirements, gathering, understanding and documenting business processes and functions. An analytical mind and detailed information gathering are considered to be essential; one wonders though, if industry experience is a must for good business analysis skills. After all, if you knew well the ins and outs of the industry you were in, that’s good, right? The answer is probably, but not always. Why is that?
Business analysts, like developers and solution architects, are trained to think logically and focus on specific issues at hand. Once in a while, though, they need to step back, and like a painter evaluating and assessing his painting-in-progress, assess their progress on the task at hand and be prepared to explain it to a wider audience in plain talk. That, in my opinion, is an essential skill of the modern analyst.
First, industry experience means less time is wasted knowing the industry environment – the general models the business follows, what regulatory and competitive arena it is part of and some common terminology. Secondly, business process flows are easier to understand, say, if one was documenting business process flows for a financial transaction, if that person had already worked in a financial services firm in a financial transaction environment (e.g., Front office, where the deals were made, or the middle office, where financial and regulatory processes were checked or filtered, and the back office, where the transactions were processed and settled – and where exceptions were followed up for closure).
That of course, brings up an interesting question – if a business analyst goes into an unfamiliar environment, how much time should be spent learning the business environment? Wouldn’t that leave less time for focusing on the essentials of requirements, elicitations and documentation? And how valuable would all that be, anyway? After all, time is money – and with workloads being what they these days, such knowledge, while good for a progressive and open mind, would be quite expensive indeed, wouldn’t it?
The answer is that depending on the timeframe, it would be beneficial to get the most important work done first, which would mean skipping the overview on the business. In a limited time frame, a “bullet-point” information dissemination method (summary) might work. Asking questions in the right environment is healthy, but learning important concepts on one’s own time is a better idea. After all, stakeholders have limited time available even for requirements – they might not have the patience for an extended basics class. On the other hand, workflows and the reasoning behind them should be questioned to extract the maximum value for optimization and better business.
What about the times when it might be beneficial to hire a business analyst who is sharp and curious, but not industry-knowledgeable? When the existing patterns are so constricted and “inside the box” that a fresh perspective is needed, hiring analysts without a lot of presumptions and insider’s knowledge is actually a good idea.
I worked in a firm once where I was asked to interview, evaluate and recommend IT candidates (mostly developers, some analysts). At the end of the face-to-face interview, I would ask the candidate to solve a problem on pen and paper. The rules were clear – no writing code, simply writing out the solutions – a diagram was acceptable as long as it wasn’t too complex. Additionally, the answer had to be limited to 1 page and be completed in about 30 minutes. I was amazed at how the smartest candidates failed this written “test” – it was actually quite simple, for it did not require deep industry knowledge and did not put the candidate on the spot by testing coding knowledge. I simply wanted to know how the candidate thought about solving problems and whether he/she was able to put it on paper. I often got several pages of answers, written code and requests for extending the time available, though all the requirements for the written test were explained before hand. Needless to say, these candidates were not hired.