Building (or Becoming) the Ideal Business Analyst

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There are as many types of business analyst personalities as there are organizations and projects. Each analyst has his or her own skills, talents, temperament, and knowledge. This range of variety is a boon to business owners, since not every project or organization calls for the same kind of analyst. In his book Software Requirements, Karl E. Wieger observes of the business analyst roles, “These roles all demand different skills, knowledge, and personality traits.”1 The skills that an analyst may have are indeed diverse. Wieger lists a long collection of analyst skills, typical of what many IT or requirements texts would list: listening, interviewing, writing, analytics, organizational skills, modeling, facilitation, creativity, a solid understanding of requirements engineering, and technical and business domain knowledge. The chances that any one individual will excel in every one of those skills are remote. Nearly all analysts, however, will excel at some of them. The million-dollar questions is, how can a manager match an analyst’s unique skills to the projects that can really benefit from them, helping to ensure a project’s success? How can a manager build stronger, perhaps more suitable skills in his analysts? For the analyst, the question is how can he choose the best-fitting project, or pitch himself to the best-fitting organization, ensuring that his work is both successful and satisfying?

Match Projects with the Personalities that Best Support Them

Building (or Becoming) the Ideal Business AnalystWhile there is no one-size-fits-any-organization analyst, there is an ideal business analyst for every position. To build or become the ideal business analyst, one must first understand an organization’s or project’s requirements. When a new project arises, try to discern what skills will be required from its designated business analyst. What are the project’s needs? (Or if an analyst is looking at applying for an organization, find out what types of projects are common.) What are the minimum skills and experience that a business analyst needs to have in order to be successful for the project? Is there a lot of discovery? Is a lot of technical expertise required? Will the analyst spend the bulk of his or her time communicating with programmers, customers, or sales staff? Is there an analyst who is also a subject matter expert on the project? To get the best results, the project should be matched with the analyst who will find it easiest to perform the needed skills.

For example, if the project at hand holds a lot of discovery and a myriad of interviews with a lot of busy sales people, the keep-to-himself former programmer probably is not going to be the best match—even if he can knock a state diagram out of the park. (What is he going to diagram if he never dug deeply enough to get the requirements right?) Conversely, the most outgoing enterprise analyst who has little technical expertise is not going to be much help in a highly technical project. (No matter how well she communicates, what is she going to say if she does not grasp the intricate technicalities of the project?) Both the introverted former programmer and outgoing enterprise analyst are strong business analysts. Each just needs a project and organization matched to their skill set in order to excel.

The notion of trying to find or become a one-size-fits-all business analyst is counter-productive and should be abandoned. We don't expect one piece of software, for example, to be able to do everything, but we do expect what we’ve invested in to work well for the tasks we purchased it for. But how can a manager recognize an employee’s (or an analyst recognize her own) intrinsic competencies?

  1. Ask. In her article entitled “Business Analyst Career Progression,” Kimberly Terribile notes, “The skills necessary to be successful as a business analyst are difficult to measure and even more difficult to teach so it is particularly important to evaluate individuals carefully.”2 How to find these skills? At the end of her article, Terribile offers some questions that may help discern where an analyst’s strengths and weaknesses like. A manager may also want to ask even more pointed questions related to the project at hand, such as “Have you ever dealt with this system? How well do you know it? How comfortable are you doing interviews? Do you like designing surveys? Speaking in front of focus groups? Do you have any experience with it?”

  2. And if necessary, verify these testified skills with testing. Many people intuitively know their own strengths, but testing can back up any conclusions. One senior business executive writer advocates formal personality tests for existing employees to ensure that they are in the right positions to match their inherent aptitudes.3

Similar to the consideration that a manager can do of analysts’ strengths, analysts themselves need to isolate their own strengths and market themselves accordingly. Then, help managers and potential employers to see those strengths and where they fit into the unique requirements of an organization or project.

Just as each analyst has inherent strengths, he will also have inherent weaknesses. While it may not be wise to attempt to shore up these weaknesses by throwing oneself or one’s employee head first into an important project they do not have the aptitude for, it will benefit an analyst’s career and the company’s projects to strengthen any weak areas.

Strengthen Weak Areas to Customize an Analyst’s Skills to Organizational Needs

In addition to using an analyst’s inherent strengths and talents, most organizations could benefit tremendously from shoring up their existing analysts’ strengths through training, mentoring and other tools. But when faced with daunting new projects and a staff of relatively inexperienced analysts, some managers may be tempted to hire a top-dollar, “off the shelf” analyst or consultant who has a broad range of business analysis skills and credentials. Such consultants and analysts come with high price tags, however, and generally will have a host of skills that the manager will never need—effectively wasting money and resources. A manager will likely fare better by investing in prudent training of his or her existing business analysts, ensuring that they excel in the specific analyst skills that are needed for their organization.

To create a team of analysts that are honed for their organization’s specific needs, managers need to train and mentor analysts with those specific skills and projects in mind rather than trying to find a perfect employee. (Indeed, trying to create or become an all-encompassing analyst would be nearly impossible and take countless years of training.)

A manager can go about building a team of analysts customized for his or her organization by implementing these four steps.

First, decide what a perfectly customized team of analysts looks like for your organization. A manager must identify the skills his organization needs over the long-term, not just for projects on the horizon. To envision this ideally trained team, the manager must ask himself

  • what types of technologies are most commonly used by the organization (.NET versus Microsoft versus other networks, etc.)

  • what methodologies the organization employs (agile versus waterfall)

  • what types of applications the organization builds (web applications, desktop business applications, educational application, etc.)

  • what industry the organization specializes in (health care, education, publishing, travel, etc.)

For example, a manager at a company that creates software for physical therapists and favors an agile development process would want an analyst or group of analysts who (1) understand the mindset of the audience in the health care field, (2) have a basic understanding of how an educational application should perform, (3) understand and participate well in the agile development process.

Second, consider what affordable, feasible tools are available to help your team reach that level of training. Are there subject matter experts or senior analysts who can train less experienced analysts to have a better understanding of the organizational business structure and methodologies? Managers should ask employees what strengths they see in each other. Then set up cross-mentoring when skills are clearly in different places to help each employee become stronger. Are there nearby or online courses or webinars that can shore up the analysts’ knowledge? Can you create a customized library for your analysts and find ways to encourage them to make use of it? Finally, managers can always make analysts aware of the benefits of certifications such as CBAP4, CCBA5 or ISEB6.

Third, plan how you are going to use these tools to implement training for your employees. Is there a set time that cross-training can be formally set up? Can you set up seminars or formalized training, even using in-house talent? Can you get approval to motivate analysts to independently pursue certifications by linking them to a salary increase/and or title change? Make a chronological timeline for implementing the training steps you have chosen.

Fourth, execute your plan. Communicate to employees the training that will be forthcoming, book it, and have them adjust their schedules accordingly.

Shoring up business analysis skills to better match an organization’s needs does not solely fall under the purview of management. A savvy analyst should actively pursue continuing mentoring and training. Wieger notes, “An organization’s analysts will come from diverse backgrounds and they’ll likely have gaps in their knowledge and skill sets. All analysts should decide which . . . knowledge and skills pertain to their situation and actively seek the information that will let them do a first rate job.”7 Wieger advises analysts to take a hard look at their own skills. “If you see gaps, select two specific areas for improvement and begin closing those gaps immediately by reading, practicing, find a mentor, or taking a class.”8 (In this economy, however, a class may not be feasible, and continuing education may mean borrowing books from your local library.) For many analysts, particularly junior analysts, it may be even more enlightening to shadow a lead analyst, even if you have to do it on your own time. (If no one wants to hire a junior analyst to pay you as you learn, consider pitching yourself for an unpaid internship or apprenticeship, and then work as hard as you can to make yourself indispensable.) For an overview of the main competencies that are expected of a business analyst, see chapter 8 of A Guide to the Business Analyst’s Body of Knowledge (BABOK), Version 2.09. Another excellent piece on key business analyst skills is here.

Building (or becoming) the ideal analyst is partially a task in matching one’s natural skills and talents to projects that can benefit most from those skills and talents. This may require some thought, research, and discernment. Secondarily, it is a task in stretching oneself or one’s employees beyond inherent talents to strengthen weak areas, growing into a more focused picture of business analysis competencies that match an organization’s needs. This may require some grit and motivation (particularly if an analyst has more weaknesses than they do strengths). But the benefits to one’s career and one’s organizational projects are well worth the effort.

Author: Morgan Masters is Business Analyst and Staff Writer at ModernAnalyst.com, the premier community and resource portal for business analysts. Business analysis resources such as articles, blogs, templates, forums, books, along with a thriving business analyst community can be found at http://www.ModernAnalyst.com


1 Wiegers, Karl E. Software Requirements, Microsoft Press: Redmond, Washington, 2003, 64.
2 Terribile, Kimberly. “
Business Analyst Career Progression.” Accessed September 3, 2010.
3 Reh, F. John. “The Right People in the Wrong Jobs.”
http://management.about.com/cs/people/a/RightWrong1099.htm. Accessed September 3, 2010.
4
http://www.theiiba.org/AM/Template.cfm?Section=Certification
5
http://www.theiiba.org/Content/NavigationMenu/Certification/CCBA/default.htm
6
http://www.bcs.org/server.php?show=nav.5732
7 Wiegers, 71.
8 Wiegers, 74.
9 A Guide to the Business Analyst’s Body of Knowledge® (BABOK® Guide), Version 2.0, International Institute of Business Analysis, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, ©2005, 2006, 2008, 2009.

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COMMENTS

anthony83 posted on Tuesday, February 15, 2011 6:30 PM
ideal tips and knowledge for an intermediate BA or some one hoping to specialize in this path
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