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Miles Barker
Miles Barker

BA Careers - Domain knowledge versus analysis skills

I've been thinking a lot recently about the value of the BA, and BA recruitment - at all levels.
 
A common question that comes up is "Do I need to have experience in Industry X/Domain Y to work as a BA in that industry/domain?"
 
In a nutshell:
  • Is it like that now? Yes.
  • Should it be like that? Probably not.
  • Who can change it? Us - as BAs, managers and recruiters of BAs, and as candidates.
 
A lot of my thinking crystallised after a Thoughtworks breakfast meeting, about the challenges of modernising an infrastructure for selling train tickets (this is way more complex than you might think!) and seeing parallels with my work. Equally importantly, the CIO of the client co (David Jack of thetrainline.com) had a great track record of applying sound IT management in some very, very different industries.
 
Often, talking about "Industry X" is a slightly lazy shorthand for a bunch of more abstract things about challenges, approaches, and thinking.
 
I think some of the key determinants are the nature of a business or domain, e.g.
  • Is it B2C or B2B?
  • Is the process tightly constrained by market norms?
  • Does the "customer" (internal or external) directly interact with the system or business process you are working on, or with a service that is supported by it?
  • Are the system's users  finite enough in number for a representative sample to be dealt with directly during the requirements process?
  • Are the users or Customers specialists themselves, or generalists/the general public?
and so on.
 
I know one BA who works (with great success) in the field of Adult Social Care: 
  • B2C
  • Customer interacts with a service supported by his processes/systems
  • Customers/users can be sampled directly
  • Customers/users are specialists in their profession but generalists with regards to systems or process re-engineering.
So what his job is actually about is finding innovative ways (e.g. ethnography) to help professionals and their clients discover true requirements and create new processes to deliver those more effectively. 
 
So I could tell you that "I'm a specialist in Securities Clearing and Settlement and Collateral Management". Or, I could tell you "I  specialise in state-driven transactional processing, specifically in consolidating legacy processes and systems into service-oriented models that are sufficiently abstracted to support common processing  regardless of product nuances or multiple B2B interface designs, in a time-constrained environment".
 
Now, which sounds more portable? And which tells you more fully what skills I have?
 
Of course, there ARE some cases where true domain expertise IS essential, typically those with some combination of highly specialised content AND time pressure AND stakeholders whose time is (genuinely) too valuable to spend "teaching" the BA. I'm reminded of pharma - the 2009 European BA Conference included a  particularly memorable talk by Astra-Zeneca's Chris Marshall on the challenges of being  BA in the blue-sky research space, where they are almost all ex-scientists themselves. 
 
But most of the rest of the time, it's because things aren't documented or modelled, or aren't standardised, or aren't innovative.
 
I think we want to be more than just Subject Matter Experts with a BABOK veneer. Personally, I've learned the most and been most innovative when I've deliberately moved out of my comfort zone.
  • When we're in our comfort zone, we take a lot of what we know for granted
  • When we move out of our comfort zone, it's often easier to to get clarity without being bogged down in details
 
And we shouldn't forget, that if we just stick to the same domain and the same group of insiders, innovation will be much harder to come by. Banking sometimes feels like a merry-go-round with people coming in an implementing basically the same idea that they have at their last three employers. Which is fine if your aspirations extend no further than playing catch-up....
 
So what can we do about it?
1. Improve our in-house BA environment maturity, with properly modelled and documented domains, standard Use Case libraries, etc. so as to make the transition of non-specialist BAs easier. 
2. As BA managers, open our eyes on recruitment based on skills and values, rather than knowledge, and phrase our job Specs accordingly
3. Build our BA teams focussed on ideas sharing and creativity
4. As BAs, revise our thinking and our CVs along the lines outlined above.
 
 
To be clear - I'm not saying that no-one in a team/project needs specialist knowledge - just that not everyone does - and that there are distinct advantages to mix and match teams and career mobility that we are currently (mostly) missing out on.

What do YOU think?
 
I will be leading a "BA Career Path and Qualifications" panel discussion on this and many other topics at the Business Analysis Conference Europe in London on 27-29 September 2010 - see http://www.irmuk.co.uk/ba2010/
 
 
Miles Barker
Professional Development Director of the UK Chapter of the IIBA
This entry was published on May 27, 2010 / Miles Barker. Posted in Business Analysis, Interviewing & Hiring Business Systems Analysts, Leadership & Management, Career as a Business Systems Analyst. Bookmark the Permalink or E-mail it to a friend.
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COMMENTS

Marc Thibault posted on Monday, May 31, 2010 1:26 PM
Most of my best gigs have involved a new domain and a steep learning curve on the front end.

In general, I think the result has probably been superior in that I had to work with my client and do the research to get all the information I needed, and didn't bring any preconceptions into the mix. Being naive in the domain led to me asking questions that otherwise would not have been asked and allowed me to penetrate the "everybody knows" cloud. Planning and analysis tools and techniques are domain-independent.

Of course, you can't always find yourself in new territory, but I don't see any reason to avoid it.
nithyawarrier posted on Thursday, June 3, 2010 3:02 AM
I think domain knowledge matters a lot.I shifted my domain recently and I am finding it difficult to provide solutions to a problem of the client since I do not have expertise in the business process and I do not have adequate knowledge on the domain.

Eventhough am good in requirements management,I feel that we have to be specialist in a domain.

I would also like to share my friends pathetic condition in an interview.He was denied of attending an interview because the domain he has worked for years is different from what recruiters want.
David Wright posted on Thursday, June 3, 2010 11:36 AM
This is a topic that is almost constantly being discussed somewhere on BA and PM sites. I have found differences in opinion are actually based on different definitions of what a BA does.

The above comment by nithyawarrier is an example. Most definitions of what a BA does is elicit and document requirements that developer/delivery people can determine what is the best solution, out of many options. If the job includes solution definition, that is something different. You do need a domain specialist, that is a business person commonly called a subject matter expert (SME), who the BA works with to get the Requirements.

So, you can't be clueless about the overall business your company is in, but you don't need to know the specifics as well as the responsible business people. I do this as a consultant, shifting domains continuously, so it can be done.
zarfman posted on Wednesday, July 14, 2010 11:31 PM

Hi:

What confounds me is how one not skilled in a particular art or science can be expected to conduct a competent analysis of that area. That is to say a non domain expert.

For example, a BA may have a good understanding of accounts payable or accounts receivable systems. However, when faced with analyzing, understanding and implementing FASB 157 (calculation of fair value) they are hopelessly lost. I know this to be true, because it happened on my watch.

I can’t help but wonder if businesses wouldn’t be better of if our Universities trained our Accounting, Science, Engineering et al graduates (domain experts) how to convert their ideas and/or requirements into a form understandable by various analysts, programmers and DBA’s.

Regards,

Zarfman
zarfman posted on Wednesday, July 14, 2010 11:31 PM

Hi:

What confounds me is how one not skilled in a particular art or science can be expected to conduct a competent analysis of that area. That is to say a non domain expert.

For example, a BA may have a good understanding of accounts payable or accounts receivable systems. However, when faced with analyzing, understanding and implementing FASB 157 (calculation of fair value) they are hopelessly lost. I know this to be true, because it happened on my watch.

I can’t help but wonder if businesses wouldn’t be better of if our Universities trained our Accounting, Science, Engineering et al graduates (domain experts) how to convert their ideas and/or requirements into a form understandable by various analysts, programmers and DBA’s.

Regards,

Zarfman
David Wright posted on Thursday, July 15, 2010 9:49 AM
Zarfman,

One "hopelessly lost" BA does not define the whole profession. It may have in fact been better to have a person without a background in AP/AR. ABA works with people who are the Subject Matter Experts; was there a SME involved in the example you cite?

dww
zarfman posted on Thursday, July 15, 2010 8:21 PM

David:

Didn't mean to malign the BA profession. Accounting is not immune to the problem.

Yes, we (Accounting) were the SME. Since IT reported to me I got a knowledgeable programmer who had worked with us before, and DBA to work with our accountants in charge of implementing FASB's.

It took a while, but we got exactly what we wanted.

Regards,

Zarfman

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