I wanted to get to the bottom of things once and for all. We had been having several discussions about the birth of business analysis and how the profession of business analyst came into being. There were no business analysts, at least as currently incarnated, in Data Processing when I started a long time ago, and a look into the history of business analysis might be interesting. So I went sought out Doctor BA who has been around a lot longer than I.
I joined Doctor BA at his invitation in his Club, a throw back to the yesteryear of exclusive clubs such as the one in Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days or M’s Club in the James Bond series by Ian Fleming: big overstuffed chairs in libraries with floor to ceiling bookcases filled with elegantly bound books that no one read. He escorted me to a pair of wing backed chairs in front of a mammoth fire place and ordered us glasses of wine.
When we were settled in, Doctor BA stroked his pointed chin, pushed back his wavy white hair and lifted his glass.
“To all those in business analysis who came before us and are still with us in spirit.” He toasted. And then he went on to address the question of where business analysis started.
[note that, because Doctor BA can get somewhat obtuse in his references, especially with names, I have edited his narrative with an explanation or two.]
It All Began…
“If you get literal, it started eons ago. Business is a somewhat nebulous term, but we can adopt Keith Roberts’ definition as selling goods or services to voluntary buyers at a profit., As such then the first appearance of business analysis must have been back in Mesopotamian times when someone analyzed the exchanges of fish for grain or pottery for meat which at the time was probably done simply for subsistence of families or groups, and determined that he could step in as a middleman and facilitate the exchange with a common exchange rate and take a percentage or profit from the transaction. Then the market was analyzed, another form of business analysis, to determine what the people needed, how that need could be fulfilled and what they were willing to pay and / or receive for it.
In other words, despite today’s insistence by various organizations and people, business analysis existed long before Ada, Charley, and Joe [Lovelace, Babbage, and Jacquard, respectively, early pioneers of computing technologies. I don’t know if Doctor BA knew any of these folks personally], ever even thought of differential engines or programmed devices.
Despite the youthful belief that computers and their off spring, smart phones, have been with us forever, business came first. As a result, business analysis should be focused on the business first, and not on some technological approach.
However,” he said, switching to coffee to chase the wine, and pouring it himself from the china coffee pot set on the side table next to him. “You are asking about the profession of business analyst as much as the origin of business analysis. For that again you would probably have to go back a hundred years or so to my friend Herman [Hollerith, the inventor of an electromechanical device for reading information stored on punched cards and for punching the cards using a code he developed in the 1880s. He went on to found the company that eventually became IBM]. He perceived a problem in the 1890 census and analyzed the business of census taking coming up with a novel and innovative solution. The essence of business analysis. Of course he was not called a business analyst at the time. Or ever probably, for that matter. He was a professor at MIT before he moved to Washington. You know, there is a plaque to him down around the C&O Canal in Georgetown. IBM paid for it. But he was a professor and a very good one, not a business analyst.
We have to remember that business analyst is a role as much as a profession. So even as a professor, Herman acted in the role of business analyst. He even had John Shaw [Billings, a statistician and surgeon and librarian who was head of the US Census and asked Herman Hollerith to help on the compilation of census data.] as his problem owner and spent a lot of time asking questions, testing solutions and analyzing the information and the results.”
Doctor BA paused to hold his porcelain coffee cup up for a refill from the silver pot in the hands of a charming fellow in a white jacket who hovered near by. It looked as though we might be in for a long night and I thought of signaling for another glass of wine, but then decided that I didn’t want to doze off and miss something important, so I opted for water instead.
“I suppose your question is more about when the term ‘business analyst’ first started being bandied about associated with IT. Back when Johnny [I think he is referring to John Van Neuman] started this whole thing there was no need for business analysis. We were all known as ‘computer scientists’. And I guess we were scientists of a sort. It took IBM to put the business into computers. We’re talking late 1960s with the advent of mass business and government use of the IBM 360 computers and Grace’s [that would be Grace Hopper, who Doctor BA knew and had dinner with occasionally according to other conversations I had had with him] introduction of COBOL. But still, as technical types we were called ‘software engineers’ rather than business analysts. Most of the time as we wrote programs to print reports, or calculate interest, or compute amortization, or produce payroll checks, we had very little concept of what the business did with the results of our code, or what the reason was for writing it. And really, at the time, it probably made no difference.
But the actual term ‘business analyst’, that was in the 90s, that is the 1990s. Actually, I worked with business analysts in the 1980s. Telecom companies had business analysts who were the intermediaries between the technology of telecom and the business side. IT was a part, but only as a facilitator. Marketing comes up with a “Friends and Lovers Circles” plan and the business analyst helps the technicians define what information has to come off the switch and where it goes on the eventual bill.
It wasn’t until half a decade later when some business unit delegated it’s most power of power users, at that time PCs were starting to appear on all desktops, to cross the No Man’s Land between the business and IT to talk to the technical types. The idea was that the power user might understand ‘geek talk’ better. The concept caught on in many business units of organizations, all on the down low. Then at some point, someone went to HR and a new position was created to legitimize the role. Now remember that you and I have been doing this type of thing for decades, or longer in my case, but before this time the title was something like requirements analyst, or the much more prestigious requirements engineer, or system analyst.
“Well, some IT organizations recognized the value of having a greater view and understanding of the business, realized that such a view might indeed help them produce better systems, and assigned whichever technical type who had some relatively good soft skills to be a business analyst.
Back in the day most business analysts worked for the business side, but today it has reversed and business analysts generally work for IT.
And that, as Paul Harvey would say,” said Doctor BA, with a sip of coffee, “is the rest of the story.”
Doctor BA got a far away look in his eyes as he stared into the fire place while the nice fellow in the white jacket refilled his coffee cup. I knew it was probably time to depart. As I got up from the low slung overstuffed chair, I heard my joints creak and felt very old as I walked slowly out of the Club being helped by the friendly fellow in the white coat.
Author: Steve Blais, PMP, PMI-PBA
Steve Blais, PMP, PMI-PBA, is an author, consultant, teacher and coach who has nearly 50 years’ experience in Information Technologies working as a programmer, project manager, business analyst, system analyst, general manager, and tester. He has also been in an executive position for several start-up companies. He develops business analysis and agile processes and trains business analysts, project managers, and executive for organizations around the world. He is the author of Business Analysis: Best Practices for Success (John Wiley, 2011) and co-author of Business Analysis for Practitioners: a Practice Guide (PMI, 2014) and a contributor to the Business Analyst Body of Knowledge, V3 (IIBA, 2015).