Business Analysts: Are You a Van Gogh or a Sagan? (Art or Science)


Business Analysis is a discipline that has earned increased recognition over the last 15 years. As systems become more complex, companies began to see the value in investing in a role that helps bridge the gap between business owners and information technologists (IT) in order to marry the business needs with the technical solution early in the project. Business owners see the significance of a role that aids in defining scope and success from the project onset.

Successful business analysts have a mixture of many talents -- some more tangible than others – making Business Analysis both an art and a science. This article explores each area (art and science) and the types of skills necessary to be successful.

“Is Business Analysis art or science?”

We are not Albert Einstein, Richard Feinman, Carl Sagan or any other great scientific mind.

Likewise, we are not Andy Warhol, Vincent van Gogh or Pablo Picasso.

But we are Business Analysts. So, are we practicing an art or science? Let’s explore some real life examples of the art and the science of analysis and show you how you can use skills from both areas to make yourself a stronger Business Analyst.

He has a degree, now what? Learning by Doing

Greg first became a Business Analyst over 10 years ago. Like many of us, he was thrust into the role without much guidance. His supervisor introduced him to one of the “Big 4” consulting firm methodologies by handing him six intimidating 3-ring binders full of concepts he was not familiar with and more project deliverables than one could have ever imagined. With trepidation, he began exploring the material that had been given to him. He managed to find a template that looked like it was built to hold business requirements and another built to hold system specifications.

He decided to try them out. Although foreign at first, this framework allowed him to communicate a story in a way that both business and technical people understood. With each project, these templates were tweaked to suit the projects needs; adding others as needed because both the business and IT responded positively to them!

Next, Greg was introduced to the Capability Maturity Model (CMM). Developed by Carnegie Mellon University, the CMM defines five levels of “predictability, effectiveness, and control of an organization’s software development processes….” It also covers all phases of software development. There are many valuable components within CMM, but the one that always stuck with Greg was a simple principle: If you find something that works, repeat it. He soon noticed that the project teams developed repeatable processes and became more predictable, reliable, and better able to deliver on time. The science of business analysis was working for him.

Then Greg moved on to a six-month assignment doing nothing but reading government RFPs, extracting a potential project scope, and delivering the information to colleagues in such a way that they could develop estimates needed as a foundation for a bid. SMEs avoided him, as they had their day jobs and had no interest in reviewing something that would likely never come to pass. Determined to find some way to make it easier for them, Greg realized that the ‘science’ of business analysis was no longer working!

He began to rely heavily on modeling skills; building numerous context diagrams, process flow charts, swim lanes and whatever model would work best to help development, infrastructure, operations and other teams quickly assess whether this project was the right fit. The pictures told the story! He was finding the ‘art’ side of business analysis now.

Greg took the ‘art’ side of his requirements elicitation sessions, feeling confident that they would bring the needed alignment. However, as the attendees arrived, it appeared everyone had chosen to bring a friend, and the attendance grew from the expected 10-12 attendees to 30 people, all clustered in two separate groups around the room. He learned that one group made home office policy decisions, while the other group served the field offices. Bottom line: They frequently did not see eye-to-eye.

As Greg worked through his agenda, it became helpful to reach out to each of the participants and get their thoughts on the table. As people began to realize they were being heard, and that their opinion would matter, bonds of trust began to form as the two teams found common ground in the project. Greg found that the “art” of facilitation brought alignment to the teams.

Greg’s story illustrates an experience that we’ve all encountered at some point in our career. We’ve had to use a mix of skills from the disciplines of art and science. Each project is different. Some are best served with lots of documentation and heavy process, while others require more creativity and stronger relationships.

The Science of Business Analysis

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines science as “the state of knowing: knowledge as distinguished from ignorance or misunderstanding.” further defines science as “a branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths systematically arranged and showing the operation of general laws.”

The field of Business Analysis may have been more art than science in the past; however, over the past decade it has evolved into a science, with a defined knowledge base, defined procedures and tools for accomplishing the business analysis tasks, and new, defined ways of measuring both an organization and an individual Business Analyst’s (BA’s) competency levels.

IIBA is established in 2003

A large part of the evolution into science was the emergence of a formal association dedicated to the business analysis profession - the International Institute of Business Analysis (IIBA), which was established in 2003. The IIBA organization created:

  • The Business Analysis Body of Knowledge (BABOK) which formalizes the knowledge of the profession, as defined by practitioners in the field.

  • Tools, such as the IIBA Business Analysis Competency Model and the Self-assessment Tool, which can be used to evaluate and measure the effectiveness of an organization’s business analysis practices and the competency level of their Business Analysts.

  • The independent, internationally recognized certification programs – the CBAP (Certified Business Analysis Professional) and the CCBA (Certification of Competency in Business Analysis) – which evaluate and test the experience level and knowledge of individuals in the business analysis field.

With the advent of the IIBA, the business analysis profession entered the ‘state of knowing.’

Tools and Templates

In addition to the industry standards established by the IIBA, there are other signs that the business analysis profession has become a science. Most companies today either have or are developing a business analysis process as part of their system/product life cycle. There are also well-defined requirements templates that can be used to capture business, functional, technical and non-functional requirements. While these templates can vary from company to company, they are being defined and followed by most organizations. Business analysts can easily get example templates via the internet or from professional business analysis books [1].

There are now also a number of commercial tools available to aid BAs in their job:

• Prototyping tools (iRise , Serena Prototype Composer, Axure RP, Balsamiq, etc.)

• Requirements Management tools (Requisite Pro, DOORS, TestTrack RM, etc.)

• Requirements Definition tools (UML, Rational Composer, etc.)

• Business Process Management tools (Appian, BEA Systems, IBM, etc.)

• Agile requirements tools (Mingle, Rally, etc.)

The Business Analysis field is now a recognized science.

The Art of Business Analysis

But Business Analysis isn’t just about the science – it needs art too. Art is defined by the Britannica Encyclopedia as "the use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared with others.” An artist takes in all their influences, everything they have seen and experienced, and use this to synthesize something new.

Much of the work performed by Business Analysts relies on a BA taking a creative approach. The work of the BA is a problem of people, personalities, and conflicting narratives. Solutions are found through thinking about the situation, coming up with ideas to solve the problems and overcoming hurdles. Because there is no exact process, no book, no formula that will resolve these issues, everything the BA has read, done, and learned from mentors and previous project experience are part of the BA’s toolbox.

Steve Jobs said, “Creativity is connecting things.” This insinuates that using our experience to bring something new to fruition by combining two or more elements that already exist is what an artist does.

Business Analysis is about people

One element of the BA role is to watch and actively listen -- not only to what people are saying, but also to their meaning. Sometimes the business doesn’t feel comfortable speaking freely in the presence of IT. In this case, it is important to notice their body language, adapt your communication style and assess the overall group attitude to drive to the root of the business problem.

As the business problem unfolds, the BA assesses if this is the actual root or just symptoms of a problem. This assessment is critical for building a solution that the business actually will use in their organization. The BA must guide the business user down a chain of reasoning to understand how decision A does not always lead to the expected end result of B. This is a very challenging conversation, fraught with issues of ego, anxiety about time constraints, negative experiences with the success of past projects, and limited by the fast pace of business. To accomplish a solution requires art.

For example, Jeanna worked onsite with a client who was concerned about the rapidly evolving expectations of the business and IT’s ability to deliver on those expectations. As a result, the business and IT developed a very adversarial relationship where neither side really ever heard what the other was saying. Jeanna had to play the role of both advocate as well as a “neutral” problem solver. It took a unique set of skills to listen to the story and understand why the Development Lead was an angst ridden naysayer and why the Product Owner felt like the development team threw their hands up at every feature requested by the business.

By sitting down with both sides, Jeanna was able to uncover the great mystery at the root of the problem: The business had little understanding of the limitations of the system and infrastructure. Plus, no one on the technical side had ever taken the time to sit down with the stakeholders to explain what was at stake by delivering some of the requested features. Once this conversation took place, both sides slowly got on board and started working toward a common goal – delivering an exceptional customer experience through high performing technology.

This is a great example of how BA’s need to understand the technology limitations as well as the needs of the business. It is our responsibility to build the bridge between business and technology. We ensure our solution works end-to-end – from the tools the business will use, to the organizational process where the tools are used by people to do their jobs.

Business Analysis is about being the hub of the wheel

Business Analysts are at the center of the circle in today’s projects - between business pressures, technology limitations, quality, and solution. BAs often find themselves playing a key role in building strategy, facilitating and executing a problem to resolution. A good BA navigates the challenging steps between the desires of all the stakeholders, the capabilities of technology and delivering quality requirements that will establish an excellent product or service.

Good BAs do not inject their own desires into a product. Rather, they facilitate all the stakeholders to understand the actual implications (pros and cons) of their decisions. On the other hand, the “easy way out” for a less conscientious Business Analyst is either to mindlessly write requirements for whatever the business asks (ignoring the true meaning of what the business actually wants) or to be a gatekeeper of technology by challenging every business requirement as technically unfeasible or difficult.

The BA must stay in the center of the conversation, as a true collaborative facilitator, to help business and technology understand each other without interjecting their own agenda. They must work to build strong communication that will lead to a successful project, product, or service.

Business Analysis: Art and Science Working Together

When the business analysis profession first began to emerge, it took a lot of creativity and “art” on behalf of the practitioners to understand requirements and the Business Analysis role. We all had to learn a skill that did not have a defined knowledge base, prescribed approaches or tools to help us practitioners. But, today, the field has well-defined best practices and systematic approaches to gather and analyze business needs and measure the practitioner’s competency levels. The Business Analysis field is now a recognized science.

Without the science which now brings process, techniques, templates and measurability to Business Analysis, our field would not command the respect it currently gets from other professionals. In the past, because we were not always able to articulate the science and discipline of our profession, Business Analysts were often perceived as little more than note takers or junior Project Managers. There was little effective training and no repeatability in the process. Without science, every new BA fumbles around while gaining the experience and skills necessary to effectively practice the profession, like Greg did early in his career.

The recognition of the profession from the IIBA organization as well as the CBAP and CCBA certification programs means that employers now recognize that there is science behind the profession. This recognition helps the industry increase the value of the BA role. BAs can now be trained in the science of their profession and can demonstrate that they have the repeatable skills that are necessary to drive process. There is empirical evidence to support higher salaries and better career paths for BAs with formal training and professional experience.

However, we also must recognize that every project is different and involves unique individuals with strong personalities. This necessitates that we also have an artistic, creative sensibility to successfully navigate the pitfalls that all projects face. Without this, the science of our techniques and processes would be almost useless and, once again, we risk becoming ‘just a note taker,’ rigorously filling out our templates, with no real understanding of the problem that the business needs to solve.

By practicing the art of Business Analysis, the BA adds value to the team and to the process that goes well beyond the science of the profession. The BA becomes a bridge – the ‘hub of the wheel’ - enabling the business users and the IT team to work together collaboratively. The BA helps to insure that the team is developing a business solution that truly meets the business stakeholders’ needs and can be developed in a timely way by the IT organization. Practicing the art of Business Analysis elevates the BA role into a leadership role, opening up better opportunities and career paths for the BA.

So are Business Analysts scientists or artists? We’re both.

Authors: Jeanna Balistreri, Cathy Brunsting, Charlene Ceci, Greg Kulander and Alan Smith

Jeanna Balistreri is a Sr. Business Analyst at
Geneca, a custom software development company. Jeanna has over 10 years of experience in various IT roles such as Project Management, Process Re-engineering and Business Analysis. Jeanna’s core competency is focused on bridging the gap between business and technology in order to help solve business problems through technology solutions. Currently, her focus at Geneca is centered on successfully delivering software through the Getting Predictable principles.

Cathy Brunsting is a Senior Business Analyst at
Geneca. She has over twenty-five years experience in all aspects of business analysis, systems development and project management, from project inception to customer acceptance. She is skilled in the analysis of business problems, as well as the design, implementation, testing, and on-going support of technical solutions. Her areas of expertise include Insurance, Interactive Solutions, e-Business Solutions, Financial Systems, Gaming and Lottery Systems, Telecommunications (Operator Console, Voice Recognition, and Call Processing), Order Entry/Subscription Services, and Database Design. Ms. Brunsting was also the founding President of the Chicagoland chapter of the International Institute of Business Analysis™ (IIBA).

Charlene Ceci has over fifteen years experience in all aspects of business analysis and project management. Her proven ability to streamline processes, rapidly define requirements, control scope, mitigate risks, and delegate tasks results in the implementation of powerful systems. She builds high-performing teams with local, virtual and off-shore resources. Known for her excellent cross organizational communication and problem solving skills consistently leads to exceed expectations. Ms. Ceci is a Senior Lead Business Analyst at the Chicago-based custom software development firm
Geneca, and plays an instrumental role in the adoption and success of Geneca’s business analysis best practices.

Greg Kulander is a Senior Business Systems Analyst at
Geneca, and is the Vice-President of Communications for the Chicagoland Chapter of the International Institute of Business Analysis. He has been working primarily as a Business Analyst on software projects since 1999 for such companies as JP Morgan Chase, U.S. Bank and NAVTEQ (now Nokia Location Services). He has helped lead successful projects in government, healthcare and private sector e-commerce, and was a founding member of the U.S. Bank Business Analysis Center of Excellence. He has a Masters degree in Management Information Systems from Benedictine University, and Bachelor’s degree in Marketing. Greg thoroughly enjoys seeing a project go live and watching an organization reap the benefits of well-made software!

Alan Smith is a Senior Business Analyst who works for Geneca. Alan has 12 years of technology experience working with various Insurance systems, Financial Systems, Telecommunications and Digital Entertainment. Alan is experienced with project definition, business analysis, requirements facilitation and analysis, quality assurance and all phases of testing. Alan specializes in Agile methodology, including XP, Scrum and Lean. Alan holds a Masters Degree in Adult Therapy from Loyola University Chicago. Alan loves building strong client relationships, and showing his clients how their engaged input into the requirements process will make their projects successful.

[1] IIBA:
Modern Analyst:

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David Wright posted on Thursday, March 14, 2013 9:27 AM
Found you again... as much as I admire Van Gogh and Sagan, my model is Sandford Fleming.... yes, I am going to make you search for him, he had a real impact on all of us.
Cathy posted on Thursday, March 21, 2013 2:58 PM
Hi David. Thanks for the comment. A good engineer/inventor applies both science and art too :)
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