Explaining What a BA Does and Why That's So Tricky

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Jul 30, 2023
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Explaining What a BA Does and Why That's So Tricky

"So what do you do?"... You are networking, or with family or new friends and someone is bound to ask. This has become a laborious question for so many Business Analysts. It often becomes the running joke and each BA eventually lands on some level of elevator pitch that leaves the curious onlooker befuddled and sidestepping to move into the next topic.

But why is explaining the job of a Business Analyst so tricky and what does that mean for the future of the BA discipline?

Often it helps to look at the past to better understand where we are going. That's one of the reasons Current State and Future State diagrams are so helpful in the BA skill set.

For this answer however, we're going to travel a bit further back than our current state. We're going back to the 1920s.

The History of Business Analysis

History of Business Analysis

Image: (Image #2 The Gap in trained BAs through historic growth, created by Jessie Perez) from book The Ways of a Business Analyst by Jessie Perez

Image: The Technology Growth line from image # 2 is loosely taken from the technology growth line in the “The future of exponential technological growth” graph from OurWorldInData.org (Roser and Ritchie, 2013). The Trained Business Analyst line from the 1960s through 2003 is understood growth prior to the introduction of the IIBA accrediting body for Business Analysis standardization in 2003 (Hermes, 2014), and interpreted growth as identified through IIBA (IIBA.org) and estimated unreported training of BAs as gaged through independent assessment of trained BAs within larger bodies of employment.

Considering there are over 806,400 business analysts in the United States alone (Career Explorer, 2021), which is actually a very small number given the need for that role across industries, and that there are only 30,000 IIBA members globally as of 2020 (IIBA.org), you can quickly see the gap in credentials - not to mention the fact that some of those members are “entry level” members, not even fully experienced.

As the speed of technology grew, the need for business analysts grew. Since there were not enough trained business analysts to go around for the need, businesses who knew they needed to fill that vital role began to hire into the role, hoping the hire could get up to speed and do the job, despite not having been trained to do so. As the gap widened between technology growth with companies needing BAs and the volume of trained BAs available, the percentage of businesses who had ever worked with a trained BA became smaller and smaller. Thus, the definition of a BA began to become assumed to stretch a range of activities that the people in these roles performed, everything from customer service to reporting analytics, most of such activities had nothing to do with the role of a business analyst.

Most small to medium sized businesses have little to no idea what a business analyst does or how the skills of a business analyst could powerfully impact their operations, direction, and growth, with particular focus on organizations that deal with technology or could benefit from applications.

Many larger companies who employ business analysts, and know they need them, also often lack clarity in the skills of a well-trained business analyst, having not worked with many, if any at all.

Generating clarity on the role of a Business Analyst, and seeing business analyst training expanded across existing and new BAs is going to be a crucial differentiator as we move forward. Per Career Explorer by Sokanu, the business analyst job market is expected to grow by 14.3% between 2016 and 2026 (Career Explorer, 2021). This means that without a serious shift equipping business analysts to deliver high quality work, the gap is only going to widen.

This history is important in understanding our role as business analysts today.

Essentially, we are fighting three battles in explaining what we do.

Our History

1. The first is the result of our history. There have been too many BA roles filled by untrained candidates who simply did whatever they could to do to perform in the role as asked. As more and more companies worked with untrained BAs, those companies had no one to keep them in check as to the responsibilities of a BA or expectations. Often the role was meshed with other tasks needing to be picked up, from customer service to data analytics, to subject matter experts (SMEs) and a range in-between.

This challenge has compounded over the years with the continued increase in BAs throughout numerous industries.

Our Visibility

2. The second battle is that outside of those areas hiring for business analysts, the role is greatly unknown by the general public. The role of the BA is kind of a behind-the-scenes role, and so it's not commonly the talk of public-facing acknowledgements. The general public often only knows about the business analysis role if they've known someone in that role, or worked alongside one in some capacity.

There are even colleges who are confused about the role, with classes labeled "Business Analysis" when the curriculum is purely business analytics.

Expanding Domain

3. The third is that technology is becoming more advanced, so the areas of analysis are also expanding.

This third one certainly warrants a bit more discussion. Long ago, business analysis was heavily focus on eliciting good requirements that could be handed over to developers to build the solution. While that's still a core part of business analysis, and always will be, the range of technology has exceeded this scope. Technology is becoming more layered and smarter.

I had the privilege of working on several cutting-edge technologies, one involving natural language processing (NLP) where we worked very closely with skilled Data Scientists to create models, not based on the words themselves (lexicon), but rather on syntax (or grammatical structure). This wasn't just any technology, but a specialized solution that was able to successfully predict early-stage lung cancer in hospitalized patients who had been previously unidentified.

This was powerful, as lung cancer is far more treatable in early stages than once it becomes symptomatic.

As the business analyst on this effort, while I didn't do the data analytics myself, I did need to become familiar with the way in which the data ran through the model algorithms in order to diagram it in a way that could be understood by the business stakeholders in order for them to make important decisions. I also needed to understand the impact of the data outcome possibilities as we were building a comprehensive system to consume these predictions and route them to the correct medical professionals in order to reach out to these patients.

The result was impactful and far exceeded anyone's expectations for the volume of patients who would benefit from early detection picked up through this amazing technology.

Not every technological expansion will be as impacting as curing cancer, but the extent of which the range of technology has grown is quite impressive. And it's certainly not slowing down.

What this means is that incrementally, the types of analysis we are asked for also expands. Gap analysis is no longer limited to technology platforms or applications, but reaches into the cloud, AI, and more.

Thankfully, the skill sets core to good business analysis are still the foundation from which to explore and accomplish these new asks, even if new creative deliverables are the outcomes necessitated.

When we look at these challenges, no wonder it's so challenging to explain to someone what we do - where do we start?

Well, no matter what the effort, the essential job of a Business Analyst is to help the business get from where they are to where they need to be.

And of course, the most basic and common description describes the how: by being a liaison between the business and technology teams.

So next time you are asked, "What do you do?"…

As a Business Analyst, I am a business problem solver, enabling leaders to identify solutions, seize opportunities and avoid risk, essentially moving them from where they are, to where they need to be. I’m kind of like a translator between the business and technology worlds.

And then you can just smile knowing that there's a complex history and an even more complex future at the center of your discipline.

If you are a BA and you’ve been in the discipline a while and you want give back a little to those up and coming BAs, consider checking out the nonprofit We Speak Color (WSC Inc.) for volunteer opportunities that count toward IIBA earned hours. Or if you are an up and coming BA but maybe you’ve not had formal or solid training in the discipline, check out the courses and program WSC offers to get you in the upper percent of sought after trained BAs.


Author: Jessie Lee Perez

Jessie Perez CBAP, is the founder and president of We Speak Color Inc. (WSC), an IIBA Certified Business Analyst Professional, Academy Trainer and Coach for the Business Analyst profession, Lean Six Sigma Certified GB, established a BA Community of Practice within HCA and is the Author of the books "Color By Design: Why you think what you think...", and “The Ways of a Business Analyst”. Jessie is also a Certified Temperament Consultant and holds a BS in Global Business from Regent University.

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