Gettin’ some respect

You’re an IT manager and you need someone with both business and technical expertise to document your business processes and figure out how they can be improved with a little help from software and hardware. To whom do you turn?

In most cases, it’s probably the business analyst. This is the person in your organization who, as part of a project team, defines the scope of an IT project, gathers, documents and communicates project requirements, identifies a solution and makes sure that it does what it’s supposed to do.

It’s also the business analyst who is often charged with the task of writing the material that ends up in your requests for proposal (RFPs) or who deals with vendors face-to-face if you’re looking at buying a packaged software application. But the role of the business analyst hasn’t always been that clear — and that’s why some people who carry the title are working to better define their position.

The evolution of the role

There was a time when the systems analyst was the main person who would interpret system needs and help make IT decisions, said Mike Giovinazzo, president of consulting firm We4c Solutions in Ottawa.

As someone who helps his clients’ project teams evaluate software or locate a solution to meet a specific business need, Giovinazzo said he can see how the role has changed over the years from being all about systems to being more focused on business processes.

“Twenty years ago, the systems analyst essentially used to do that fundamental translation. They had to understand and document the requirements in structured English and a programmer would translate that into Cobol or something,” he explained.

But that’s no longer how things work, because programming languages have moved up into higher realms, he said. Instead of having two different people take care of that job, “you will often have a programmer analyst who has that blended role,” he said.

Meanwhile, in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s as IT became more pervasive in organizations, enterprises started discovering that projects were either failing or not delivering any real business benefits because often there was too much emphasis on implementing technology for its own sake, rather than to drive better business value.

According to Kathleen Barret, a senior business consultant with BMO Financial Group in Toronto, the systems analyst role had to change into something more business-focused if companies were going to take technology seriously. “Some organizations were better at doing business analysis way back when, but a lot of companies weren’t,” explained Barret, who heads up the requirements management/business analysis centre of competency at BMO. “The systems people were very analytical. They knew how to efficiently use technology and they were concerned with getting the biggest bang for the byte. That kind of individual tended to be more technical — and more systems-oriented.”

But now, an enterprise’s IT systems are what ultimately distinguish it from competitors, Barret said. “If we didn’t have an effective IT organization, we would fail. It is so critical to the success of the business. IT needs to respond to the business needs very quickly. We can’t afford to mess up.”

And that’s where the business analyst fits in. According to Barret: “Being there, understanding what the business needs (are), what the market pressures are, what different solutions are available, and how the business model is changing,” defines the role of the business analyst.

Even today, some organizations find that systems analysts, while making a concerted effort to build up their business savvy, sometimes lack strong process analysis skills critical to making a business function.

Jim Robson, the Winnipeg-based vice-president of information services for The Great-West Life Assurance Company, emphasised that “you need to have your end-to-end processes well thought through” in both automated and non-automated environments, if you want an IT project to succeed. “Often you have to make changes in the way you do processes. There is an increasing demand and complexity when it comes to the analysis of end-to-end processes,” he said.

Great West Life maintains that split between systems analysts and what it calls “subject matter experts” — those who really understand the business processes and rules. “They basically identify and define what IT business needs you need to meet, not necessarily how to do it. The systems analyst does what is required to translate that into a how-to,” he said.

Formal recognition

Barret said that although the business analyst position isn’t new, until recently there has been no systematic attempt to create a profession around this function, or even define exactly what the role is.

In the summer of 2003 Barret, along with 27 other business analysts and requirements managers, gathered at the Bank of Montreal’s Institute for Learning north of Toronto to pool their resources and figure out what the role itself should be and how it is developing in organizations. The ultimate goal was to “raise the recognition and appreciation for the value of the role of the business analyst,” said Barret.

The result was the formation of the International Institute of Business Analysis (IIBA), representing the professional interests of business analysts and requirements managers. Barret is the organization’s president, and this past March the IIBA held its first annual general meeting in Toronto. When she spoke to ComputerWorld Canada, Barret was in Winnipeg at the opening of the IIBA’s first local chapter in the country.

Kai Whalley, group manager for Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) IT, is another founding member of the IIBA. Whalley’s group is part of RBC Financial Services and includes an analyst centre staffed by business analysts supporting large IT projects under way at the bank. She agrees that it’s high time the business analyst role gets the recognition and respect it deserves.

Traditionally, she explained, the business analyst would be hired to join a project team and then “by default they continued in the IT world…. However, they did not have designated recognition and credibility,” and their career paths were not always that well defined.

The IIBA is planning to launch a business analysis body of knowledge and certification requirements that will mirror the requirements for project managers, Whalley said. It is also supporting Business Analyst World, part of the annual ProjectWorld conference. Business Analyst world was held in Ottawa in September, and will come to Vancouver on Nov. 23.

“What we’ve learned in our involvement with this organization is that there is a tremendous amount of interest and excitement on both sides of the border for IIAB and these conferences. There are lots of questions and energy [flowing] our way,” Whalley said. “The objective is really to professionalize the business analyst role because traditionally there has been only one career path where you work your way up to project management.”

RBC has already created a few different career paths, she said — “the project manager, quality assurance, testers and traditional developers are all separate career paths for the business analyst.”

Robson, who hasn’t heard of the IIBA, nevertheless said the formation of such an organization is valuable because it “focuses on a discipline that is critical to the success of any project. If the requirements aren’t well defined the system, no matter how technically perfect, will not be of value to the organization.”

Fitting in

There are a few trends in the IT industry today that are driving the need for companies to have good business analysts acting as liaisons between their various business units and IT, or between the company and IT vendors.

One of these trends is to “buy before you build,” Robson said. “When you buy a software application, the need for analytical skills is paramount (in order) to be successful. Generally there is a requirement for some modification to our business processes and we need to supplement and augment the application with additional functionality at the front or end of the software package. The demand is really for strong analytical skills.”

Barret sees the outsourcing trend as another driver. “You can outsource develoment, but only if you clearly understand what it is you are going to deliver, and what you want and need. The person or group of individuals that are able to do that are so core [to the] success of companies looking to outsource, that, if they don’t get (the requirements) right, they will fail.”

Likes and dislikes

BMO’s Barret said she loves the fact that her job includes figuring out and getting others to understand what is the problem that they are trying to solve. “Sometimes they think that they understand what the issues are, but our job is really to draw that out and drive consensus.” Generally there is more than one stakeholder to each project, so she has to find a way to “bring a bunch of folks together and help them understand what is necessary” in order to solve the problem.

But one of the most rewarding parts of her job is also sometimes one of the most frustrating. Ultimately, she said, the business analyst can never come up with the best solution. “It’s all about consensus….You need to be able to negotiate a solution that is going to satisfy a lot of people.”

Barret joked that the theme song in BMO’s business analyst competency centre is the Rolling Stones’ “You can’t always get what you want ….But if you try sometimes you might find you get what you need.”

Said Barret: “It’s all about coming to the best solution, given all (the) constraints you have.”

Top 10 skills of a business analyst

Kathleen Barret, a senior business consultant at BMO Financial Group, leads the bank’s requirements management/business analysis centre of competency.

Here is a list of the top 10 skills she looks for in a business analyst.

1. Analytical or systems thinking — being able to see how things work together

2. Client relationship management

3. Coaching and mentoring — driving out shared skills and learning from peers

4. Consensus and agreement building

5. Change leadership

6. Modeling — including data and process modeling and functional design

7. Facilitation or requirements solicitation — the ability to pull together experts to get the right information from them

8. Professional knowledge — an understanding of the business

9. Requirements planning and management

10. Verbal and written communications

“If you want to be a business analyst, take a look at yourself and where you stand on these things,” she said. “Address any gaps and figure out what you have to do to fill in your experience.”

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