Something that I’ve actually been asked while pitching for work is “What does a Business Analyst actually do?”. While I won the work in that instance, I was never happy with the answer that I gave at the time. I managed to babble something out about how a BA was the bridge between IT and the business and while this is true, it hardly demonstrates what I could do to impact the bottom line of a project.
Since then I’ve relayed this story many times, only to discover that it wasn’t just my erstwhile interviewer that was unsure of what a Business Analyst actually does. Very often it’s not until a BA has delivered on a piece of work that the business that they are working for appreciates exactly what it was that the BA did for them, even then I suspect they would find it difficult to define exactly what it was that the BA did.
In a cold economic climate when IT budgets are being cut, it’s important that BAs answer the question of what we actually do, after all, our livelihoods depend on it! While our documentation skills and communication style will prove invaluable during the development phase of a project, when fingers are being pointed and vendors are demanding more cash, this will be no good to us if we haven’t won the business in the first place.
We have a very positive story to tell about what we do, but what exactly is it that we do?
Other IT professions don’t suffer from this sort of ambiguity, a project manager, for instance, has several very clear definitions of what they do, my favourite being:
A project manager has overall responsibility for the planning and successful execution of a project.
That’s it, it’s to the point and everyone knows exactly what to expect from a Project Manager and how they are going to benefit a project. On the other hand, we have the definition as stated by the International Institute of Business Analysis (The IIBA®) in version 2 of it’s Business Analyst Body of Knowledge®:
Business Analysts must analyze and synthesize information provided by a large number of people who interact with the business, such as customers, staff, IT professionals, and executives. The Business Analyst is responsible for eliciting the actual needs of stakeholders, not simply their expressed desires. In many cases, the Business Analyst will also work to facilitate communication between organizational units. In particular, Business Analysts often play a central role in aligning the needs of business units with the capabilities delivered by information technology, and may serve as a “translator” between those groups.
It does describe what we do, but it’s not quite as easy to digest as the definition of a Project Manager and you can see why there may be confusion about what the role actually entails. I can hear the business now, ‘Where is the value add?’. It’s a fair question, how does analysing and synthesizing all this information actually help an organisation to meet its goals?
To try to understand more about what Business Analyst actually does, I want to look at each phase of a typical project and examine what is required of a Business Analyst during the life cycle of a typical project:
The initiation phase is the period during which the business is feeling some kind of pain and is looking to alleviate the stress that this pain is causing, usually by implementing some form of technology or process based solution.
It’s the role of the BA to clearly identify the problem that the business is experiencing and to map out what a possible solution would look like.
This map is then used to create a business case which shows why a problem is being tackled, how much it will cost to resolve the problem and what benefits the organisation can expect to see once the problem has been resolved.
It is the business case which a Business Analyst will constantly refer back to as the need for changes occur during the course of a project, constantly checking to ensure that a change is in-line with the expected business benefits and to ensure that the business case is still relevant and that something still needs to be changed within the organisation.
The analysis phase is the period during which the Business Analyst defines the requirements in detail, stating clearly and unambiguously what the business needs in order to resolve its problem.
During this phase the BA will also work with the development team and, in particular, an Architect, to create the design and define exactly what the solution should look like.
Taken together the design and the requirements will guide the rest of the project, with the testers looking to ensure that the requirements have been met and the developers trying to deliver against the design. It’s the responsibility of the BA to ensure that the design meets the requirements and that the testers are testing the requirements.
During this early phase of the project the BA will expend a lot of energy ensuring that any possible changes that can be identified are identified, while they are easily, and often more importantly, inexpensively corrected. Once the initial requirements are documented they need to be tested to destruction by the BA to ensure that they will actually deliver a solution to the problems that the business are facing.
The development phase is possibly the most challenging phase for a BA. It’s quite normal after the pressure of the analysis phase to sit back a little, safe in the knowledge that both quality requirements and design have been delivered. However, it’s during this phase that a BA needs to step up their meetings with the development team, attending daily meetings and generally being the eyes and ears of the business, constantly looking for deviations in course that would otherwise go undetected.
The testing phase sees the Business Analyst back on firmer footing. There is a process to follow as the testing team go through the process of testing and identifying bugs and the BA can work with the business to set defect fix priorities.
Disputes between the business and development concerning what is and what is not an off spec defect will often be resolved by the BA using documentation created in earlier phases. The mere existence of this documentation is often enough for one side of the other to admit a mistake and for the issue to be resolved amicably.
The implementation phase is not the end for the Business Analyst. It’s the last chance for things to go awry and for goals to be missed.
It’s during this phase that a BA should be conscious of how users are using the system. Are they actually seeing the benefits envisaged in the business case? Do the training materials support the business case?
Looking at each of these phases in this way, a common theme of discovery, validation and verification appears throughout a project life cycle. Given the opportunity to answer the question again, I would define the role of a Business Analyst using the following statement which clearly shows what a Business Analyst adds to a project, a business or an organisation:
A Business Analyst is responsible for knowing what the goal of a project is, how to achieve it, managing any changes to the goal and ensuring that all deliverables are aligned with the goal.
In essence, a Business Analyst is a navigator, responsible for reaching the end destination, in our case that destination is the successful resolution of a business problem. The BA always knows what the end destination is, how to get there and is capable of handling course adjustments as they arise.
In the future, when pitching for work, I’ll be better prepared to answer the question and will have a great story to tell.
I hope you found this article useful. If you have a definition of what a BA does, then please feel free to let me know by leaving a comment below.