by Thomas Wailgum

Six Secrets of Top-Notch Business Analysts

May 23, 20088 mins
Project Management Tools

While a business analyst's responsibilities may vary by company and project, every IT employee and businessperson knows a good or bad BA when he sees one. Here's what the good ones do very well.

Most line-of-business execs, project managers and software developers who have worked on application development teams can attest to the importance of good business analysts.


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In many instances, in fact, today’s business analyst can affect the outcome (good or bad) of a software project. “When business analysts aren’t able to carry their weight, it’s evident to everybody on the project. They usually know something is going on,” says Carey Schwaber, a senior analyst of application development at Forrester Research “I’ve seen projects where a bad business analyst was the critical failure factor.”

Sure, executive boardroom support is key at the kickoff, but the CEO or CIO isn’t down in the trenches every day, hammering out compromises, grinding out specs and pushing all involved toward the finish line. “It’s funny,” Schwaber adds, “we have a lot of prerequisites for success with software projects, and it’s not just executive support. It’s also good business analysts.”

While most employees might have a sense of what a traditional business analyst does, not everyone knows how BAs do their jobs’ effectively. “It’s easy to understand what their role is,” Schwaber says, “but it’s hard to understand what makes them good at it or bad at it.”

So what do the best business analysts do so well? Here are six critical skillsets and professional characteristics that make business analysts invaluable.

They understand the specific business problem that software aims to solve. To Ron Bonig, CIO of the George Washington University, the best business analysts have an ability to determine the actual business problem and then help figure out a solution.

“The ability to properly frame and structure a problem is 75 percent of the effort to discern a solution,” Bonig says. “I see people attempting to solve the wrong problem every day, and it usually stems from an inadequate problem statement that either leaves them floundering among irrelevant details or confidently determining a solution that bears no relationship to the core issue.”

Good business analysts should fall back on what Bonig calls the “old list of questions taught in Journalism 101″—who, what, where, when, why and how. “If one can describe the problem using these attributes,” Bonig says, “a solution is generally well within reach.” Business analysts who answer these questions at the outset of software projects (Bonig says he uses this method all the time) will have a better chance of success.

“So, bottom line, the best business analysts know how to structure the problem,” Bonig says. “Some skills and common sense and a knowledge of the subject matter, if it is technical, are the majority of what is needed.”

They are diplomats, translators and negotiators. Forrester’s Schwaber says the best business analysts are corporate diplomats, savvy negotiators and skilled peacemakers. “They are good at finding common ground; they are good at being objective,” she says. “They are really looking at oftentimes conflicting needs from the business and from IT. So, to be able to understand where each party is coming from is essential.”

In addition, good business analysts are aware of the language and terminology differences between the business and IT, and they provide “translation services” between the two.

Jim Shepherd, senior vice president of research at AMR Research, says this liaison skill is what separates the good from the not-so-good. “You’re looking for someone who can translate between the technology folks within IT—and sometimes the external consultants and software vendors—and the businesspeople,” Shepherd says. “They often don’t speak the same language. They both have their own jargon.”

They can see the forest through the trees. Even though business analysts may often find themselves down in the weeds of a software implementation, the best ones are able to view their roles both from 30,000 feet and 3 feet.

“You want people who have a somewhat higher level view of the business, and they understand how the pieces fit together,” Shepherd says. “They don’t just understand the specific tasks in accounts payable, but they also understand how that’s connected to the receiving department and purchasing and financial accounts departments. They have that kind of a perspective.”

In addition, business analysts need to keep all parties and departments involved focused on the bigger picture and long-range benefits of the new software. They also need to be a go-to resource whenever it’s needed by the users.

Business analysts, Shepherd contends, need a sort of a “genial personality” because they are often the “first line of support during the implementation and after the implementation, when the business is struggling with: How do I do this task using this software? Why doesn’t it do it this way? Shepherd says. “This is the person they’re most likely to talk to first.”

They understand technology’s potential and its limitations. The best business analysts know that technology is not a panacea for an organization and that there is a certain amount of a “reality check” that big technology-based ideas and initiatives must go through. In other words, IT has its limitations.

“You just can’t assume that IT can do anything that the business wants them to. There are some things that are technologically impossible,” Schwaber. “And even if something is possible, it’s not always cost effective.” Business analysts should be able to explain these constraints in terms that both IT and the business can understand, using business terminology, such as cost-benefit equations, total cost of ownership (TCO) and return on investment (ROI), as well describing the IT challenges.

For example, a business analyst will know that IT is not going to be rewriting the company’s legacy applications to deliver a new Web application, Schwaber points out. “They may know what the constraints are for that application—how fast it can change, when it can change—in ways that the business can never understand,” she says. “But they can help them understand the impact of all these requirements.”

They have credibility with business colleagues, often gained through previous work experience. For business analysts coming out of IT, gaining the business’s trust and equal status can be tough. “In general, what we find is that someone who has worked in a business role tends to have more credibility as a business analyst than somebody who has worked in IT,” Shepherd says.

Shepherd says that many organizations are finding that the best business analysts have worked in departments such as accounting, production planning or procurement, and along the way developed an interest in the business’s applications and IT. “Maybe they’ve been assigned to an implementation or selection project, and discovered that they found [the business analyst role] really interesting,” he notes.

For these BAs, the quest to gain the business’s respect and credibility will most often be easier than for those technical IT staffers trying to broaden their BA chops. “Convincing people in the business that this person, who started life as a programmer, understands what they do, empathizes with them and can suggest a better way to do it, is much more difficult,” Shepherd says.

Forrester’s Schwaber is finding that those business analysts who “own some part of the business” and are engaged with IT as well have the most chance for success. (Forrester calls this evolved staffer a business technology analyst.)

“The business technology analyst owns a business function or business process and actually implements changes to how that process is automated using tools like BPM solutions and rules engines,” Schwaber says. “Their job is to simultaneously know how the business should best operate and to optimize business processes, business information and business experiences and actually make sure those change are implemented in the software.”

They are “people persons.” The best BA’s prefer to be mixing it up with the troops, rather than hiding in their cubes during software project crunch times. They are, quite simply, adept communicators.

“Communication and collaboration skills are vital for business system analysts to be successful,” says Scott Ambler, the practice leader of agile development for the IBM Methods Group and author of several books on software project management and agile development. “Therefore they must be people persons.”

Ambler says that good business analysts help other people on the project teams “to grow their business analysis skills, thereby sharing the wealth,” he says. “BAs that do that are quite valuable.”

Of course, a business analyst’s level of success will largely depend on the individual, which can be hard for managers and organizations to determine.

“I’ve had people say, I’ve hired computer science graduates who have been completely unable to communicate with the development team but English majors who knew how to do it perfectly,” Schwaber says. “So it’s really hard to predict who are the right people to bring into the job and how you can make them successful. It’s mostly trial and error at this point.”