Can we teach someone to be a business analyst?

A few weeks back Kevin Brennan posting a thought-provoking tweet:

Interesting def’n of profession: “it can be taught in advance of practice, out of context”.

And followed on with:

Mintzberg’s point–professions are teachable (and require teaching), a “practice” can only be learned through experience.

At first I balked at this statement. After all doctors do not become doctors through training alone. There are significant mentor programs where they acquire experience to become a doctor. Our profession, though lacking the formal rigor of the medical profession does tend to favor experience over formal education.

So I tweeted back:

@bainsight that would not be the case for our profession and i doubt it would be the case for doctors, etc.

@ClearSpringBA Actually it does. Doesn’t mean that experience is irrelevant–means that untrained people can’t preform role.

@bainsight distinction would be if training is required or sufficient to fill the role. req’d yes. sufficient no.

Then finally Kevin and I got on the same page:

.@ClearSpringBA In a profession a trained inexperienced person is better than experienced person with no education (self-taught=education).

@bainsight i don’t believe that represents ba as it is today. but maybe it’s the training that is lacking. trained w/out exp = unqualified

@ClearSpringBA I think it’s at very possible to develop a training program that would produce skilled BAs. Agree that we’re not there now.

So yes, I could imagine a program that offered real BA training and popped out skilled BAs. This would involve not just training on the fundamentals, which is available in just about every training medium available, but would also deal with communication, the process of analysis, and problem-solving.

I could imagine such a program picking and choosing from more traditional college courses such as logic, public speaking, and facilitation. I could imagine such a program helping students form good habits, such as listening before talking, and synthesizing. I could imagine reading including How to Win Friends and Influence People in addition to the BABOK, the Software Requirements Memory Jogger, and all the great books on the fundamentals.

To build the requisite experience a new business analyst needs to be successful, I could imagine a few sample projects, like the one Doug Goldberg, Alex Papworth, Linda Erzah and I are experimenting with for a group of BA trainees. I could also imagine a mentor-based training program, maybe similar to that of teachers or doctors, where BAs work on their first few projects under the wing of an experienced professional.

Upon further reflection, this is really not all that different than the training I was lucky enough to pursue for the library science profession. Our masters program in library and information science involved a combination of technical skills, library science and information management concepts, and learning the fundamentals of the profession, such as card cataloging. All of this is built on the foundation of your undergraduate degree, which in my personal opinion should include some exposure to the liberal arts.

So fundamentals, concepts, technical skills. For business analysts I’d add an emphasis on communication and analysis skills in general. So logic, problem-solving, and advanced communication habits.

And then we bless you and announce you are really a business analyst.

I believe in this as a possibility, which is, I suppose, what makes business analysis a profession and not just a practice. This is also a very large bill for training programs to fill and I doubt it could be done outside a university setting. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on what training would be involved to produce a good (not necessarily great) business analyst.

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  1. Since this was last touched on I found the following graduate education program (Masters) in Business Analysis:

  2. So does anyone know of a undergraduate degree that is similar to the Business Analyst skills set as pro-pounded by the IIBA?

  3. Nathan Caswell says

    oh … and add sponsors for internships. If there are summer jobs involved students will go for it. Colloquium with food helps too.

    and … let me just point out that if Mintzberg said it, it is true. 🙂

  4. Nathan Caswell says

    I wonder if law isn’t a good example for the professional BA. It fit’s Kevin’s tweets rather well. The JD says you can ‘think like a laywer’ while the Bar says you know just enough to practice. Often you take the Bar after a few years of penal servitude in which you learn the difference between theory and practice. Or so say my college buddies who had the good sense to go into law or medicine.

    Mapping to the BA, a BA-BA (oh dear that doesn’t scan very well does it, and neither does BA-BS. need some work here) would probably be one of those multidisciplinary degrees. Probably centered in a business dept mostly for job recruiting and network reasons. Some balance of business, engineering, CS, industrial relations (consulting/mediation skills org theory). Say, no less than 20% or more than 40% of any one area. And a first year seminar to establish a context and 4th year project/thesis/seminar to put it all together.

    They should be hire-able by consulting firms or into larger enterprise transformation executives out of the box. Certification in all sorts of specialties can follow. It is probably interesting to note, however, that most professional certifications (i.e. the bar, medical internships, professional engineer) occur relatively early in the career. For a recognized profession who you worked for, what you worked on, and professional network are much more important than the “we agree this person has valid experience” credentials such as CBAP.

    If the IIBA got behind it in collaboration with a few academic departments (who need the business), consulting firms (saves them basic skills training), a few reference employers (who will skim the cream) and an HBR review paper you could start driving the job market and evolve into a real profession.

    I know of at least one engineering school that is looking at such a program (Y.T. Leung, N. Caswell, M. Kamath. The case for the business process engineer, Proceedings of the IEEE International Conference on Service Operations and Logistics, and Informatics, June 2006) and graduated. There are similar stirrings of interest, particularly from a new systems for a new century aspect, at MIT in both engineering and Sloan. Probably several others as well.

  5. Hi Duc,
    Interesting. I didn’t imagine a BA education (at least at the time of this post) including any industry education. Lately I have been reflecting on what is needed in terms of “add-on” knowledge to help a good BA be successful in an industry which is new to them.

    If I can extend your point, I would see ongoing business analysis education being improved by exposure across industries. Even if you are not doing BA work in an industry, understanding how it works could help you think outside the box in your current industry. I know in my brief experience running a blog, I’ve been exposed to affiliate marketing, finance, and other aspects of running a business that have expanded the view I bring to the table as a business analyst.

  6. Laura,
    The issue of a BA education is interesting,I believe some fields are attempting to do this (healthcare), but the issue here is vision. If we train anyone as long as they are in the industry, then aren’t we not blindsight ourselves by the fact that our experience are in the industry. Are we forsaken the “outside the box ” thinking, because we are not exposed to other industries ? Just some thoughts !!

  7. As for me, I believe the most important course is the practice. Anybody can be a BA (how good is not relevant now). Many of us, in the field, come from different backgrounds, some of us didn’t have a formal BA education. Not all BAs will become good BAs over years, I think it’s a combination of personal nature/abilities (70%) and education (30%). Education will only provide so much of the skills you need, you must have a natural inclination towards logic and analysis. Now, I know that just doing a BA course will not make you a BA. Courses I would find useful would be, at least in my case, a course that teaches you how to:
    – articulate your thoughts so that you are clear and concise;
    – communicate effectively;
    From the courses I’ve done I found Statistics useful because you learn how to organize and use big amounts of data, Report writing because you learn how to write a document properly (a skill which many BAs lack), Management because you’re looking at things from one level higher, Customer Service because you learn how to work with people (which is essential for a BA).
    That’s about it.

  8. Laura, yes, librarian is another good example to illustrate my point.

    I am sure there are a lot of extremely talented people who have developed the skills to perform a librarian job very well, would be willing to continue to expand their knowledge to reflect new developments in the field, and are kept away from a career in this area simply because they lack a certificate. Sometimes it’s just easier to require a diploma, just so if the person turns out not to be a good fit the hiring manager can say “but s/he did have a Master’s degree, so how was I supposed to know?”. Hopefully as you say the BA profession can continue to grow without creating unnecessary roadblocks for talented people who may not hold a special degree but excel at BA work anyway.

  9. Adriana,
    You make a really good point. I think many potential librarians are turned away by the master’s degree requirement for most positions, especially given the salaries as well.

    I do see a difference between becoming qualified through experience vs. becoming qualified through education. I hope our profession continues to support paths so we don’t lose some rock stars.

  10. As an individual with an Engineering degree who performs Business Analyst work for a living, I like the differentiation made between a profession in which the need to protect the life of others require mandatory accreditation (construction, health, etc.), and others, such as journalism, software development, etc., in which talented people can thrive even if they don’t have a specific degree (at least in some countries).

    I’m not particularly excited about the idea of “BA education”. I keep thinking that there are so many different needs in the business analysis world, that it would take a lot of time effort to qualify someone for all types of work she/he could face in a career as a BA, when not everything that would be learned would be necessarily useful for their future work.

    My recent experiences teaching and coaching more junior BAs (in a training program individually tailored to address each specific need) makes me think that focusing on “slices” of the BA knowledge that are important at that moment for the person provides much better results than trying to teach someone an entire body of knowledge as a “package”.

    Of course I may be wrong, and in the future a well-designed program may convince me that there is indeed value to be extracted from formal BA education. But I keep thinking of so many excellent journalists I know that never went to journalism school, and business analysts who started out as developers or psychologists and became stars at BA work without any type of formal training (obviously they continued to acquire knowledge through training and education throughout their careers, but not as a part of a sequential accreditation program), and I wonder whether organizations would be still be benefiting from their stellar performance if the norm became to hire “certified” BAs.

  11. Doug,
    Before I got carried away on the librarianship idea, I meant to add that I think all of your ideas are great, especially the one about philosophy (being an amateur philosopher myself!).

    To the required reading, I’d add Weiner’s The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society. It’s all about the core concepts of information systems.


  12. Hi Craig,
    Yes, I 100% agree that mentoring and coaching are extremely valuable. I’m trying to envision 5-10 years down the road, what might be possible in terms of BA education, given all that we are learning now about what it takes to become a business analyst? I agree that the current certification programs do not address this.

    I did do my MLIS right out of college–it took me 4 years. I got my undergrad in philosophy and English and since I decided not to go to grad school and become a professor, ended up in a pretty menial entry-level job. I was just looking for a quicker way toward some interesting work and this opportunity presented itself.

    It’s an interesting analogy to me because many outside of libraries probably do not think of librarianship as a profession. The truth is the vast majority of professionals sitting behind a reference desk (not the circulation desk) in your public, academic, or corporate library have a 4-year degree AND a master’s degree. Librarians have several extremely successful professional associations, some of which hit specialties within librarianship. They are strong proponents of ongoing continuing education. And, I think if we looked at the professions side-by-side, we’d find many parallels when it comes to job responsibilities. Librarians are often defining information systems and in my web content projects I’ve partnered very closely with them.

    To get to the point, I think we business analysts could learn a lot about how librarians look at education, mentoring, and their profession as we begin to formalize and grow ours.

  13. Hi Laura

    It’s interesting that it’s the masters degree you found sufficient value in that you mention it in this post. Did you get the masters degree after several years work or immediately after the undergrad?

    Also – and you know this – good advice and service is more important than education and qualification.

    Professionalism is about more than certificates. Unfortunately certificates are the physical evidence of minimum standards, not an indication of the quality of service you’ll get.

    Hmm, not getting my point across… it’s late.

    WHat I mean is training and certification are nice. Mentoring and coaching is where the real value is deliverred to the novice. Interventions like this yeild better practitioners in all professions.

  14. For a good training course that includes the core skills of a BA, I’d also like to see some emphasis on communication styles, personal interaction, group dynamics, critical thinking and ethics. Not full bore courses, but rather summarized presentations that help round out the tangible skills that get taught.

    For formal education, which you didn’t ask for but I thought I’d add anyway, I’d look for several things from a graduate that wanted to become a BA. The first is a course on psychology, because much of what I’ve noticed has really less to do with actually knowing what to do and more to do with understanding how people operate, their boundaries, their cultural preferences, etc. Having this knowledge helps the analyst to recognize and adapt to audiences as groups and individuals. The second is philosophy, because this provides an understanding in the motivations of individuals and why they do what they do.

    I could also see public speaking, financial analysis, statistics, creative writing, critical thinking, ethics and morals, and sociology as other beneficial courses in a formal BA training program.



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