Coming Of Age, Part 2 – Learn, Share, Stretch and Grow

As someone once said, “There’s only one thing better than learning from your own mistakes.  That’s learning from other people’s mistakes.”  And indeed, these days, with rich blogging communities like this one, and so many other forums and networking events for BAs, the ability to learn from others has increased dramatically.  In the first installment of my series, I lifted up six major areas that I believe successful BAs in the coming years will be strong in.  This time, I want to focus on the last two of those areas in particular, because they’re all of a piece: training, certification, mentoring and collaboration.

For this article, I interviewed two leaders in the BA community – Bob Prentiss and Diana Cagle – both of whom I believe are doing leading edge work in building more capable BAs and strong learning communities. And I think their efforts point the way toward BA maturity in 2011 and beyond.  Indeed, if there’s one word that came up repeatedly in both interviews, it was “maturity”.

Bob Prentiss

of Watermark Learning is not only a great presenter and trainer in his own right, and a font of BA wisdom and practical advice, he’s also a very darn funny guy.  If you ever get a chance to see him at a conference, as I did in Washington, DC in October of 2010 at IIBA’s Building Business Capability, do it.  You won’t be disappointed.  Bob’s background spans many successful years in the corporate sector, as a BA, a trainer, leader, and now primarily a dispenser of insight in his groundbreaking work with Watermark.  He continually confounded my expectations but also provided helpful reframes for some of those ‘best practice’ ideas for collaboration and mentoring.

When I asked Bob whether BAs in the future were going to be moving more and more into enterprise architecture, he said, “BA’s grow up to be architects.”  As Bobs puts it, “This is a career path, and your life experience is key.”  I asked Bob to elucidate and describe this notion of career path more explicitly, as he currently sees it play out for  people he coaches.  He defines those career steps as ascending through the following levels:

  • Level 1:  Entry Level or Junior BA.  You’re green, fresh vegetables.  Maybe you get to be a scribe at a stakeholder meeting.  You have no real power or authority yet, you’re just learning the ropes.
  • Level 2: Mid-Level BA.  You’ve developed some company knowledge, ability to take on a broader view, are running your own meetings, authoring your own documents.
  • Level 3: Senior BA. You have lots of experience.  You’ve proven yourself and you’re trusted to handle large multi-million dollar projects.  You’re probably sitting for your CBAP certification.
  • Level 4: Lead or Principal BA.   You’re now a leader of a team of BAs, you’re all credentialed up.  Perhaps you’ve Peter Principled into management.  Bob describes folks at this level as often entering career “deep freeze”.
  • Level 5: Specialist. This can take one of many forms. You might go into full time training and capacity building.  You might move strongly into product development or product ownership.  Or, you might be ready to be a full fledged Architect, comfortably going toe-to-toe with the CIO and other VPs to usher in change.

That framework for personal BA growth and development is an excellent backdrop for the notion of collaborative learning and mentoring, and sets up the concept of Center of Excellence or COE.  But be careful lest you get Bob on his soapbox.  Bob has a very nuanced understanding of COE’s.  In fact, when he gives presentation or does consulting with organizations wanting to set up COEs, he actually defines four or five very different models for implementing them.

But a commonality among all of them, whether they be simple Communities of Practice, or Communities of Competency, or all the way up to Communities of Excellence , is that they are internal strategic points of change in an organization, that set up a continual improvement cycle for practitioners looking to move up those Levels of BA maturity, and for their employers, who are looking for ever more agile teams and smoother requirements processes.

He also notes they are not one size fits all.  “Just like projects, no two are the same.  They’re more like snowflakes” he says.  Bob stresses the need to really evaluate your company culture.  Is it grassroots or more top down?  Understand governance structures, knowledge management in the org and more.  And given your particular snowflake’s shape, your COE will have it’s own unique characteristics.

Diana Cagle

is the other person I interviewed for this article, who is creatively building her own snowflake of change as Senior Manager, Business Services for the Florida Virtual School, one of the largest online learning schools in the United States.  Like Bob, Diana has also developed a refined view of maturity within the context of her own organization, and she uses the IAG Benchmark Study‘s capability/competency matrix to get a handle on the sort of maturity she’s going for in her organization.

The five maturity levels in that graph going from left to right are:

  • Level 1 – ad hoc
  • Level 2 – Defined but Individual-Centric
  • Level 3 – Implemented at a team level, consistent
  • Level 4 – Institutionalized, part of the culture
  • Level 5 – Continuously improving, agile, adaptive

And from top to bottom on the graph are the six major core competencies or capabilities of requirements maturity.  When Diana recently presented at the local IIBA chapter in Orlando, FL, she talked about Building Effective BA Teams and using the above image, she asked by show of hands where people would intuitively assess their own organization’s level of maturity.  As I recall, the depressing tally was 25% of the BAs reported Level 1, about 40-50% said Level 2, maybe 10-20% were Level 3, and only one hand went up for Level 4.  And as Diana says, “nobody but the Gods get to Level 5.”  The critical takeaway for me though was, and this is also from the IAG study, your team’s effectiveness increases a couple orders of magnitude when you make the jump from Level 2 to Level 3.  Crossing that threshold typically means 50% more of your projects come in on time or under budget.

Diana has instituted some great practices within her team to bring them up to Level 3 and 4.   With the backing of her CIO, she created an online library of some great books on BA practice.  Diana also conducts weekly cross-functional team meetings, that keep everyone up to speed on projects, and every six weeks has IT team meetings and BABOK study groups.  She, like Bob, is also a big believer in using personality and temperament sorters to improve communication and collaboration among her BAs.  Her tool of choice is StrengthsFinder and she actually keeps her own working spreadsheet of staff with a matrix of skills, competencies, strengths, so she can pair the right people together for different projects.

Conclusion

There is no one right way or path to BA maturity, but clearly, if these two thought and practice leaders are correct, for each organization or each individual solo BA practitioner to succeed in this growing marketplace, we have to keep re-investing in ourselves and each other.  I can personally attest to the value of mentoring.  For a recent project, I contracted Laura Brandenburg, and she was invaluable as a mentor and sounding board for some thorny issues.  Mentoring can also be done on a pro-bono reciprocal basis, with mentor and mentee each gaining skills.  And as Diana notes, “when you teach or mentor, you really come to find out whether you know something inside and out or not.”  So whether you’re  a Junior BA or a Senior, you’ve got something to offer each other.

Let’s keep the conversation going.  I’d love to hear how other BAs are mentoring, learning and collaborating.  Let me know in the comments below.

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