What is the essence of business analysis? Interview with Steve Blais

I became a business analyst when I no longer saw technology as the only solution.

It seems that every week I learn something new about our profession and business change in general. When speaking with Steve Blais, author of a forthcoming book series that centers around the essence of business analysis, I felt privy to a more complete awareness of our role than I had appreciated before. It was a great honor to spend an hour on the phone with Steve and an equally great honor that he shares his wisdom here at Bridging the Gap from time to time.

Laura: How did you get started in business analysis?

Steve: I was in programming. Like most business analysts at the time, it happened quite by accident. I was a programmer, then a programmer analyst. People kept asking me to talk to the business. This probably happened because I was a good listener. I started doing what we now define as business analysis. First, as a systems analyst I was originally focused on systems design. Over time, my roles became less focused on the systems aspect of the solution and more focused on the business aspect.

From a career perspective, I decided I did not want to spend my life on the marketability treadmill of keeping up with the latest technology trend. The problems of business are often new, but you don’t need technology to solve them; you need common sense and knowledge of people. I became a business analyst when I no longer saw technology as the only solution.

Laura: And what are you doing now?

Steve: Solutions Architect is my title right now. I stole the title from IBM where they were using it at Global Services. “We give you an architect to solve your business problem” was the general message. As I see it, the BA is the linchpin of the company and is focused on solving all sorts of business problems, whether through IT or other means.

Laura: Solutions Architect sounds similar to a Business Architect. How would you consider the relationship between these two roles?

Steve: A Business Architect is solving business problems but at a higher end. There are not too many true business architects and they are typically not employed full-time except at the biggest organizations. An example of a project for a Business Architect would be if a CEO was thinking about merging two companies. The Business Architect would come up with a strategy for merging the product lines, suggest new divisions to create, etc. Basically, the Business Architect owns how to organize your organization to achieve your business vision. The strategy a business architect develops may spawn hundreds of projects and problems that a tactically-focused BA could step in and solve.

Laura: Tell me more about the relationship between strategic work and business analysis.

Steve: A business analyst works at a tactical level. They solve specific business problems and make the change happen at what could be considered a “local” level.  Business analysts are generally reactive. That is, they act when they are presented a problem, or a supposed problem, from the business. Then they spring into action and solve it.

Some larger companies have enterprise business analysts and their work spans multiple business units within the organization. They would look at the overall picture of how the solution will impact the enterprise. They could have BAs more focused within a business unit or on a project-level working for them. This is still tactical work, not strategic.

However, all business analyst work must be aligned with the strategic goals and mission of the organization. So part of a business analyst’s work many times is ensuring that a project or problem requiring solution is good for the whole organization.

Laura: This is interesting. I think I’ve been using “strategic business analysis” to refer to work on strategic initiatives. Really, there is a difference in whether you are developing the strategy (and hence doing strategic work) or solving specific problems, no matter how big in scope (and hence doing tactical work).

Steve: I don’t know how I’d define strategic “work”.  The executives of the organization define the strategy that lays out the roadmap to achieving the organization’s long term goals.  The “work” that is done is what is necessary to get the organization to those goals, and that is all tactical, and that is what the business analyst does.  The business analyst basically solves the ongoing problem of getting the organization from where it is now to where it wants to be.  The business analyst makes the strategy defining the future into the actuality of the present.

Laura: Where do you see the profession headed?

Steve: I’ll put on my rose-colored glasses. We’re going to see more business analysts become senior managers and organizational decision makers by stepping beyond the presumed role of requirements recorder. You do this by making the business stop and think about what the problem is. The BA should be asking, does this project fit into our strategy and help us achieve our vision? We increase our value and marketability as BAs as we start to help our organizations provide good answers to these sorts of questions.

Currently, the BA role gets filled by many people in an organization. Take a large accounting effort to change accounting systems. This project might start with the CFO and a set of people on his team investigating some possibilities. All those people are playing a BA role. In the ideal future, wherever the role is being played, the title is there too. Instead of the CFO playing the role, he knows well enough to bring in a BA to apply formal BA principles to the project. This frees the CFO up to focus strategically on finance and managing the company’s books, and not the new system.

The BA is philosophically in the center of the organization.  In many organizations the BA is functionally at the center as well.  As the BAs continue to solve the business and organizational problems, organizations will realize the knowledge, diversity, breadth, and power of the business analyst.  The business analyst profession will grow from the role that documents the requirements and takes the blame for failed projects due to inadequate requirements to a central role helping the senior management of the organization achieve strategic success.

Laura: That’s an exciting future, for sure. What a great time to be part of this profession. Thanks again for your time today. It’s a great honor to be able to share your thoughts on business analysis.

Steve: Thanks for the opportunity. And thanks for giving us Bridging the Gap so that business analysts can exchange ideas and thoughts and help each other achieve their full potential.

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Comments

  1. Margaret says

    Interesting and thought provoking interview. I find the distinction between strategy and tactical work useful in clarifying the roles of executives in setting long term goals and business analysts undertaking tactical work to achieve those goals. I also like Steve’s ‘rose-colored glasses perspective’ and the importance of the analyst asking whether a specific project fits into strategy and vision (thus in addition to executing strategy, the analyst informs executives on which projects are the best fit and therefore should be undertaken).

  2. ray hilder says

    the Business Analyst in his vision for them seems to be the upfront person who takes the load of the management decisions from the senior management with solutions that deal with whats required at the up front level.

  3. On reading the interview with Steve Blais………..I’m overwhelmed with what lies beneath the skin of a BA-his roles,how he would eventually effect the organization’s success and much more,I’ve just joined as a Business Analyst intern in a startup company and would please suggest you to kindly give me certain ideas and procedures i shoul adhere to while pursuing my career in this field.I’ve just gradated from college with a Computer Science Engineering degree and have no experience as such….this job was my dream and now getting to learn about it’s nuts and bolts is awesome.kindly guide me…

    raghunandan1990@gmail.com

  4. I agree that even though Business Analysts typically work at the tactical level that they are more effective if they understand very cleary the alignment of what they do with the strategic goals and mission of the organisation.
    In order to change the role to a central one whereby the Buiness Analyst helps senior management achieve strategic success, the role needs to develop a stronger professional image by developing strong professional associations, minimal education, certification and a defined career path.
    As Bhuvan Unhelkar identifies in Busines-IT Strategies Advisory Service Executive Update Vol 13, No 7 (Cutter Consortium) adoption of a SFIA based Business Analysis Framework with its seven levels of levels “provides an excellent mechanism to create a reference framework for a business anayst”. This provides a structure for developing job descriptions, training requirements and attributes of specific roles. These levels are defined through the four factors: autonomy, influence, complexity and business skills.
    The combination of increased professionaliation and a framework such as SFIA provides a marketable positioning for BAs (operating at level 6 or 7) to work with senior management to achieve strategic success.

  5. Christopher Herrmann says

    I like the future vision of Business Analysis, where BA’s are seen as vital partners with senior management in an organisation’s strategic success. I think there is a long way to go in terms of the maturity of BA in organisations before this becomes a reality. Look at the ongoing issue where the IT function does not progress beyond being a cost centre, an (albeit important) “engine room” for the business’s technology.

  6. Nice discussion, i would say mostly Sr. BA’s and SMEs would fit into the role of strategic business analysts. It only comes with experience and domain knowledge.

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