Get Up to Speed in a New Business Domain: 5 Ideas That Really Work

While core business analysis techniques work irrespective of the industry or organization you’re working in and working in a new area can be an effective way of broadening your experience, exposure, and expertise, moving between domains can seem daunting—particularly if you’ve been working in a specific industry for a while.  Even moving within the same domain can be disorientating.  Knowledge and terminology you’ve taken for granted for years may suddenly be less relevant, and there may be a new lexicon of jargon, acronyms and abbreviations.

The good news is that the challenges certainly aren’t insurmountable!  Here are five ideas to draw from when you find yourself working in unfamiliar territory.

1. You don’t need to be an SME

There’s a really important distinction between the Subject Matter Expert (SME) and the Business Analyst (BA) role.  Whilst a BA needs to have an awareness and a broad knowledge of the domain they are working in, at the outset they don’t need to know the detail.  Good quality requirements elicitation techniques will help you to get to the detail.

Remember: As a BA, the aim is to know “just enough”, it’s not (normally) necessary to know everything about the systems and processes.

2. Utilize your professional network

If you’re walking into an unknown company or a new domain, it’s important to get up to speed quickly.  You can often get a head start by utilizing your network.  For example:

  • Has anyone you know worked with or for the organisation you’re joining?
  • Do you have any contacts in the same or similar industry?

If the answer is yes, then it’s well worth getting in touch with them.  A quick chat over coffee or lunch can often help you gain a broad context and help you to avoid some of the hidden landmines.  If you are in contact with someone who has worked with similar stakeholders all the better, they can give you some stakeholder management tips too.

3. Background research

It goes without saying that it’s worth doing background research before you start work in the new domain.  I find the following sources really useful:

  • Check out the company’s website and annual company reports. What is their strategy?
  • Check out competing companies’ websites and annual company reports.  How does this organization differ?
  • Look in the news (e.g. news.google.com).  What are the issues faced within this domain?
  • Search for white-papers, research articles and information in trade-papers.  What “jargon” is used?  (Though make sure you understand the jargon before you use it!)
  • What online industry forums are available?
  • What industry bodies/professional bodies are available?
  • What do customers and commentators in this domain say? Are they generally happy, and if not, what issues do they report? (Twitter can be useful for this, if there’s a relevant hashtag, or if there are industry ‘thought leaders’ you can follow.)

These sources are a starting point, but provide you with a rich source of information on which to build.

4. Keep a glossary

It might sound old fashioned, but whenever I start work with a new client, in a new organization or in a new domain, I keep a glossary.  One thing I find particularly useful is to also include synonyms.  This is particularly relevant working with multiple stakeholder groups who might use different terminology to mean the same thing.

5. BAs create permission to ask “stupid” questions

A final thought:

As BAs, we’re often able to ask probing questions to uncover unstated assumptions.  When new to an organization or domain, particularly if you’re new into the BA role, it can be tempting to suppress questions for fear of the questions being considered “stupid” or “basic”.

However—as a BAs we create the permission to ask “stupid” questions.  And it’s the “stupid” questions that often leave stakeholders silent… and when they are silent it’s normally because they are considering something for the first time (something that hadn’t been considered previously!)

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Comments

  1. Hello sir,
    its very useful informations regarding the sme and ba..
    I think the 5 tips in your status are enough to know about
    domain as well as ba and sme.Thank you for the valuable
    informations..
    By Sreejith.M

  2. Good day.

    I would like to find out if somone can hlp me to get further studies as Business Analyst.I have MCTS:SQL 2008:Implmentation and Mantainance certified.

    Regards

    • Hi Theo,

      One of the core skills of a business analyst is to quickly get up to speed in a domain, and find the best way of utilizing stakholders time. As outlined in the article above, background research is a really important part of this. Very rarely will any SME be able to provide all the answers!

      It’s great that you’re interested in a BA career. I’d suggest that you take the opportunity to utilize your BA skills to research what skills, qualifications and experience you’ll need in your local market. You may also want to ensure you fully understand the role of a BA — you have mentioned that you are qualified in MCTS:SQL 2008 Implementation/Maintenance. This suggests that your interests and experience may lie outside of the realm of business analysis, and perhaps you need to work to align your experience before making the jump.

      I hope this helps, Adrian.

  3. Good ideas, Adrian. I think these would be extremely helpful for consultants who move from domain to domain. For anyone changing domains as a permanent employee, I think the key is to get up to speed on processes and systems as quickly as possible. I changed domains 6 months ago and I feel like I gained a great base of knowledge to be successful moving forward. It was a rough transition to go from being a SME after spending over 15 years at my previous company (my first BA position) to knowing nothing about working in the domain or working with my new company’s systems and processes. What was helpful for me was hands-on experience. Fortunately, my company has an extensive training simulation program that was built to get new point of sale system users up to speed. I was able to take advantage of that. There are also some great system documentation manuals that I consult regularly. For someone new at a company that does not have these great resources available, my suggestion would be to obtain access to their “test” system (assuming there is one) and just start playing around.

    The other key is jumping in with both feet. I sat in the initial meetings on my first few projects feeling completely lost and just trying to write down every term and process that was mentioned so that I could find out what it was later. Observations were the most helpful requirement gathering method because I could learn so much about the departments and their system interactions.

    I agree with you, Adrian, that changing domains is a great way to broaden your experience. It is very rewarding to take the BA fundamentals and put them in practice in a completely new environment. In my experience, it really helped put the focus on the basic techniques and processes I should be following as a BA. I believe that once you have made that first successful “leap” to a new domain, you gain the confidence that your BA skills are transferable. It opens up a new realm of possibilities for your career.

    • Hi Wendy,

      Thanks so much for the comment, and I completely agree. Getting to grips with processes is so important, as these are the things that tell us how the business actually works at an operational level. Observation (and even good, old fashioned ‘Document analysis’) can really help here.

      You make a really valid point about getting access to test systems and/or training material. This is a great way of getting a hands-on feel for a system or process.

      Thanks again for the comment, and I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

      Kind regards,
      Adrian.

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