Innovation in Learning – Leveraging the Real World in Training to Create Success

I was honored to be one of the featured speakers at Penny Pullan’s Business Analysis Summit. The topic was Innovation and I specifically answered questions about our innovative learning model at Bridging the Gap, and how we help mid-career professionals accelerate their careers by bridging experience gaps. 

Penny has graciously allowed me to share the recording and full transcript of our interview. 

 

Or, for those who like to read instead of listen, here’s the full text of the interview: 

Penny: Welcome to day three of the Business Analysis Summit 2019. I’m Penny Pullan of Making Projects Work, Ltd, your host for these calls in the BA summit. If you’d like to see who all the speakers are and their topics, then do have a look at basummit.com. 

Today, I’m absolutely delighted to have Laura Brandenburg on the line for an interview! She’s talking on the subject of Innovation and Learning: Leveraging the Real World in Training to Create Success. Laura, who is a Certified Business Analysis Professional™ (CBAP®), is an internationally recognized leader. She’s known for helping mid-career professionals start their business analysis careers. She’s the creator of Bridging the Gap, and also the best selling author of How to Start a Business Analyst Career. 

I’ve known Laura for a long time. In fact, this is the third BA summit that she’s spoken on! She spoke in the very, very first one in 2010, and then again in 2017, and both of those were very well received. Here’s a little bit about Laura: She has lots of experience in the business analysis profession. She has filled roles such as being a full-time business analyst, consultant, and hiring manager. She’s now spent a whole decade providing online training. 

The reason why I’ve asked Laura to speak at the summit, is of course because she’s very good, but I was particularly interested in the fact that she has created an innovative learning model, which involves online instruction, concrete real-world exercises that people do at work and individual instructor support. This helps new and transitioning professionals to really build their confidence, their competence, and their experience, thereby achieving their career goals more quickly. 

I met Laura again for dinner at the Building Business Capability Conference, which ran in Texas last year in November. I really enjoyed hearing about what she’s doing and how well it’s working for individuals. I asked her there and then to speak at this innovation-focused summit about her innovative learning model. Welcome, Laura! 

Laura: Well, thank you so much, Penny, with that warm introduction! I’m honored to be here, and I’m grateful to you for hosting the summit as a huge give-back to the community and enabling us to share resources with business analysts all around the world. In particular, I’m really grateful about this topic because the learning model at Bridging the Gap is really close to my heart. 

It’s been a work of passion and of purpose, and yet, it’s so different that it can be really misunderstood. So it’s going to be a fun time to just talk about it further and how BAs everywhere can apply the principles that we’ve developed and enhance their own careers, I think, more quickly and easily, as you highlighted. 

Penny: That sounds brilliant! Passion and purpose … Well, I think that’s what’s behind me running this summit. Why else would I be sending so many emails to so many people all around the world, getting all the tech stuff organized, and coming up with new speakers each time? It really is, for me, about passion and purpose. I think I sense the same thing in you with wanting to help people transition and using this innovative way of doing it. 

Laura, I know people are interested in developing themselves, and that’s probably especially true of people who make the effort to join the summit. I’m sure they’re looking forward to your answers, and also your ideas and thinking about how they can apply them to their own situation. I’m so pleased you could join us again. 

Laura: Yes, and I’m excited to be here. Thank you. 

Penny: Let’s get going. Where do we start? Could you give us a bit of an overview before we dive into the questions? 

Laura: For sure. One way to rope this into innovation specifically… I know digital transformation is a bit of a buzzword now in business analysis. When we’re going through a digital transformation, it’s tempting to put all of our offline processes as they are online – just take it and move it over. 

Penny: Arggghh! 

Laura: Yes! We know there’s an opportunity to completely rethink what you offer in an online or digital space because there are limitations of the online space compared to an offline in-person space, but there’s also opportunities, particularly in what you can do with time and duration and connection of people across the world. 

When I started developing learning at Bridging the Gap, I knew I wanted to be online. It was a learning model that was built to be online from the ground-up versus, “How do I take an offline model that is working and move it online?” Right? I think that’s a piece to think about as you’re thinking about innovation, like, “How are you building something and what is the purpose that you’re building it for?” 

Part of it is, to be honest, I personally wanted the flexibility to work from anywhere and to serve people around the world without being on a plane and traveling all over the world. It came from what I wanted personally, but also out of a desire to really help people do what I was seeing as the gap at that time, which was they have this skill, they have the training, but they didn’t have the experience. 

When you think about how to get started as a business analyst, there’s always this problem of, “How do I get the experience without the role and nobody will hire me into the role without the experience?” I’m trying to solve that problem for the people in the community. Would this be a good time to share a brief overview of our model and then we can dive into questions? 

Penny: Yes, please give us an overview. Then we’ll ask questions afterwards. 

Laura: I wanted to set the context of the goal of what I was trying to solve, like the problem. The model, that was created out of my own personal desire and this problem I saw in the profession, was a mix of on-demand course materials. This includes videos that you can watch any time, any place, and then specific assignments to apply what you’re learning on your own real-world projects. How do you apply that? Because so often when we’re thinking about learning and training, and a lot of the questions, we’ll dive into this more deeply, but it’s like it’s not really cemented in until you have done it yourself. 

Then the third piece of that is instructor access. You’ve done it yourself, but do you really have the confidence that you got it right? So having some sort of a review and audit process or opportunity to ask questions. We see the actual coaching and the adjustments that you need to make. So those are the three pieces that I feel like are critical in the model. The online environment allows us to do that in a really powerful way that is difficult in an in-person setting. 

Penny: Yes, it’s very different. I can see that some elements of those would be present in other offerings, on-demand course materials, perhaps? But then they’d be missing the instructor access if you’re using Linked-In Learning or whatever. You’ve got those three things, course materials on demand, the specific assignments people can use, and then instructors who are just wanting to see answers to standard case studies, but are flexible enough to be able to work with each individual’s own work situation. 

Laura: Sometimes it’s that mindset shift. People will think, “Well, I don’t have the opportunity to analyze the process. Can you just give me an example?” It’s in the challenge of finding the process that they actually get to step into that role of being a business analyst and of being it now, rather than waiting for it to come later. 

Penny: How interesting. Yes, it’s a mindset thing as much as anything else. 

Laura: Exactly. That the opportunity is here and it is here now, and I just need to shift my thinking to find it! 

Penny: Oh, I love that. Should we get going on these questions, then, that have come in? 

Laura: That sounds perfect. Yes. 

Penny: The first one comes from David in the UK. He says, “How did you get your start in business analysis?” 

Laura: I love sharing my story! Like so many, I fell into the business analyst role and I was just in the right place at the right time. I happened to be walking down the hall, and this woman said, “There’s a role opening up on our team, and it’s called Systems Analysis, and I really think you should apply.” 

For a while, I just thought I happened to be at the right hallway at the right time, which is ridiculous when you think about it, but at that time I was in a quality assurance role, and I had been doing some business analysis already, so I had created essentially a new area of testing that no one else was doing. I created a process around that, and part of that involved engaging editorial staff or what we would call now a Business Subject Matter Expert. They didn’t use that term. I didn’t know anything about User Acceptance Testing (UAT), but that’s what I was doing. 

I had been doing these slices of business analysis in that QA role. That was recognized and that’s why I was asked to apply for that position. Then in that position, I think I was really lucky to have that same person be my mentor. I started by drafting documents on her projects, and then I got my own project, and she reviewed some of my early work as well. Part of my getting my start was doing the role before I was in the role, and then having that network of support as I did that role as well. Yeah. 

Penny: Super! We’ve got a couple of questions from people who are interested in becoming professional business analysts. That question came from Aranprakash in India. There’s also Sarath from the USA who’s got 18 years of experience in a related area, but hasn’t worked in business analysis and is interested in pursuing and growing his career in business analysis. Also, Rae in the UK says, “What do you feel is good advice for a menial worker”, oh dear, “who wants to be a business analyst one day?” Perhaps take all of them together? 

Laura: That’s where looking for opportunities today to start applying business analysis skills. Right? I think we start and say, “I’m not a business analyst. How do I get to that role?” and think it’s this magical step that at some point it just happens all at once. For most people who are in the role today, it happened as a matter of degree, and it happened one bit at a time. 

You can consciously start that wherever you’re at, by thinking about how to show up as a business analyst in your current work. When you think about how to become a professional business analyst, look at your current role. What are you doing today? What aspects are most like business analysis, and then start to apply some more formal skills or some industry standard practices to make that area more disciplined, structured and formal. 

When you feel like you’re not a business analyst… I know Sarath is a client engagement manager, so there’s of much of what you’re doing there that is: you’re connecting with stakeholders, I would imagine? You’re interviewing? All of those things are very similar to discovering, and eliciting requirements. Look at how to apply your BA practices there. Just start doing it now in the role you’re in. 

It’s a little more challenging when you feel like you’re in a “menial” job. But you can still have opportunities. You’re communicating with people. The very first thing I often recommend people do is just: how can you analyze a business process? What business process are you doing in your work, and could you put a process document together around it? Could you start suggesting improvements to your manager around it, or just making improvements in how you do that work? That’s how you start to get noticed and elevate yourself into this role. 

Penny: We’re going to head to Slovakia next, for the question from Zdena, whose question is, “What are the most effective ways to keep up to date with new BA practices?” 

Laura: I think you’re doing a great step by being at a conference like this. This is part of the reason Penny offers this great service! In the context of the learning model, I think you just need to look at … There’s one thing of being the information junkie. Like always reading all the articles, always being up to date on what’s going on. There’s another level to be filling your toolbox and to say, “I know about this new technique called an ERD”. (Not that that’s a new technique, but new-to-me technique.) “I just learned about that. How can I take that and actually apply it on a project?” 

Just looking at each project, each assignment, every opportunity, you have to experiment with something new. You’re always expanding the container that you’re in. You’re always pushing the boundaries on your role and becoming better, both in the work you do and the potential you have for other work. You don’t want to just learn about new processes, as part of truly being up to date. You want to be ready to apply them in your job right away, and so it’s up to you to really come up with those opportunities, to be applying them on your projects. 

Penny: Absolutely. Thank you for that. We’re heading to the UK for the next question. It’s Michelle who says, “My question for Laura is, how can we get BAs to shift that focus from training to learning? These days, business analysts are spoiled for choice with the learning opportunities and development resources available to us, but somehow we seem to think, if we’re not sitting in a classroom, it doesn’t count. What can we do to shift our mindset?” 

Laura: Yes, I love this question because this is really the core question to the innovation that we’re talking about here. I would really take it a step further from learning to doing. I think that’s the shift of how you convince others that it’s not just about being in a classroom, right? Because that’s what I took out of this question. 

Somebody doesn’t feel like it counts, if I wasn’t sitting in a classroom. What you want to do is actually be able to show that you actually did something as the result of your learning. This is why we do the real-world examples because you can be in a project in your work and actually have improved a process or tried a new technique and had a meaningful impact on that project right away, so before you even leave the training programme, you delivered ROI to your employer. 

When you shift that to that, then it’s not like it was a perceived value, because you sat there for eight hours. It was a perceived value because you actually got something done and it was an improvement over the work that you were doing before. It’s interesting because I was having a conversation with someone who does primarily in-person training and is shifting more to online, and she was talking about how, even in an in-person environment, there are a few people who are really engaged. There’s the majority of people who are going to take something away from a training programme. Then there’s that handful of people who sit in the back of the room are just there because they’re forced to be there. I think no matter what environment you have, there’s always that potential to just be in the state of, “I’m here for the training, but I’m really not learning.” That’s really a personal choice, and you can demonstrate that with your results. 

Penny: Wow! There’s a related question from Dorit in the UK. “I’m wondering if an increasing disconnect between training and application can lead to an attitude of learning to pass the exam rather than learning to gain and apply knowledge?” She’s really looking forward to the summit, she says. 

Laura: Yes, yes! I have a lot of respect for exam preparation and the resources because tackling the exams in our profession is not an inconsequential thing. Most of us haven’t taken tests for decades. Even if we were good test takers in school, test-taking is a skill, and if you haven’t done it in a while, you need that support to learn how to pass the exam. But there really is a disconnect between the learning you need to do to pass an exam and the application. 

I do think what you’re seeing … I would just validate that. It’s a different kind of training. Often, we’ll have people come in through a programme like ours to really feel confident in the skills to look at “How can you build your skills first? But what gap do I need to fill based on my ability to pass tests and handle an exam environment, and to assimilate this knowledge in an exam-ready way, and how do I fill that gap to be successful in the certification process?” So think about it, I think, in a couple different stages. 

Penny: The next question we’re going to go to is all the way from Mexico. Nallely asks, “Which BA perspective from BABOK is more useful in your career, e.g., agile, business intelligence, architecture etc.” There’s another related question from Vinay in Singapore. “What are the new skills that as a senior BA I should learn to progress to the next level?” 

Laura: Yes. This is an interesting question because all three of the skills that were in the first question are applicable from a senior BA perspective. They are ways that you would specialize and potentially advance your careers. 

Penny: I was just going to say agile, business intelligence and architecture as well. 

Laura: Right. In addition to potentially more of a leadership role, or more of a requirement management process-focused role, running a community of practice in addition to really being able to handle, say, higher level projects and more of an enterprise or strategy analysis role would become other areas to focus on as a senior BA. 

In terms of what’s actually more useful in your career … Like all of those specialties have really great potential career-wise, right? It’s not like you can choose one and you’re guaranteed success. It’s really what is most interesting to you. What is the one that inspires you that you want to learn more about, that you are maybe doing already and find enjoyable? Because the more you enjoy that and find it personally fulfilling, the easier it will be for you to advance within it. 

If you choose one of these, like, “Everybody says I’ve got to be …” I see this all the time. “Everybody says I need to learn health insurance or a specific tool,” and then you absolutely don’t like the work, it won’t work for you to move your career forward in that capacity! The variety we see in the BA profession, there’s so many opportunities, and it is very fragmented, and there are different threads, so choose the ones that you’re most excited about. Double check that it has applicability in your local area. I don’t think there’s really a wrong choice there as long as you enjoy it. 

Penny: Super. Arthi in the USA says, “What’s your word for aspiring BAs?” 

Laura: I love this question. I do call them aspiring business analysts, but what I would encourage you to think about is to just drop that word ‘aspiring’, because this is the mindset shift that we’ve talked about. If your desire is to become a business analyst, how can you choose to be a business analyst today? 

Sometimes it really does start with giving yourself that title and anchoring that in, in a specific way, choosing to show up as a business analyst in your work no matter what your title is, instead of choosing to wait for somebody else to give that title to you. I think you’ll find that title will come to you more quickly if you just say, “I’m not an aspiring BA. I’m a business analyst. I’m just waiting for the right opportunity to have that title.” Right? 

Penny: Brilliant! 

Laura: … and showing up in that space. 

Penny: We’ve had a question that came in at the last minute from John in the UK. He says, “Projects often use a ‘lessons learned’ activity to inform approaches to similar pieces of work. Business analysts should be included in that (although how much it’s shared across the BA team can be an issue). The real question is: Do you think real value can be gained from learning more about the wider business and the relationship between different areas so that they understand the context and the impact of any work that they’re doing?” John adds, “For what it’s worth, I think my standing as a BA is because people know I understand the wider business and can quickly flag up potential impacts and stakeholders.” 

Laura: Yes. I think there’s huge value there. There are two pieces of the question: understanding the wider business and applying lessons learned across projects. As we see people move forward in the profession and they move up, like one of the senior-level roles that people move into is that strategy enterprise level role that we talked about. They are talking about it at BBC, too. It’s not like one day you wake up and you’re in that role. It is an evolutionary process, and it starts by excelling in your basic business analyst role to start, and then getting assigned across different projects and always seeking to expand your knowledge and awareness across your organization. So it’s the same learning and same process we talked about to get into a business analyst role as it is to get from a business analyst role to a strategic role. It’s that constant evolutionary expansion. 

This question just lends itself to saying that as a business analyst, you’re always learning. You’re learning about the company, you’re learning about the skills. When something goes wrong on a project, you’re learning why it went wrong. You can share that with your team. Learning through training is important, and obviously, we do train. I love and support that, but it’s not like you have to be … Learning doesn’t only come through training. Learning comes through the mindset of always seeking to ask why, find out why, and incorporate what comes of that into your ongoing work and to share that within your team and your company as well. We are a learning profession, and that’s the mindset we have to have. 

Penny: Absolutely. 

Laura: Yeah. 

Penny: On that note, Laura, I think we’ve got to come to the end. We could carry on for hours, but we’re getting a to the end of our time. Thank you very much for taking part in the summit. I’m sure everyone listening in today and people replaying later will find it really invaluable. You’ve given us so much to think about, and there are some things we can start working on straight away. Could you tell us a little bit more about your services to BAs? You have so many different activities, books, and so on. Over to you. 

Laura: Well, thank you for that opportunity! It’s probably quite obvious now that I have a passion for training, right? We offer a variety of on-demand online training programs at Bridging the Gap. We cover core skills, like business process analysis, wireframes and data modeling as well as the essential BA process. All of those are skill-building courses, that also will earn you the credits you need for certification or re-certification. 

Then, twice a year, we run our live interactive sessions of The Business Analyst Blueprint®, and the next one is starting up in February. It’s a great opportunity if you want to check that out. 

Penny: I was just going to say, if people are interested in The Business Analyst Blueprint®, how can they get on the list to find out about it, because I knew you only release it at certain times of the year? 

Laura: Correct. When you go to Bridging the Gap and to go the training tab on Bridging the Gap, there’s a link there with The Business Analyst Blueprint®, and if it’s open for registration, you’ll get the full details. If not, we have an interest list, so you can always join to get on the interest list, and then we’ll let you know in the next session. 

Penny: Super. Thank you. What about other things? Because I know there’s more… 

Laura: Yes, we just started a new, ongoing membership called the Circle of Success. This is where I help analytically-minded professionals do mindset work to really shift their beliefs about what’s possible and achieve more success in their lives and careers. We’re just getting this going. It’ll be the same thing: either it’ll be up on the website or there’ll be an interest list for when you do the next intake. It’s a new thing that I’m offering to the community because it just seems so many people get stuck at a place in their career and they know what to do and they have the skills to do it, but there’s a reason or a block that’s holding them back, and this is an area I developed a lot professionally myself over the last couple of years, and I want to share this with the wider community as well. 

Penny: That sounds very much like some of the stuff that happens with my mentoring groups. 

Laura: It’s so critical, right? 

Penny: We could carry on chatting for ages, but we can’t. Okay. I think that’s … but you haven’t mentioned your books, though, Laura! 

Laura: Right, right. My book is a great starting point. It’s available on Amazon and our website, pretty much anywhere eBooks are sold, as well as a print copy on Amazon. It’s called, How to Start a Business Analyst Career, and it’s really a guidebook. Then on our website, we also have just a free training. It’s a three-part video training called the Quick Start for Success as a Business Analyst. It talks more about what success looks like as a business analyst, what are the skills you’d need, how to create that career plan and get yourself set up for more success. 

Penny: Thank you very much, Laura. Thank you, too, for everyone listening right through to the end. If you’ve had to miss any sessions or you’d like to listen again another time, or you’d like to read the transcript, then you can upgrade to gain permanent access to all the sessions in the summit by getting your all-access pass to do so. Go to basummit.com/upgrade. Until next time, all the best. 

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