Next Generation Business Analysts – The Opportunities In Store For You (Insights from BBC 2013)

The 2013 Building Business Capability Conference, sponsored by the International Institute of Business Analysis™ (IIBA®), proved to be a setting where the future of business analysis was discussed not only with enthusiasm, but also with a strong tie to reality.

Case studies abounded. Real-world challenges were addressed head-on. And most importantly, opportunities for growth and change for those of us in the profession surfaced. Presenters discussed the kind of opportunities that will create the next generation of business analysts, but only if we, the analyst community, not only embrace them but also expand our skill sets.

While the challenges are significant, the rewards are substantial. Those that realize the opportunities of the next generation of business analysts will have increased influence, more exciting jobs, and be nearly immune to changes in project methodologies and role shuffling. Let’s look at why.

The Future of Business Analysis

Let’s start towards the end – at the most compelling presentation I attended at the entire conference. That presentation was delivered by Kevin Brennan, Chief BA at IIBA, on the past, present, and future of business analysis.  Kevin started his BA career like many of us – in an informal role with mixed responsibilities on a highly unsuccessful project.

Years later, studies show that projects are not doing much better. Why? Kevin says it’s because business value lies outside the project. It comes before the project – in deciding why to make an investment – and after the project – in helping transition project implementations into operations.

Today’s business analysts need to start taking responsibility for business outcomes, not just requirements work inside of projects. This is a big hat and the skill sets change.

  • We are not taking responsibility for business outcomes when we document our lists of 1000s of system shall statements and call it a day.
  • We are not taking responsibility for business outcomes when we stop working once the project is implemented.
  • We are not taking responsibility for business outcomes when we fail to ask and understand “why?”, or even if we do ask “why” but don’t get to the underlying root cause that truly helps the business understand what they are doing, how they are doing it, and what the result is.

Kevin admits this is not going to be a short transition. The path to being a next generation BA starts with being an effective contributor today. And that might mean chipping in and taking on non-BA responsibilities – whatever it takes to build credibility as a team player. Then it’s time to move into a facilitator role, where you start to get stakeholders to think about tough questions. Often we have to propose answers, because the questions we ask are difficult ones. Once we’ve established that we can help facilitate a better understanding of what to accomplish in a project, then we get to make a move towards filling more strategic roles.

In many ways, the themes Kevin brought together in his keynote were played out in many small ways across the other sessions I attended. Each presenter filled their own piece of the BA pie.

Here are some of the other take-aways I had from BBC 2013:

Business Rules are Not Going Away

As businesses become more complex and more agile, managing business rules and business decisions will gain prominence.  There are great leadership opportunities for BAs to lead initiatives to separate out business rules from traditional requirements documents so they can be analyzed, implemented, and changed more effectively.

Yet, there is no one way to document decisions and business rules. Like everything else in BA, your leadership and judgment is required. Long lists are common, but difficult to comprehend and maintain. Business rules repositories often fragment rules implemented by process from rules implemented by systems. Visual models, such as process flows, concept models, decision tables, and functional decomposition diagrams help organize and analyze rule- and decision-related information.

Glossaries are Necessity

Ronald Ross started with a quote by the famous German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein:

“All I know is what I have words for.”

Even though it might seem like your terminology changes quickly, often the reality is that your core business concepts and business knowledge are very stable. Glossaries help us define terms and use more consistent terminology across the organization and in our requirements documentation.

Glossaries are an absolute necessity in parallel with business rules and decisions. If rules are expressed using a variety of terminology or ambiguous terms they are likely to be misunderstood, misapplied, and implemented inappropriately.

Processes and Capabilities Are Key

I was surprised and disappointed at the undercurrent of politics that crept into some conference presentations. Were processes or rules more fundamental? Or capabilities or processes? Or cats or dogs? While IIBA representatives did a great job at rising above these debates (as any BA should, we’re leaders after all…more on that below), other keynotes chose to use the podium as a way to reinforce their preferences.

I share this not to overshadow the positive vibe of the conference but because the nature of the debate was eye-opening to me. It’s important to be aware of so you don’t get swept up in it. Dogma surfaces in many forms and often comes with unmerited confidence that can spread like wildfire.

Whenever you see someone speaking from a space of proposing that one type of requirement, one technique or one perspective offers a perfect or primary solution, take a step back. Learn from their passion, but not from their perspective. BAs need to have a perspective that is separate above all of this debate. Otherwise we risk seeing everything as a nail because all we have is a hammer.

But back to business processes and capabilities, a topic area where this undercurrent rose heavily to the surface. Business processes and capabilities exist in a relationship to one another. Processes are a series of actions that lead to an end result. Capabilities are the abilities an organization has or the outcomes it is able to achieve.

Obviously, if we are going to enter the world of taking responsibility for business outcomes, we need to master our understanding of both. We do this by not only analyzing business processes, but also by understanding the outcomes and results enabled by our organization’s efforts, which is a nice segue to my next take-away.

Metrics Matter

Metrics came up in every single presentation I attended.

  • The BPM COE panel spoke to the importance of creating a value proposition and measuring the impact of the COE as a way to encourage the ongoing investments required.
  • Ellen Gottesdiener’s talk on retrospectives suggested you start with bringing data about the project to the conversation, even if it is low fidelity.
  • Making better business decisions requires data. Often the first phase of decision analysis reveals that current decision-making is rather arbitrary and uncovers opportunities to gather and report on more data to improve decision rules in the future.

Data, metrics, quantification. These are all new skill sets for many business analysts but an area where the profession is challenging us to grow. It’s also where BA meets value. That’s a big topic, let’s talk about it a bit more.

Increasing Your Value as a BA

Steve Erlank put it straight – if you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it. Benefits and business outcomes must be quantifiable for us to understand project results and our own contributions. He broke becoming more valuable as a BA into three components:

  • Focus on finding the value of projects, often by including more stakeholders and facilitating them to agree. This helps us explore stated wants and discover what the business truly needs – i.e. what’s good for the organization as a whole.
  • Being selective in applying BA activities and choosing only the most value-adding activities to apply for each project. He suggested BAs create a balance sheet linking specific BA tasks to ROI.
  • Building assets that contribute to organizational knowledge, whether they be business rules, glossaries, or knowledge bases. The BA brings out what the organization knows and helps it learn from itself.

Leadership Comes From All of the Above and Then Some

Leadership comes not from specialization but from what Bob Prentiss labeled being a polymath – or someone so skilled in multiple disciplines that they make their work look easy.

This means moving forward is not about specializing in business rules, BPMN methodologies, analytical models, glossaries or writing better requirements. It’s about learning to do all of these tasks well and being able to apply them as needed in your organization. This is a very high-level of skill, but it’s different than being a specialist.

My over-arching take-away is that core business analysis skills – defining terms, expressing requirements clearly, using visuals, and facilitating conversations will never stop being important for business analysts. Yet on top of these core skills, it’s becoming increasingly important that we layer leadership, breadth of knowledge, advanced communication and facilitation skills, and a focus on value.

Focusing on value takes not just insight, but guts. It means saying “no” and redefining your role around what matters. It means breaking away from business as usual to do something different that might create a break-through. It means asking the hard questions and proposing possible answers.

>>Looking For Some New Techniques?

My experience at BBC has reinforced that breadth and depth of techniques is more important than ever. One category of skills that is absolutely required for a next generation business analyst is visual modeling.

Click here to check out 22 visual models used by business analysts

(I expect you’ll find at least a few that are new to you and could make a strategic difference on your next project.)

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