The Role of the Business Analyst – It’s Time for a New Perspective

The conceptual role of the business analyst has evolved over the years.  Unfortunately, in my opinion it has not evolved enough in either the minds of most business analysts or in the minds of those who employ them.  For far too many the role of Business Analyst is still one that is focused only on project work and for most of those it is one that begins and ends with requirements.

But that concept of the role of the Business Analyst is one that I emphatically disagree with.  I believe that it inhibits the application of business analysis skills to situations where they could benefit the organization and which thus reduces the value the business analyst can provide to an organization.

While the IIBA has attempted to change this view with the new definition of what a Business Analyst does in BABOK v3.0, I think that definition also misunderstands and short-changes the role that the business analyst can play in an organization.  I believe that even the newest IIBA definition  continues to tie business analysis (as both a function and a job) too closely with the project environment.  And that this close conceptual tie to project work is holding back the profession and limiting its value.

So with this article I want to build on the concepts I started putting forward in April 2016 with my post “Have we mis-identified the core purpose and value proposition of Business Analysis?”  I want to put forward for discussion a new perspective of business analysis that I hope will both broaden and clarify the concept of what a business analyst does, and how it can provide value to organizations.

I want to do this not only because I believe it represents a needed change for the field, but because I feel that that the recent entry of the PMI into the business analysis arena, and especially their role definition for business analysis, threatens all of the progress made over the last decade in moving the concept of business analysis away from a requirements focus.  And that if those of us who practice business analysis can’t make a broader, clearer, and more robust definition of business analysis the default understanding of the field; we may soon be back to being thought of as just “those people who write software requirements”.

A Brief History of the Changing Role of Business Analysts

But before I present my own idea, I want to first provide a quick overview of how the conceptual role of the business analyst has evolved in the last decade.  I think this is necessary to see the changes that have already taken place, and the potential for the reversal of those changes that exists.

Let’s start in 2006 because that was the year that two major organizations focusing on business analysis put forward ‘new’ definitions for what a Business Analyst was.  First, in the BABOK Guide v1.6 the IIBA provided this definition of the business analyst role:

“A business analyst works as a liaison among stakeholders in order to elicit, analyze, communicate and validate requirements for changes to business processes, policies and information systems. The business analyst understands business problems and opportunities in the context of the requirements and recommends solutions that enable the organization to achieve its goals.” [1] [emphasis mine]

To me, this largely represents the “business analysts just do requirements” perspective that still persists today.  The evolution represented in this statement is that the requirements weren’t just software requirements and the BA role is seen as encompassing processes and policies as well as information systems.

However, also in 2006 the BCS (formerly British Computing Society) provided a much broader definition of the Business Analyst role with this:

“An internal consultancy role that has the responsibility for investigating business systems, identifying options for improving business systems and bridging the needs of the business with the use of IT.” [2]

This definition is the first that seems to step away from the ‘requirements’ focus to a broader focus on ‘business systems’, but it still seems very heavily focused on IT and the BA as a liaison or ‘bridging’ role.

In the 2009 the IIBA made a significant change with BABOK Guide v2.0 when they split the person (the business analyst) from the function (business analysis).  This resulted in two definitions.  For a business analyst the definition was:

“A business analyst is any person who performs business analysis activities, no matter what their job title or organizational role may be.” [3]

And the definition of business analysis was:

“Business analysis is the set of tasks and techniques used to work as a liaison among stakeholders in order to understand the structure, policies, and operations of an organization, and to recommend solutions that enable the organization to achieve its goals.” [3] [emphasis mine]

So with BABOK v2.0 the IIBA still sees Business Analysts as ‘liaison’s’, but the role has shifted from a focus on “requirements” to a focus on “solutions”.  This was progress in my opinion.

Then in 2010 the BCS revised their definition of Business Analysis to:

“An internal consultancy role.  It has the responsibility for investigating business situations, identifying and evaluating options for improving business systems, defining requirements and ensuring the effective use of information systems in meeting the needs of the business.” [4]

This change added “evaluating options” in addition to the “identifying options” from the previous version.  Unfortunately, it seems to have shifted back to a heavier focus on requirements and IT.

Lastly, in 2015 we saw even greater change from the IIBA with the release of BABOK Guide v3.0.  For BABOK 3.0 the definition of what a business analyst is stayed nearly the same:

“A business analyst is any person who performs business analysis tasks described in the BABOK ® Guide, no matter their job title or organizational role.” [5]

However, the definition of business analysis itself was changed significantly to:

“Business analysis is the practice of enabling change in an enterprise by defining needs and recommending solutions that deliver value to stakeholders.” [5]

So for the IIBA the Business Analyst role changed from that of a ‘liaison’ who ‘recommends solutions’, to one which ‘enables change’ by ‘defining needs and recommending solutions’.  For me, the big change here is not the addition of “defining needs” but rather the IIBA doing away with the “liaison” tag and focusing on the core activity of ‘enabling change’.  Unfortunately, the ‘change’ is still limited to ‘needs and solutions’.

Additionally, the definitions discussed above also seem to either leave out or marginalize some of the activities and/or roles that I believe should be included in a broader understanding of business analysis.  These include (at a minimum) the business architect role and the strategic analyst role.

While the ‘Perspectives’ included in BABOK 3.0 would seem to include at least the Business Architecture role, the definition used in BABOK 3.0 represents a problem in my opinion.  That definition of business architecture is:

“Business Architecture models the enterprise in order to show how strategic concerns of key stakeholders are met and to support ongoing business transformation efforts.[6]  [emphasis mine]

That definition seems to limit business architecture to ‘transformation’ and aligns it with the ‘change’ emphasis shift in the BA role defined with BABOK 3.0.  I will discuss why I think that is a problem more below.

 

PMI Entry Brings Regression

Unfortunately, 2015 also saw the entry of the Project Management Institute (PMI) to the business analysis space with their Business Analysis Practitioners Guide.  In that guide the PMI provides this definition of business analysis:

“Business Analysis is the set of activities performed to identify business needs and recommend relevant solutions; and to elicit, document, and manage requirements.” [7]

At first this seems rather close to the IIBA definition, with the unfortunate tacking on of the requirements management function at the end.  Unfortunately, there are other references in the PMI literature about business analysis that seem to limit the definition above to being purely about requirements.

Take these two quotes, both from the FAQ on the PMI Professional in Business Analysis (PMI-PBA) certification:

“Business Analysis is the evaluation of an organization’s needs—followed by the identification and management of requirements—to arrive at a solution. In short, it is the discipline of working with stakeholders to define an organization’s requirements in order to shape the output of projects and ensure they deliver the expected business benefit.” [8]  [emphasis mine]

And:

“Business analysis is a discipline of the broader practice of Requirements Management.” [8] [emphasis mine]

According to that second quote above business analysis isn’t even a broader field of its own that encompasses requirements management, it’s a sub-field of requirements management and thus really can’t include anything other than requirements.

But the FAQ came out before the Business Analysis Practitioners Guide so maybe its views were superseded.  But when you look at the role delineation that the PMI specified for the PBA candidate in their current documents you see the following: [9] [emphasis mine]

  • Perform their duties under general supervision and are responsible for working with stakeholders to define an organization’s business requirements in order to shape the output of projects and ensure they deliver the expected business benefit.
  • Spearhead the discovery, analysis and overall management of the requirements for a project.
  • Demonstrate sufficient knowledge and experience to appropriately apply business analysis tools and techniques to enable project success.

The unfortunate implication here is that the PMI seems to be viewing the business analyst role as once again being all about requirements in a project environment.  While in some ways that is understandable given the PMI’s focus on Project Management, with the influence the PMI has it is very concerning to me as it seems to be reversing the 10-year evolution discussed above to broaden the understanding of what Business Analysts do and how they provide value.

 

A New Perspective – It’s All About Decisions

So what is the concept of business analysis and the role of the business analyst that I would like to see adopted widely?  I would argue that rather than being about requirementsneeds and solutions, or even change, business analysis is all about decisions.

As I discussed in my “Have we mis-identified the core purpose and value proposition of Business Analysis?” post, you could undertake a wide range of business analysis activities as they are specified in the BABOK without having any of that work result in the identification of ‘needs’ or ‘solutions’, or even ‘requirements’.  But that work would still be what I would call business analysis.  Rather, what all that work would support are better decisions by organizational decision-makers.

And going back to the point about the IIBA definition of the Business Architecture that I discussed above, let’s look at the definition of Business Architecture that is specified by the Business Architecture Guild in their BizBOK Guide:

“Business architecture represents real world aspects of a business, along with how they interact, to help executives and other stakeholders answer commonly asked questions: who, what, where, when, why, and how.  Answers to these questions, derived from the business architecture, are used to develop plans, and make and implement business decisions.” [10] [emphasis mine]

In that definition, business architecture is not about ‘transformation’, it’s about information and decisions.  And if you take out the “derived from the business architecture” section, you could apply that exact statement to most of the work done by business analysts.  Our focus on organizational decisions is usually narrower and deeper, but that’s about it.  There are even many techniques that are common to both groups of practitioners.

But to understand why decisions should be new the focus, let’s take a quick look at the eight steps in the PrOACT Decision-Making method: [11]

      1. Define the decision
      2. Specify objectives
      3. Create alternatives
      4. Understand consequences
      5. Understand trade-offs
      6. Clarify uncertainties
      7. Understand your risk tolerance
      8. Consider linked decisions

I think that if you add a 9th step of “Implement Decision” you can probably map every activity a business analyst undertakes as supporting one or more of those nine steps.  Or as incorporating all or most of them.  The fact is that business analysis NOW is all about decisions.  We just don’t communicate it that way.

If you look at the usual outcomes of business analysis activities such as business cases, backlogs, user stories, requirements, process maps, gap analysis information, VMOST models, and virtually every other BA technique; what they all have in common is that they represent either the outcome of organizational decisions, enable future organizational decisions, or both.

And if you step up from specific techniques to the broader activities of business analysis the logic continues to apply.  What is requirements work other than those eight steps?  Process improvement?  Business Architecture? Strategic Analysis?  They are all activities that support decision-making in an organizational context.  They may use slightly different techniques, focus areas, or frames of reference, but the core function of what they do and the value they deliver is the same.  They help the organization make better decisions.

But the other key point to me is that the Business Analyst is almost never the one making those decisions.  What the Business Analyst does instead is facilitate the making of those decisions by organizational stakeholders by providing knowledge and expertise that enables them to make the best decision that is possible given what is known and can be learned at the time the decision is made.

In many ways this idea of business analysis being about decisions is even borne out by the recent IIBA-sponsored white paper from KPMG titled “Business Analysis – positioning for success”.  As stated in that document:

“… when business leaders were asked to provide 3 words to describe business analysis, the most frequently cited combinations were “smart, quick and improved decision-making”. [12] [Emphasis mine] 

Additionally, when asked about the most valuable BA skill-sets for the future, respondents to the survey that underlay the white paper identified the following five skill sets:

      1. Strategic Thinking & Analysis
      2. Business Knowledge
      3. Critical Thinking / Problem Solving
      4. Leadership
      5. Creative & Innovative Thinking

You will notice that there is no reference to needs or solutions in that list.  Rather, they are all skills that support what the white paper calls “value-driven analysis and decision-making”. [12]

Lastly, I would also be remiss if I didn’t point out that Kupe Kupersmith has been making a similar point about how decision-making is a key aspect of business analysis for a number of years now.  Indeed, he may have said it best when he stated:

“You should view decision making not as something that supports your work, but rather all analysis techniques and processes support decision making. One of your main responsibilities is to help others make better decisions. “ [13]  [emphasis mine]

I would just change that take out the “One of” from the second sentence and simply say that “Your main responsibility is to help others make better decisions”.

 

A New Definition of Business Analysis

The fact is that organizational decision making can be HARD.  Especially if you want it to be done well.  It usually involves multiple individuals, with different and competing concerns, in a less predictable environment, with many other competing and dependent decisions that have to be made as well.  And the people making the decisions are usually highly time-constrained.  They also tend to have more of an operational / managerial skill-set that may make them less skilled or efficient at the decision-making process with its accompanying analysis needs.  Combine a lack of time, a lack of skill, and a dynamic environment and you have the sort of situation where the role of someone with analytical decision-making expertise might become very valuable to the organization.

And this is what I think the role of Business Analysts should be.   Don’t limit them to requirements, or projects, or even just ‘change’.  Make the role of Business Analyst all about helping the organization make better decisions.  Whether those decisions are related to projects, technology, capabilities, strategy, or anything else.  Any decision where there is complexity is one where a Business Analyst could provide value to the organization.

We can bring the time and expertise in information management, analysis, decision-making and communication that will enable Business Analysts to not make the decisions, but rather to thoroughly identify and analyze the information that decision-makers need to make the best decisions possible and to communicate that information to them in such a way that they clearly understand all of the alternatives, trade-offs, consequences impacts, and uncertainties of the various decision options.

So with all of the above considered, I would like to propose a new definition of business analysis that more accurately encompasses what in my opinion business analysts do.  That definition is:

Business analysis is the application of expert knowledge and skills to facilitate the processes of decision option identification, decision making, and decision implementation in an organizational context.

If we shift the conceptual focus of what business analysts do from requirements, needs and solutions to decision facilitation it also clarifies the scope of business analysis and presents a more solid foundation for including what are currently categorized as other professions under the broader Business Analysis umbrella.

Whether you are a strategic analyst focusing on corporate strategy; a business architect focused on capabilities, value chains and organizational structure; a process analyst specializing in Lean or Six Sigma; a business intelligence analyst focused on using data analytics to drive decisions, or a business systems analyst focused on making technology support the organizations goals; you are still practicing business analysis.  The particular techniques you use, perspective you take, and specific knowledge you need to have may vary; but you are still practicing business analysis under this definition.

But the biggest benefit to me is that this provides a very clear statement of how business analysts provide value (help organizations make better decisions) and pulls the conceptual role of business analysis firmly away from ‘projects’ or ‘requirements’.

This change in perception among organizations is critical in my opinion.  Now, Business Analysis won’t be thought of as something that is only needed for project work and requirements.  Rather, Business Analysts can be thought of by the organization as the asset to be called up whenever “we need someone to help us analyze this question and facilitate our discussions and activities so that we have comprehensive and well-structured information that will enable us to make the best decision”.

This should also make it much easier to answer that common question that many business analysts seem to struggle with.  That question being “what is it you do?”  The immediately understandable answer now would be, “I help organizations make better decisions”.

As always, feedback and comments are always welcome.

 

References:

      1. BABOK Guide v1.6, Section 1.4.1, Definition of the Business Analyst Role. IIBA. 2006.
      2. Business Analysis events presentation.  By Paul Turner and Debbie Paul.  Slide 21.  2006.
      3. BABOK Guide v2.0.  Section 1.2 – What is Business Analysis?  IIBA. 2009.
      4. Business Analysis, 2nd Edition.  By Debra Paul, Donald Yeates and James Cadle.  British Informatics Society Limited.  2010.
      5. BABOK Guide v3.0. Section 1.3 – Who is a Business Analyst?  IIBA. 2015.
      6. BABOK Guide v3.0, Section 11.4 – The Business Architecture Perspective.  IIBA.  2015
      7. Business Analysis for Practitioners – A Practice Guide.  Section 1.5 – What is Business Analysis?  By the Project Management Institute.  2015.
      8. PMI Professional in Business Analysis (PMI-PBA) FAQs.  By the Project Management Institute.   2014.
      9. PMI Professional in Business Analysis (PMI-PBA) Handbook.  By the Project Management Institute.  Page 6.  2015.
      10. A Guide to the Business Architecture Body of Knowledge (BizBOK Guide), v5.0.  Business Architecture Guild.  Pg. 3.  2016.
      11. Smart Choices – A Practical Guide to Making Better Decisions.  By Hammond, Keeney, and Raiffa.  Harvard Business School Press.  1999.
      12. White Paper:  Business Analysis – positioning for success.  By KMPG Canada.  On the IIBA website.  October 31, 2016.
      13. Decision Making – And Underlying Competency Or What A Business Analyst Does?  By Kupe Kupersmith.  In BATimes.  August 27, 2013.

 

© 2017 by David Olson

8 thoughts on “The Role of the Business Analyst – It’s Time for a New Perspective

  1. Henrik Ekstam

    Thanks (or tack?) for a well written and insightful article. As a business analyst lead I have been struggling with getting the perception of requirements management broadened as it is not the answer to all the problems we face. And as we transition into agile, work tends to move from projects to line. This I also see as naturally as most things we tend to adress is not “one off”

    The decision making approach makes sense, we are currently running a CRM program, and CRM is more of a philosophy (strategy) that requires a lot of small changes (=decisions) rather than one big need that is satisfied with one big solution.

    Reply
  2. Barbara A Carkenord

    David,
    Very thoughtful article. Thanks for your review of the evolving definitions of business analysis. I helped with the BABOK from the beginning and remember agonizing conversations with the committees about how best to word those definitions. It has been so great to have the global business analysis community contribute to this evolution of this discipline. I agree that decision making is really our strength and I think your recommended definition moves forward the evolution of the discipline. My only suggestion is not to limit our role to facilitator when we can also be decision makers. Many senior level business analysts are not only analyzing and facilitating but also contributing to their organizational decisions.

    Great conversation to continue!

    Barb

    Reply
    1. Dave Post author

      Barb,

      Thank you for the comment (and your general contribution to the field). I agree that many senior BA’s are making decisions, but I will admit that my proposed definition was somewhat politically-driven in that I have seen reluctance from managers and executives (and from fellow BA’s to be honest) to include business analysts in any effort outside of project requirements. And I wanted to start with a draft definition that would hopefully be seen as the least ‘threatening’ to decision-makers who might perceive a BA’s role in decision-making as usurping some of their power or responsibility. And honestly, once you move into actually making decisions I think the line starts to be blur between the BA and the management / executive level. That may be appropriate in many cases, but I think that most of the time the BA would provide their highest value as the internal ‘objective party and decision-making expert’ who can facilitate the decision. It’s a blurred line, I admit. In the end, I mostly want to see the conversation happen and get some traction in a certain direction than I want to define the final goal. 🙂

      Reply
  3. Eleanor Harris

    Love the article. I believe in some cases the BARBER is underestimated. I have been doing this a majority of my career and it is about getting into the business mindset and understanding the needs for them to continue to do what they do best. It is about decision making as well and being to organize the right people to the table

    Reply
  4. Helen Winter

    Thanks David for this article, I really enjoyed reading it. It’s a good point you make and really well researched. I’ve worked at various companies with different attitudes about it. I think it will be a growing trend for business analysis to be used outside of projects and more enterprise wide. I had never heard of business architects a few years ago and now regularly see the role advertised. With the skills required for business analysis it makes sense that it doesn’t always have to be project related and incorporates much more than gathering requirements.

    Reply
  5. Eliseo Corona

    The article is very interesting and deserves follow-up from the impact on modern organizations of inappropriate use of these resources and enables us to assimilate the scope of exploitation of the real capabilities of business analysts. we have been able to understand that something we lacked.

    Reply
  6. Dave Post author

    A commenter on the LinkedIn discussion about this post referenced the role of “Systems Analyst” as it was developed in the 60’s and 70’s in the field of policy analysis as having a similar concept to what I am promoting here. I found a Rand paper from 1972 titled “Systems Analysis: A Tool for Choice” by E. S. Quade that provides this definition of “Systems Analysis”:

    “… systems analysis does the following: it examines the purposes of a policy or procedure or decision; it explores alternative ways of achieving those purposes including the design of new possibilities; it assesses the benefits and drawbacks of the various possible actions; and it compares them on one or more criteria that a choice may be made.”

    I like that concept a lot and I think it aligns with how I think business analysis should be defined and discussed for the purposes of moving the field of Business Analysis away from it’s current hard marriage to the ‘project concept’. You can read the entire paper (it’s only 16 pages and freely available) at this link: https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/papers/2009/P4860.pdf

    Reply

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