For two decades, the CIO has been viewed as the ultimate broker between the business and IT. But while that may be an accurate perception in the executive boardroom, down in the trenches, business analysts have been the ones tasked with developing business cases for IT application development, in the process smoothing relations among competing parties and moving projects along.
According to a new Forrester report, however, the reality is less precise than this description. The business analyst position varies depending on the organisation, and the line between pure business functions and IT functions has eroded.
What is clear is that the most successful business analysts are the ones who blend the temperament and communications savvy of a diplomat with the analytical skills of an intelligence officer. And business analysts are a hot commodity.
The Forrester report, by analysts Carey Schwaber and Rob Karel, provides a better understanding of this crucial yet largely undefined role. "Everyone agrees on the importance of the business analyst role," the analysts write, "but few know exactly what it is that business analysts do".
The 21st century business analyst is a liaison, bridge and diplomat who balances the often incongruous supply of IT resources and demands of the business. Forrester's research found that those business analysts who were most successful were the ones who could "communicate, facilitate and analyse".
Some business analyst positions tilt more towards business functions such as operations, marketing, finance or engineering; other analysts seem to fit better in more IT-oriented positions such as in applications and architecture groups, or in project management offices.
According to the Forrester analysts, however, not many people, including business analysts themselves, are able to figure out a standard definition (complete with typical skill sets, proper training methods and set career paths) for the business analyst position.
Forrester surveyed 338 current and former business analysts and reviewed more than 29,000 business analyst job postings. What Schwaber and Karel found out is that, at present, there are "many different breeds of business analysts, each native to a particular silo within the enterprise, and each focused on addressing the most critical concerns within that silo".
The Forrester analysts also discovered that like many technology-intensive roles inside companies today, the line between a pure business analyst and a pure IT business analyst has blurred. The waters are muddied even more because business's IT needs span not only different departments but entire companies. In addition, newer technology methodologies, such as service-oriented architecture (SOA), require a deep understanding of both business and IT as well as close attention to changing business conditions, write Schwaber and Karel.
The ultimate blurring of the business-oriented business analyst and the IT-oriented business analysts, contend the Forrester analysts, is what they term the business technology analyst.
Business technology analysts have more "cross-functional and cross-domain" business experience, rather than just focusing on one area or function within the business. Schwaber and Karel predict that the different breeds of business analysts (such as solely business-focused or solely IT-focused) "will slowly dissolve as projects increasingly demand knowledge that spans business functions like marketing and sales and IT domains like process, information, and experience," they write. "As time passes, fewer and fewer business analysts will have the luxury of working only in a single business function or IT domain."
The challenge is molding today's business analysts into tomorrow's highly evolved BT analysts.
In the end, the more business technology analysts that are working in the business, the better off the CIO and IT function will be — no matter if the BT analysts are reporting into IT or the business side. That's because those IT-savvy analysts, who will have a more in-depth understanding of and more expertise in technologies, will "ultimately help the business make better decisions when it comes to its interactions with IT", say the Forrester analysts. And, "CIOs have new allies in the business."