The rise of the business analyst – once again

BAs have never been as important as now, says Michael H Hugos

When I got into the IT business years ago, I thought the business analyst was the most pivotal person in the whole profession. This person was the bridge between business and technology, the one who could see and understand both sides and whose goal was to apply technology to support business initiatives that would help the company grow revenue or shrink operating costs.

Over the last 20 years, we lost sight of that, as the technology focus began to shift away from IT and towards business users. The PC dethroned the mainframe and minicomputer. Local area networks enabled whole companies to run on PCs and servers. The chips powering PCs got more and more powerful, allowing the software to become more full-featured.

Then the internet hit the big time, and for the past ten years, we’ve been exploring the many things you can do when you combine people and computers in real-time networks via the web. But by now, the newness has worn off, and we are back to thinking about that old concern of how to use this stuff to make money. That’s where the business analyst comes in once more.

A lot of IT functions have been outsourced, including datacentre operations, programming and the helpdesk. The one function that doesn’t seem to lend itself to outsourcing is business analysis. Why? Because an analyst needs to really understand the company he or she is working with, and the best way to do that is to live there and be part of it.

I often hear that companies have not developed their business analysis capabilities because they believe that analysts use soft skills that anyone can exercise without much training. I beg to differ.

I was once asked to start up and run a group of business analysts for a company that already had a 100-person IT department. As part of that job, I had to define the specific skills my analysts should have and then put in place a training and career advancement programme that would develop those skills. This gave me cause to think carefully about the skills that analysts need and how to develop them.

Here’s what I found:

• Business analysts must be able to facilitate joint application-design sessions that involve groups composed of both business and technical people. They need to actively include everyone in the sessions and encourage people to contribute their ideas.

They need to do process-mapping. This is often a very good way to focus the conversations of a group in a design session and provide a big-picture context in which to place people’s ideas.

• They need to apply data-modelling, to organise the data flowing through the business processes they are designing. By this I mean logical data-modelling (not the creation of physical data models in fourth normal form).

Once analysts have facilitated group design sessions, created process-flow diagrams and organised the relevant data into a logical data model, they must pull this all together and create the user interface for the system that will drive the activities in the process flow and handle the data in the data-model. This is where analysis turns into synthesis, and where the design of any new system emerges. And as if all this wasn’t enough, good analysts must also be skilled at system testing, user training and even project management.

Soft skills? These are some of the hardest skills to master in the whole IT profession. And companies need good business analysts now more than ever if they are going to thrive in our fast-changing global economy.

Michael H. Hugos is a principal at the Centre for Systems Innovation . He can be contacted at www. MichaelHugos.com

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