I took part at a fascinating debate at a recent IIBA event. The debate focussed on the distinction between a Business Analyst (BA) and a Subject Matter Expert (SME), and the extent that the BA should “learn” the business.
There is an ongoing debate within the BA community over the level of industry (business domain) specific knowledge that a BA should be expected to have. Some organisations require their BAs to have extensive business domain knowledge, and will generally only recruit BAs who have worked in the same (or a very similar) industry. Others look for core analysis skills, and are happy to recruit BAs from completely different industries.
My view is that while business domain knowledge does matter, analysis skills and experience are far more important. It is certainly important to have a basic understanding of the industry in which you are working, as this helps you to know which questions to ask when starting a project. However, this knowledge is something that can be expanded upon over time as you gain exposure to more and more projects. In fact, in my experience, new BAs from outside industries are often able to add a huge amount of value by “questioning” standard industry norms and conventions, and adding a new focus on true objectivity.
To draw an analogy, I view core Business Analysis work as a bit like driving a car. You learn a core set of techniques up-front, and learn even more when you apply them in all sorts of terrains and adverse conditions. You learn to be creative and use different tools and techniques when need to get a particular result.
Changing industries as a BA is a little like driving in an unfamilliar country. You need to know the basic rules of the road and you need a map. But once you have these things, you can drive as effectively and efficiently as you could back home (using all or most of the same techniques).
Driving is driving. Analysis is analysis. In both cases you need a map of the landscape, and you need to read the map before you set out. However you don’t need to understand the mechanics of the engine at the outset – and if you do eventually need to know this there will hopefully be a mechanic (SME) to help you!
However, I do believe that there are a number of core skills above and beyond the benchmark BA competencies that are of particular relevance when changing industries or projects:
1. Learning how to Learn: I believe that one of the core skills that a BA needs is “Learning how to learn”. This is barely talked about within the BA community, but from personal experience I believe it is so important and it is a key differentiating factor. A good BA needs to be able to pick up new project work quickly, and this will involve doing self-driven research. The ability to very quickly assimilate the relevant facts from Google, Wikipedia and other more industry-specific sources is as much art as science!
2. Knowing which questions to ask: Another core skill is knowing which questions to ask. As analysts, we uncover the detail and the ‘tacit knowledge’ that has never been written down. We question the semantics, we ask people to explain exactly what they mean when they say “the item is processed“. Being new to the organisation may actually help here; a ‘fresh pair of eyes’ may help to see a new perspective on things. This helps us to challenge old ways of doing things, and get to the root ‘problem’ (rather than focussing on ’solutions’).
3. Stakeholder Analysis & Management: When entering a new company, project or industry it is especially important to actively analyse and manage stakeholders. It’s important to understand their level of interest and influence on the project, and also their expectations. It’s also key to understand their motivation; are they likely to be a keen supporter of your project, or will they need some convincing? I could talk about stakeholder management for hours – perhaps I’ll write a follow-up blog!
What are your views on the BA vs SME debate? I’d love to hear from you, please feel free to add a comment to this post, or contact me directly!