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Business Analyst or Subject Matter Expert?

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!

Further Reading:

If you my blog post interesting, you might also be interested in the following article, published by Barbara at B2B training : Blog – When do you learn the business?

4 thoughts on “Business Analyst or Subject Matter Expert?”

  1. I’m pretty much in tune with this and like the driving analogy. The question is: how do we get employers to understand that it can be seriously beneficial to take on a BA with extensive analytical skills but little domain knowledge? After all, without the in-depth domain knowledge we’ll make no assumptions and ask the “simple” questions which really prompt people to think!

  2. Hi Chris, many thanks for the comment. This is a very good point, and I think it can only be achieved over time. Ultimately it’s somewhat of a case of “educating” (and/or subtly persuading) the business. I think there is often a misconception about what a BA is (and what we do), and the best way that we can get employers to understand the benefit of analytical skills is to demonstrate how it affects the bottom line and how it contributes to project success. Unfortunately this is somewhat “chicken and egg” – until they take a chance and engage BAs, they won’t see the benefit…

    However, organisations like the IIBA are great for facilitating and enabling these types of debates to take place.

    If you’d like to read a slightly different angle on this debate, take a look at this blog article. It’s written by Phil Bailey (one of my Pragnalysis colleagues):

    Thanks again for reading my blog and commenting!

  3. Iam working as an SME in mechanical engineering. So by this you mean Iam doing a job that is within my domain or am I doing a job of a MBA guy..

    1. Hi Arjun,

      The article is focussed on the difference between a business analyst (BA) and a subject matter expert (SME).

      With regards to an MBA (Masters in Business Administration), I would say that is a qualification rather than a role; i.e. it is a Masters degree.

      A candidate with an MBA could go on to become a business analyst or a subject matter expert; although a masters degree certainly isn’t a prerequisite for either.

      As for your role, and whether it’s a domain expert or BA role, that really depends on the type of work you are undertaking. Most definitions of Business Analysis, including IIBA’s, acknowledge that there are many people who undertake business analysis who have varied job titles.

      I hope this helps! –Adrian

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