Tuesday, 15 January 2013 03:59

Business Analysis: Art or Science?

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This is the first of a four-part series exploring whether ‘business analysis’ is an art or a science.

“Is Business Analysis art or science?”

I am no Albert Einstein. I’m not Richard Feinman, Carl Sagan or any other great scientific mind.

Likewise, I’m no Andy Warhol, Vincent van Gogh or Pablo Picasso.

But I am a Business Analyst. So, am I practicing a science or an art?

I first became a Business Analyst over 10 years ago. After several years as a sales rep in another industry, I found myself at a career crossroads that led me to enroll in the Masters of MIS program at a local University. I was not sure exactly what I was looking for, but I knew I wanted to move my career in a more technical direction and this was the way I chose to do it. Two years later at graduation, I understood a little bit about programming, databases, systems design, and project management and had a deeper set of business skills. The only problem was – what do I do now?

Fortunately I had developed a relationship with someone who became a trusted friend and mentor who suggested I consider becoming a Business Analyst. She thought it might be right for me with my sales background mixed with my newly minted technical perspective.

I got my first Business Analysis job at a bank and worked mostly on projects building web-based tax payment systems. I was one of the first BAs hired. It seemed like a good place, but I was unsure how to approach my new role. What was the ‘science’ of my new profession? How could I apply my new training and knowledge in a workable way?

My supervisor introduced me to one of the “Big 4” consulting firm methodologies, and suggested I take a look and try to figure out what BAs did there. These intimidating six 3-ring binders were full of concepts I was not familiar with and more project deliverables that I could have ever imagined. However, I found one template that looked like it was built to hold business requirements and another built to hold system specifications, so I tried them out. Although foreign at first, I had found a framework where I could communicate a story in a way that both business and technical people understood. With each project, we tweaked these templates to suit our needs, found a couple of others and kept using them. The business and IT responded positively to them!

I was then introduced to the Capability Maturity Model. Developed by Carnegie Mellon University, the CMM defines five levels of “predictability, effectiveness, and control of an organization’s software development processes…,” and it covers all phases of software development. There are many valuable components within CMM, but the one that always stuck with me was a simple principle – If you find something that works, repeat it. Our teams developed repeatable processes and we became more predictable, reliable, and better able to deliver on time. The science of business analysis was working for me.

Later on, I was asked to take a six-month assignment doing nothing but reading government RFPs, extracting a potential project scope, and delivering the information to colleagues in such a way that we could develop estimates needed as a foundation for a bid. SMEs avoided me, as they had their day jobs and had no interest in reviewing something that would likely never come to pass, so I had to find some way to make it easy for them. The ‘science’ of business analysis was no longer working for me!

I began to rely heavily on modeling skills. I built numerous context diagrams, process flow charts, swim lanes and whatever model would work best to help development, infrastructure, operations and other teams quickly assess whether this project was right for us. The pictures told the story! I was finding the ‘art’ side of business analysis now.

Continuing with the ‘art of business analysis,’ I found myself preparing for a requirements elicitation session for an expected 10-12 attendees. I was confident, having done my homework and felt ready to get the job done. However, as the attendees arrived, it appeared everyone had chosen to bring a friend, and the attendance grew to 30 people, all clustered in two separate groups around the room. I came to learn that one group made home office policy decisions, while the other group served the field offices. Bottom line: They frequently did not see eye-to-eye.

As I worked through my agenda, it became helpful to reach out to each of the participants and get their thoughts on the table. As people began to realize they were being heard, and that their opinion would matter, bonds of trust began to form as the two teams found common ground in the project. The “art” of facilitation brought alignment to the teams.

Throughout my career, I’ve had to use a mix of skills from the disciplines of art and science. Each project is different. Some are best served with lots of documentation and heavy process, while others require more creativity and stronger relationships. In this series, we’ll discuss the mix of skills from the worlds of art and science, and show you how you can use skills from both areas to make yourself a stronger Business Analyst.

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Greg Kulander

Greg Kulander is currently a Senior Business Systems Analyst at custom software development firm, Geneca.   He is also the Vice-President of Communications for the Chicagoland Chapter of the International Institute of Business Analysis. He has been working primarily as a Business Analyst on software projects since 1999 for such companies as JP Morgan Chase, U.S. Bank and NAVTEQ (now Nokia Location Services). He has helped lead successful projects in government, healthcare and private sector e-commerce, and was a founding member of the U.S. Bank Business Analysis Center of Excellence.   He has a Masters degree in Management Information Systems from Benedictine University, and Bachelor’s degree in Marketing. Greg thoroughly enjoys seeing a project go live and watching an organization reap the benefits of well-made software!

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