What do you absolutely need to know to be a business analyst?
At a fundamental level, what makes a business analyst good, or even great?
What do they need to know well to excel in performing effective analysis?
What is the ‘oomph’ factor that’ll starkly distinguish how a business analyst recommends one solution or approach over another?
After some fast thinking on their feet, I usually get the following responses (with smug smiley faces and brightly lit eyes):
The methodology of the organization?
I utter ‘no’ immediately.
I smile and say no.
I raise my eyebrows and say no.
At this point, I make this a simple fill-in-the-blank question and ask them to amp up the thinking up a notch.
How can you be a BA without knowing the ________?
I get the sponsor, organizational structure, enterprise architecture, domain knowledge (I echo “kinda”), etc.
After dropping my shoulders in a bit of disappointment, I proceed to complete the sentence. (Please don’t expect a magical potion answer here!)
How can you be a BA without knowing the BUSINESS?
Duh!? Apparently, this is not distilled wisdom extracted after meditating under the supreme BA knowledge tree in the Himalayas.
So, why and how is it important to you as an analyst to know the business well?
How can you learn the “business” better?
In this post, I’ll provide some insight on why this is so essential, even though it’s so simple.
Let’s start with a quote from a great man, Leonardo da Vinci.
“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
Let’s explore the ‘why’ first.
Related Article: Promoting and Selling the Role of the Business Analyst
Here are the three reasons why knowing the ‘Business’ is necessary for you to be an excellent business analyst.
Knowing the ‘Business' is Your Business
As a business analyst, you’re entrusted to know how an organization functions in the complex web of people, processes, tools, and technology. A Systems thinking hat is essential and something to be used at all times. Let's examine the definition of a business analyst based on BABOK® V3:
"Business analysts are responsible for discovering, synthesizing, and analyzing information from a variety of sources within an enterprise, including tools, processes, documentation, and stakeholders. The business analyst is responsible for eliciting the actual needs of stakeholders—which frequently involves investigating and clarifying their expressed desires—to determine underlying issues and causes."
The responsibility of knowing the ‘business’ is assumed in this definition. This is essentially the glue that holds all of the discovering, synthesizing and analyzing together. If I had to define what it means to know the ‘business’ to be a better BA, I would define it as follows:
“Having superior knowledge of the inner workings of the business (or a business unit), the value propositions (products & services) that are supported, along with how different components interact with one another to create positive outcomes for the business and its key stakeholders. The components could include, industry positioning of the organization, business processes, customer segments, revenue streams, key stakeholder interactions, current challenges, constraints, and opportunities.”
This is the Secret Sauce of Going from Good to Great
After sitting through hundreds of requirements review sessions and JAD sessions, I have seen a pattern of what contributes to excellent analysis. If someone is conducting a requirements discovery session to map out the As-Is process flow, the quality of questions depends on how well they have prepared for elicitation and how well they understand the underpinnings of the process or inner workings of the organizational unit.
Knowing how a department works from end to end, even if it’s peripheral to your area of analysis, can significantly enhance your analysis outcome. It can improve the quality of your questions and thereby create better deliverables.
Pause and Self-Reflect for a Moment
I’d like you to think back and reflect on your journey as a business analyst and evaluate how you were able to perform better analysis if you had a better understanding of what you were dealing with. Did knowing how one department hands off work to another help you ask better questions? Were you more stoked when you understood and were able to trace EXACTLY how your work would or could improve the lives of over a thousand sales reps across the country? Were you able to create better process flows for an update of live software that you were involved with initially? If you can find at least one example of this from your experience, the simplicity, and importance of knowing the ‘business’ will resonate with you.
Now, let me leave you with three simple and effective tips that will help you learn the ‘business’ better.
'No Curiosity' Killed the BA
Be curious about the project that you get on. Ask to job shadow a business user and ask them what value their department brings to the organization. Obtain possession of user manuals or policies and procedures library to understand how their unit operates. Aim to become an expert in the realm of your analysis, because you can’t give expert advice without being an expert. As an analyst, you must be galvanized with the prospect of knowing the constituent parts of the organization or a department and learning how it all comes together both at the micro and macro level.
Understand the Business Model Canvas for this Business
Another great way to look at an organization is to see it through the lens of Business Model Canvas - a tool to map, discuss, design and invent new business models. You can start by reading this Wikipedia article on ‘Business Model Canvas’ and watching the following two-minute video:
There is also a blank template that you could download and use for mapping out the canvas for the organization that you’re working in. Additionally, you can also zoom in a little bit and create one even for an organizational unit.
Zoom Out and In
In my first book, The Five Pillars of a Great Business Analyst, I underscore the importance of recursive systems thinking. If systems thinking is about having a big picture view of your analysis in the context of the domain, recursive systems thinking is having multiple big picture snapshots, and zooming out each time until you see how it all ties into the overall business. As you go through the analysis of a piece of a problem domain, think of what people are involved, what processes have an impact on their work and workflows, and what systems they use including IT and Non-IT. Repeat this process by zooming out to relate it to the next level up in the organization until you’re able to understand how this aligns with the overall objectives and value propositions offered by the organization (e.g. how a change in billing system to enable online statements impacts the billing department, and then to sales and marketing department and then how it affects the organization’s overall objective to go green).
I wish you luck with your ‘business’!
Please use the space below to provide further comments or questions on the theme of ‘knowing the business’ or to provide more suggestions of how to learn the ‘business’ better.