Tuesday, 14 September 2010 07:08

Interrogating the Business Analyst Process to Discover Your own Value

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Brandenburg_Sept_14_3One of the ways we can unknowingly hold our careers back is failing to understand and communicate our value effectively. Many of the business analysts I work with in their job search and career development initially lack an appreciation for how they contribute to the organization's bottom line.

There are two common challenges that I see:

  1. Failure to understand how business analyst activities tie to clear business objectives.
  2. Failure to fully appreciate the value of the contributions they make as individuals.

In an earlier Business Analyst Times article, "Think "I" Instead of "We" When Talking about Your BA Career,."  I've already touched on point #2 above. Today I'd like to discuss how an intrinsic focus on business analysis activities unframed in a business value context can be career-limiting.

In an often-quoted article from CIO.com the value of the business analyst was cast in relief:

"For two decades, the CIO has been viewed as the ultimate broker between the business and technology functions. But while that may be an accurate perception in the executive boardroom, down in the trenches, business analysts have been the ones tasked with developing business cases for IT application development, in the process smoothing relations among competing parties and moving projects along."1

This statement speaks to a business-focused value of the business analyst. From an executive perspective, business analysts are valued because they help contribute to successful projects that have a solid business case. They are in the trenches ensuring that IT investments create value for the business.

However, oftentimes we see and hear business analysts talking about their value in terms intrinsic to the BA process. They focus on what we do as business analysts over and above why we do it. For every what, there is a why. And one of the best things we can do for our careers is to interrogate our own process with the same rigor with which we might challenge the process our stakeholders use to complete their work.

For example, one of the guidelines for writing textual requirements from the BABOK® Guide is "using consistent technology". This is a worthwhile attribute and we all know that any decent business analyst will use terms consistently throughout their requirements specifications. But "using consistent terminology" is an answer to "what we do" or "how we do it". It does not answer "why do we do things this way." Let's interrogate our own process to discover the why:

Interrogator: How does "using consistent terminology" create value for our organization?

Business Analyst: It reduces confusion about requirements.

Interrogator: Why does that matter?

Business Analyst: Well, if stakeholders are confused about requirements, we might spend extra time validating the requirements.

Interrogator: Why does that matter?

Business Analyst: Stakeholder time costs money.

Interrogator: Why does that matter?

Business Analyst: It means that creating the requirements for the project costs more than it should. If we use consistent terminology in our requirements, then we should be able to complete our requirements cycles faster. Oh, and it also means that we're less likely to build the wrong thing and have to waste development resources reworking the system.

Interrogator: Nice!

Executive Level Summary: Business analysts help reduce the costs of project implementations by bringing clarity to the requirements. One way they do this is by using consistent terminology in their requirements.

Any activity we do can be diagnosed in this way. But sometimes the answers are not quite so flattering. Let's interrogate the infamous "software requirements specification."

Interrogator: How does "creating a software requirements specification" create value for our organization?

Business Analyst: This document tells us everything we need to know about building the system. Sometimes its 50 or 60 pages long. We're really detailed.

Interrogator: Why is that important?

Business Analyst: Well, if we don't document everything, we'll miss something.

Interrogator: I can see that how it's important not to miss something. How does the document ensure we don't miss something?

Business Analyst: Well, we conduct a walk-through with everyone that needs to know what's in the document and everyone that will be building what's in the document. That way we know it's complete.

Interrogator: Why does the walk-through ensure that nothing is missed?

Business Analyst: [Blank stare]

Now, your answers might be different. Maybe your software requirements specifications are required for regulatory reasons or you've found a solution to organize a walk-through of a long document that ensures completeness (I haven't).

The point is not so much to pick apart a process that receives an almost constant beating. The point is to challenge you to evaluate your process with the same rigor your interrogator might do. What if this interrogator was your CFO or an external consultant who had promised you boss to find ways to reduce the costs of building software? Would you be able to justify the activity is worth your effort and the effort of your stakeholders? And, even if you could, are there other approaches to the same problem that would work just as well or better?

My challenge to you is to begin your week by looking at your calendar and to do list and asking yourself "why" for each significant item on the list. If you don't know the answer, start researching it with your peers and your manager. Focusing on "why" is one of the most impactful career habits you can develop, both in becoming a promotable business analyst or in framing up your applications for your next job. We do it in our projects, why not also do it for our careers?.

1 "Why Business Analysts are so Important for IT and CIOs" CIO Magazine.

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Laura Brandenburg is a business analyst mentor and author of the free "3 Career Habits for Successful Business Analysts", a primer to becoming a promotable business analyst. She hosts Bridging the Gap, a blog helping business analysts become leaders and advance their careers. She has 10 years of experience leading technology projects and has helped build business analyst practices at four organizations. If you'd like to learn more about discovering and increasing your value, including an ROI framework for business analyst activities, additional career habits that help you increase your ROI, and techniques for communicating your value to stakeholders and managers, check out Laura's upcoming BATimes webinar.

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Laura Brandenburg

Laura Brandenburg, CBAP, is on a mission to help 50 professionals start careers in business analysis in 2012. Interested in starting a career in business analysis? Check out Bridging the Gap for more information!

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