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Is a Systems Analyst a Business Analyst?

I hear this question and debate all the time! Here are some thoughts for both sides of this epic question of our time in our industry.

It is important to call out that titles and disciplines are different, and any title likely requires performing in multiple disciplines. Systems analyst and business analyst are job titles. Business analysis is a discipline.

It is also important to call out that systems analyst and business analyst as job titles are different from organization to organization and team to team. The variance in how these jobs are defined in job descriptions tells this story well. Given the variety of definitions, Systems Analyst roles fall into one or more of the following themes:

  1. Focus on supporting specific applications/systems.
  2. Focus on helping project teams understand the possible technologies that are feasible for given business or solution requirements.
  3. Focus on analyzing solution requirements to design and specify the functional and/or technical design of a solution.
  4. Focus on being functional and/or technical experts on a specific application and/ or usage of an application by user groups.
  5. Focus on a deep understanding of interactions between systems.

No, that’s not a BA:
Everything is about technology for a systems analyst and a business analyst focuses on a broader scope than just technology applications. Business analysis is about understanding business needs, the context around them and facilitating the change or solution (technical or not) to solve the business need. Technology applications may be a part of this, but they are not always the focus.

Yes, that’s a BA:
Systems analysts are solving business needs through technology and using many of the same tasks and techniques in the business analysis discipline to perform their role.

Other Considerations:
I believe that many systems analysts are performing business analysis as a discipline to varying degrees, at varying levels of detail and with varying levels of success depending on many internal and external factors.

Business analysis as a discipline is about analyzing and facilitating business change, which may or may not impact technology, though most business change efforts impact technology to some extent in today’s environment. Given this, most efforts involve systems analysis, so the question remains, who is performing business analysis and who is performing systems analysis? These roles must be performed, it is a question of title, and each organization structures work and resources differently to execute on delivering solutions.
I also believe that the answer to this depends on the approach taken towards the work effort. For example:

  • When identifying user needs as a systems analyst, is the focus on what the system should do, look like and how it should function? A business analysis approach is more focused on why the user has the need, what options there are to solve for it, and what impacts are systematically and non-systematically (people, process, context, etc . . .) part of the solution?
  • When documenting requirements as a systems analyst, is the focus on the system screens, fields, and files or on the process, rules, data, stakeholders and capabilities of the solution? A business analysis approach focuses on ensuring the capabilities and context (capabilities, process, rules, data) are understood and all stakeholders are heard from as a path to solving business needs.
  • When facilitating requirements meetings to elicit requirements as a systems analyst, is the focus on gathering and collecting requirements for an application or system, or understanding the business needs, drivers for change, current pain points, vision, internal and external factors, and impacts of the business change at hand. A business analysis approach focuses on eliciting what is behind and underneath stated requirements rather than collecting and gathering requirements.
  • When modelling the process as a systems analyst, is the process solely focused on what the system is doing? A business analysis approach is focused on the human interaction points, capabilities of what the users and system are doing (inputs, transformation, outputs) and system capabilities.
  • Would someone outside of the organization understand the requirements documentation? A business analysis approach favours understandable documentation to technical and non-technical audiences internal and external to the organization.

The more the approach uses a business analysis approach, the more likely business analysis techniques and discipline are used, and a higher percentage of business analysis is being done.

I believe that most systems analysts are doing business analysis, but the percentage of their work in the discipline varies by organization, team, and skill set.  Given this, there are also many business analysts who fit the above descriptions of a systems Analyst. And this doesn’t even mention the common title of business systems analyst!

My conclusion regarding the question “Are systems analysts actually business analysts?”

Yes, if they are using business analysis tasks and techniques to facilitate business change through their work with systems.

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