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Learning about Business Analysis through the Ages

Business Analysis is often seen as a young domain of expertise trying to establish itself in the workplace.

Ask two BAs coming from different organizations what their job is about, and you’ll probably get two very different answers.

However, they will probably have one point in common: they will be in the IT department of their organizations. The fact is that Business Analysis is strongly associated with technology these days, although the IIBA definition of it doesn’t talk about technology at all (ie Business Analysis is “the practice of enabling change in an organizational context, by defining needs and recommending solutions that deliver value to stakeholders”).

When you think about this definition, Business Analysis is probably around since humans started to work together toward a common goal. While I was binge-watching the latest season of Game of Thrones, I tried to imagine what Business Analysis might look like in the past, and what we could learn from that.

Business Processes were supporting organizations

Back 500 years ago, running a mill wasn’t an easy job. The miller’s family has to handle many physical tasks, like handling freshly harvested wheat bought from nearby farmers; filling the mill with cereals to make flour; extracting flour from the mill; storing the flour; shipping the flour to the town’s market. Like if it wasn’t enough, they also had to take care of the raw material buying activities, the cash flow management, the selling activities and the after-sales service. Luckily, families were quite large back in the days.

All activities had to be perfectly orchestrated in order for the mill to generate enough revenue for the family. When a problem arose in any of these activities, the family would gather in order to find a solution and bring the processes back on track.

Without such a structure, the mill wouldn’t work as well, producing less flour, and would be able to support the miller’s family.

Information Systems existed… without shiny technology

How does the miller know he has to make more flour? Orders were probably made by his customers that day at the market (the baker from Main St. is a very good client). This information can be used to orchestrate all the production activities at the mill, in order to fulfill these orders. The miller’s wife holds a detailed log in order to keep track of what needs to be delivered to who, and who paid (or not) their flour orders.

Their processes are relying on this information in order to stay efficient. This isn’t surprising, as business processes need information to be executed. This information can be the required input of some activities or can be used as a way to coordinate signals between activities (ex: you need an order to be able to fulfill it).

Without such information, the miller could either make too much flour and ruin the wheat harvest, or don’t produce enough and miss the opportunity to accumulate more money for the bad days. Their low-tech order log was critical for their survival.


Making Business Analysis better by learning from the past

As you might have figured, Business Analysis was relevant to the miller’s organization and raised similar considerations as one would encounter today. Performing the same exercise with other organizations through the ages would probably lead you to acknowledge the same facts.

The amazing thing is that none of these organizations had access to modern technology such as the Internet, electronic devices nor the cloud to support them. Yet, a Business Analyst could have been useful for all of these organizations.

How can we learn from that now that we’re in the 21st century?

  1. There are solutions based only on processes and people improvements. Answers to business problems & opportunities can often be found without using technology. Moreover, these solutions can often be implemented faster than by relying on technology, making them interesting for proofs of concept, or in situations when a business case might not justify a technology-heavy solution.
  2. Information management doesn’t always require technology. Business processes need information to work properly, but this information doesn’t have to be stored in a centralized database or available through a self-service platform. Even if the cost of data storage is lower than ever, in many cases, a simple Excel file, a Sharepoint list or even a paper-based register in a physical binder might be enough to meet the needs of your stakeholders in smaller organizations, or to support a proof of concept before scaling it up in a larger organization.

While these solutions are not always easily scalable (which might be a requirement by itself), not focusing at first on technology could help the business be more agile at a lower cost. Moreover, they will emphasize the importance softer Business Analysis skills to better deal with the impacts on people involved in these solutions.

In the end, it all comes down to finding the best solution to answer all your stakeholder’s requirements, with or without technology.