Wednesday, 02 August 2017 07:01

Succeeding as a Virtual Business Analyst

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The past decade has seen virtual teams become a more accepted mode of working together, yet for years I thought that, as a business analyst, contributing as a virtual team member was out of the question.

However, for the past year I have been a virtual business analyst on a software implementation project, where I am in New Zealand and the rest of the project team is in Australia. My experience has taught me that there are a few unique challenges associated with such a role, but that success is achievable.

Here are some of my key learnings:

Building Credibility and Trust

Despite all the great technology and tools that empower us to work as virtual business analysts, there is no substitute for face-to-face contact with stakeholders to establish credibility and trust with them.

On my most recent project I spent two weeks at the company’s head office in a project kick-off phase. As well as using the BABOK® Guide knowledge areas to direct my activities during that time, I put considerable effort into building relationships with the stakeholders. If I was to complete the bulk of my work from a remote location, I would need a clear understanding of who fitted where in the stakeholder matrix – how important or influential each was to my success. I was looking for people who were:

  • Business domain experts
  • Existing system experts
  • Decision makers
  • Able to resolve bottlenecks and bring pressure to bear

Yes, this is the same approach any business analyst would take on a project, but I put extra effort into getting to know them professionally and personally. By meeting for coffee or lunch I was able to get to know them and to win their trust, and I could only do that when we shared the same location. This was foundational to the following months working from a different country.

Early Understanding of Strategy

On the project in question, I learned in the first few days that one of the top strategic needs was to drive change in sales behaviour, from number of deals signed (regardless whether they made money or not) to profitability of deals signed. From a requirements analysis and design perspective, this was relatively straightforward.

However, the impact of this change on sales team motivation and remuneration could easily have jeopardized the success of the project. Since I had done the strategic analysis early in the kick-off period, I was able to engage the sales managers to establish a change management plan for the sales team. As a result we ran a whiteboard session with the sales team to introduce that change and address their concerns.

Time Zone Challenges

Over the years I have worked on teams with members located in very different time zones, such as Australia and India (4 hours) or Australia and Germany (10 hours). The result is that there are a number of hours where I am working and part of my team is not. I cannot pick up the phone and call them, which necessitates adjusting my work habits:

  • If my workday finishes before theirs, ensure they are clear on what I’d like them to have completed by the beginning of my next workday (no leaving that email until tomorrow morning)
  • Be willing to stay late to ensure I can talk directly to someone on an urgent matter
  • Agree to set times for regular videoconference calls in lieu of dropping by their desk

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Competing with Organizational Priorities

This is a challenge common to all projects, but when working as a virtual business analyst and a consultant as well, as was the case in my recent project, it is compounded. Since I was not on the corporate email distribution list, I typically discovered that a higher priority task had taken resources only when stakeholders failed to deliver as expected. When asked about the delay, I would be told something like, “My manager told me ‘X’ is my top priority this week.”

To succeed, it is important for the business analyst to request that stakeholders advise priority changes that impact their project work. However, requesting does not guarantee instant success. In situations like this the virtual BA must have the good grace to roll with the punches, give a gentle reminder and be ready to re-plan at a moment’s notice.

Lack of Physical Presence

This is a challenge for all virtual team members, as it can be a case of “out of sight out of mind.” Walking past someone’s desk can remind him or her they have a project task to complete. As a business analyst, I place high value on less formal, “water cooler” conversations, which are hard to replace.

How can the virtual business analyst make up for a lack of physical presence?

  • Don’t assume people will remember to complete their project tasks so ensure you follow up regularly
  • Use your knowledge of the person to add a personal enquiry to the conversation (this is where the time spent face-to-face at the start of the project really pays dividends)
  • Use videoconferencing where possible as this adds some non-verbal communication elements to your interactions

“Sudden” Stakeholder Changes

Similar to the problem of competing with organizational priorities, there can be times when a key stakeholder leaves the organization. On my project I discovered this to be the case the day before one person left. No one had thought to tell me! There was no time to get those uncompleted deliverables finished.

Fortunately, another staff member stepped in quickly and I was able to leverage their enthusiasm at being allowed to determine the final outcome of the project, as it impacted their area.

Working as a virtual business analyst is definitely more challenging, but at the same time I found that success is possible and in some ways more rewarding than in a traditional team environment.

Do other business analysts have insights from their experiences? Please share in the comments section.

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Derek Graham

During his career Derek has worked in many roles – developer, systems analyst, DBA, pre-sales consultant, business analyst and manager. His true passion, however, is business analysis, where he has honed his skills for a number of years. As a Certified Business Analysis Professional (CBAP®), Derek has a track record of supporting stakeholders to clarify business needs and opportunities and then define innovative solutions.

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