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The B in BA

We began our tour of ‘Business Analysis’ in my last article with a focus on Analysis (the A) since the Business (the B) part still comes secondary in its role as an adjective.

The simple reason for this is that we need to know how to analyze before getting to what to analyze. In “The A in BA” I wrote about the importance of visualization and how it plays a big role in analysis. There is one more method that I normally use to analyze – the building blocks. Let me discuss this before I move into the B in BA.

In contrast to how kids build with blocks (bottoms up!), for this exercise, take heed of this mantra – Always start at the top. In one of my blogs here, I mentioned understanding the forest AND the trees. The building block method starts as a forest and gets to the trees, its branches and ultimately the leaves. Let’s say, for example, we are building the software for an ATM (Automated Teller Machine). This is something most of us are familiar with. Here is the sample ‘forest’ block.

  1. Login
  2. Withdraw cash
  3. Deposit cash
  4. Deposit check or cheque (for the followers of Queen’s English)
  5. Check balances

If you recollect the last time you used an ATM the above, from 2 to 5 is what you may have seen on the screen after you successfully login. But the Login process itself has many ‘trees’, ‘branches’ and ‘leaves’ to contend with. For example, the set of building blocks for Login could be

  1. Login (‘Forest’)
    1. Insert ATM Card (‘Tree’)
    2. Validate PIN

Within the ‘Tree’ you can list the branches, for example

  1. Login (‘Forest’)
    1. Insert ATM Card (‘Tree’)
      1. Customer inserts ATM card the right way (‘Branches’)
        1. If Customer inserts the ATM card in an incorrect way the ATM machine will swallow the card, digest and let out a burp. (‘Leaves’)
      2. ATM prompts the customer to enter the n-digit PIN.

You might notice I followed the forest-tree-branch-leaves path. It is not always necessary to follow this path. Also, a tree can lead to a branch which could then lead into another branch and so on. Depending on the functionality of the process being analyzed, the building blocks can, and most likely will, vary.

Additionally, the required level of granularity in decomposing the process also dictates the path from forest to leaves.

If you notice in the ATM example above, I am discussing B – Business. I am not discussing the technical aspects of the ATM or the usability factors like touch-screen, voice activated etc. The entire focus is on the business needs. For a BA to analyze the business needs he/she must have two things:

  1. Very good understanding of the business and
  2. Creativity

Good understanding of the business

The ATM example is simple, and most of us can relate to as it is something that we use often. How does one gain a good understanding of a business that we are not familiar with, say, for example, structured derivatives? There are BAs who have prior experience versus those that do not. It is easy for the experienced BA to fit in quickly and be productive from the first day. All organizations like business analysts to be productive from day one without spending too much time having to learn the business. (Of course, each day is a learning experience!) It is the inexperienced BAs who have the arduous task of learning the business.

For most the learning curve is long and steep. Now that I have thoroughly scared you off, I am going to answer the question likely in your head right now – how does a BA learn the business?

The process begins even before applying for the job. Before you apply, understand the job requirements. See if knowledge of any business area is essential. If so, research that and try to gain as much knowledge as possible. Some ‘knowledge’ you find in your research might read like rocket science and be impossible to understand in the limited time available – but do not let that be a deterrent to your efforts. You can surprise the interviewer with your freshly acquired knowledge. There may be a few questions in the interview that could be pointers to the areas that you may need to focus on.

Once on the job, get access to any documentation you can lay your hands on. I found the documentation hard to find in some cases. What do you do in such cases? Shadow business users. Talk to them. Ask them to explain things, even those you know well, as they may be used, interpreted or implemented differently. Never assume it is used the way you understand it. A technique I normally adopt is to let the business user assume that I know nothing about what they are about to say, i.e., I am a complete dud. (I had the misfortune of a business user mistaking me to be a real dud until revealed by educational qualifications and experience!!!). This makes the business user generally comfortable, information flows smoothly, and they share a lot more. If you can get access to a test system, do it so that you can play around with it. Document the details in a way you can remember it.

A BA is more employable if he/she is adaptable and can learn the business in the shortest possible time. Never back-off from a business you are not familiar with. Accept the challenge, put in the effort and you shall succeed. In my next blog I will discuss the C in BA. Oh, is that a misrepresentation? Probably not.