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The Business Analyst as Strategist

A recent survey conducted by Evans Data Corporation, The New Business Analyst: A Strategic Role in the Enterprise, found that business analysts are key players in making strategic decisions. “A clear line in the corporate sand has been drawn as to the importance of the business analyst. The BA plays an increasingly integral and strategic role in organizational success,” said Evans Data Corporation President John Andrews. Business analysts are emerging as the central business competency of the future. Different from systems analysts or project managers, business analysts (BAs) not only manage project requirements, they also contribute vital information to strategic planning, goal setting and strategy execution. It is in this capacity that BAs can have the greatest impact on the long-term success of the enterprise.

Business Analyst as Master Strategist

In their Body of Knowledge, the International Association of Business Analysts (IIBA) defines a BA as someone who “works as a liaison among stakeholders in order to elicit, analyze, communicate and validate requirements for changes to business processes, policies and information systems. The business analyst understands business problems and opportunities in the context of the requirements and recommends solutions that enable the organization to achieve its goals.”

To help distinguish the roles played by the BA and the project manager, consider an analogy from the world of sports. On a football team, the coach (the project manager) is given a game (the project) with requirements (to win), as well as team members and resources (players and equipment). But what happens when the requirements change? The team owner feels it’s not enough just to win games, and the goal is now to win the Super Bowl. Enter the general manager (the BA). Responsible for the team’s overall strategy for success, the general manager continually validates that the project team is focused on the strategic imperatives. Similarly, the BA keeps her eye on strategic-level decisions that impact the project, leaving the project manager free to focus solely on optimizing project team performance.

No analogy is perfect, of course. In football, the coach reports to the general manager, but in business, the BA and the project manager share leadership of the project team. Much like a general manager, however, the BA keeps track of the overall direction of the team’s season, freeing the project manager to “get in the huddle” with the team and direct it on a play-by-play basis.

Specific Strategic Planning Tasks

Of course, the BA is not the only one on the project team familiar with the strategic goals of the organization. Employees perform best when they understand their organization’s plans and their role in them. One vital role for BAs is to translate strategies into new proposals for the company, as well as to ensure existing operations mesh with the strategy. In fact, all proposals for organizational change should be aligned with corporate strategies, and the BA is best suited to handle the enterprise analysis needed to ensure alignment.

The BA must have a thorough understanding of the organization’s strategic goals to facilitate the process of matching project objectives to business needs.The BA assures the project deliverables meet the business needs and helps to realign the project when requirements change. BAs makes certain that throughout their life cycle, projects continue to meet business needs and deliver benefits that outweigh their costs. Because of their familiarity with the organization’s strategic goals, the BA is often adept at securing additional support from the business sponsor, if needed. At the end of the project, the BA examines the ROI to determine if the project met its goals.

The BA can also be a valuable provider of information to the strategic planning team or top-level management. BAs may perform analyses of the competition, gather customer feedback and complete benchmark studies to support a business case or project investment decision package. In addition to providing data for decision-makers, senior BAs may also conduct goal setting meetings and even help conduct strategic planning sessions.

A Vital Role

Just how important is the strategic planning role that is filled by the BA? Judging from the poor success record of projects in the business world, very important. Consider these statistics:

  • $80 -145 billion per year is spent on failed and cancelled projects (The Standish Group International, Inc.)
  • 25 percent – 40 percent of all spending on projects is wasted as a result of re-work (Carnegie Mellon)
  • 50 percent of projects are rolled back out of production (Gartner)
  • 40 percent of problems are found by end users (Gartner)
  • Poorly defined applications have led to a persistent miscommunication between business and IT. This contributes to a 66 percent project failure rate for these applications, costing U.S. businesses at least $30 billion every year (Forrester Research)
  • 60-80 percent of project failures can be attributed directly to poor requirements gathering, analysis, and management (Meta Group)
  • Nearly two thirds of all IT projects fail or run into trouble. (See Figure 1 for the results of the 2006 CHAOS Survey.)

Figure 1: Project Performance Track Record – The Standish Group 2006 Chaos Report

Until the creation of the professional BA, there was no one person responsible for ensuring that business requirements were accurately determined and managed throughout the lifespan of the project. Business sponsors often do not have the time or the technical expertise to provide oversight to projects on a day-to-day basis, and their role is best left to securing funding and resources and using their authority to help effect institutional changes in support of the project. Project managers are focused on delivering what was asked of them within time, cost and quality constraints, not constantly reevaluating and validating the business need.

The Future

The high-velocity change occurring in the business world today requires more than employees capable of completing assigned tasks. It calls for multi-skilled practitioners who are systems thinkers, comfortable in both the boardroom and the server room. As they seek to increase project success rates, more companies will include business analysts in their project teams, recognizing the added strategic value they bring to the table.