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The Eight Competencies of Highly Effective IT Business Analysts

According to IIBA’s Business Analysis Body of Knowledge (BABOK), v2.0, “business analysis is the set of tasks and techniques used to work as a liaison among stakeholders ………………. to recommend solutions that enable the organization to achieve its goals”. A Business Analyst (BA) is any person who performs business analysis activities, no matter what their job title or organizational role may be.

When someone refers to a ‘Business Analyst’, he often ‘means’ an SME. However, over the years, the industry realized that simply having subject matter expertise is not enough for effective business analysis. The methods and practices used by the SME are equally important. This fact, along with the release of the BABOK v2.0, made organizations work towards enhancing their business analysis practices beyond simply recruiting subject matter experts.

This article aims at highlighting the important competency areas a BA should possess in order to do justice to his role, primarily on IT projects. The Figure shows the eight major competency areas of an IT BA. The intent of this article is not to present a new competency model but to expand on the existing competency models.

1. Business Analysis Practices

By business analysis practices, I mean primarily the 32 tasks (same as processes) described in IIBA’s BABOK v2.0. The BABOK focuses on the processes to effectively perform business analysis on any project. Hence, as one would expect, the BABOK is not specific to any business domain and can be applied equally well to any business domain.

It is imperative for any BA to internalize the BABOK tasks and techniques in order to produce consistent results on projects, as far as business analysis is concerned. For instance, many projects directly begin with a discussion of ‘requirements’, without first obtaining a consensus on the business problems being encountered by the key stakeholders. The BABOK includes a knowledge area called ‘Enterprise Analysis’ that requires the BA to perform problem analysis (or opportunity analysis) and arrive at a ‘Business Needs Statement’, before the solution requirements can be fleshed out.

This approach remains the same, irrespective of whether it’s the Insurance, Healthcare or any other business domain. That is the value the BABOK provides to an SME – a set of global business analysis best practices.


2. Usability Engineering

Very often, project teams tend to develop solutions or products for the stakeholders who communicate requirements to them, without being cognizant of the fact that no matter who communicates the requirements, if the end-users cannot use the system effectively, the project fails!

The Standish Group, a popular research organization that publishes ‘the top 10 success factors’ on projects, every year, based on its analysis of a large number of projects in North America, has been including the success factor ‘user involvement’ in the top 5 factors every year. It’s strange to see that, in spite of the recommendation for involvement, that a large number of systems continue to be rejected by end-users, either partly or wholly, once made available to them. This typically occurs during UAT or post-deployment. Usability engineering is the answer to this issue.

Most people who don’t understand ‘usability engineering’ invariably think that it is nothing more than designing UI screens and their look-and-feel. However, to be precise, that is part of user-centered ‘design’, which is just one subset of usability engineering. Usability engineering includes the entire lifecycle, right from UCA (User-Centered Analysis), through UCD (User-Centered Design) and Usability Testing that ensures that the solution is developed in close collaboration with the appropriate end-user representatives. In fact, user-centered analysis is an integral part of business analysis that keeps the end-user at the center of all business analysis activities. It focuses on the end-user’s ‘mental model’, which is their sub-conscious way of doing things.

It is absolutely essential for all BAs to have a strong understanding of the usability engineering lifecycle, particularly, user-centered analysis and usability testing. User-centered design does not fall within the scope of work of a BA, but is based on the previous analysis and testing results.

3. Object-Oriented Analysis

The BABOK v2.0 includes a set of 34 generic techniques that can be applied to multiple business analysis tasks. Many of these techniques are relevant to object-oriented analysis. Since most software systems today are based on object-oriented technologies, it is important for BAs to be well-versed with object-oriented techniques relevant to their scope of work.

UML (Unified Modeling Language) enables BAs to convert requirements into different types of ‘models’ or ‘diagrams’, each of which describes a particular aspect of the requirements. Additionally, ‘use cases’ are a very simple, easy-to-understand technique to document requirements, primarily, ‘functional specifications’ (though they can be used with other non-UML-techniques to document business requirements as well), such that it becomes easy and much less error-prone to convert it to technical design and subsequently, to code.

It is important to acknowledge that one of the biggest communication gaps on projects is between the BA and the project team that converts the requirements specified by the BA to working software. UML makes it easy to communicate requirements specifications in a form that is easy for the project team, especially System Developers, to interpret and convert to low-level design, using simple UML tools.

Most BAs I have seen stay a mile away from UML, thinking that it is ‘technical’ and hence meant for the System or Technical Analyst. UML includes a set of over 10 types of models or diagrams that are developed at various stages of the SDLC. What many BAs probably don’t know, but need to understand is that the initial set of diagrams is the responsibility of the BA (though this sometimes overlaps with the responsibility of the System Architect). These diagrams developed by the BA get further converted by Technical Designers to lower-level diagrams that form part of the low-level technical design, during the Low-Level Design activity.

The BABOK includes ‘Scenarios and Use Cases’ as well as 5 other UML diagrams in its Business Analysis Techniques section. If the techniques are described in the BABOK, they come within the scope of the BA’s work and hence the BA must certainly know them. Again, as I have proved to BAs in every Business Analysis class of mine, UML is not “rocket science” and there is nothing ‘technical’ about it. It can be easily mastered by the so-called “non-technical” BAs, if they do away with their mental block towards UML. The industry certainly prefers BAs with an understanding of UML.

4. Quality Control

Since it’s a BA’s responsibility to ensure that the solution delivered to stakeholders meets the business need(s) for which the project was undertaken, it’s important for the BA to ‘verify’ and ‘validate’ the requirements (part of the requirements review activity) as well as ‘validate’ the solution (typically part of UAT) to confirm that it actually does meet the business need(s). These activities are a subset of Quality Control activities.

A BA must be skilled at planning and facilitating user acceptance testing. This includes ensuring that ‘all’ the right stakeholders are included in the test and the right aspects of the solution are validated as part of the test. I have seen many UATs that are no different than System Testing, except that they are performed by end-users, who unfortunately may not be the right participants It’s not very surprising then that in spite of an apparently ‘thorough’ UAT, the solution exposes many problems in the production environment.

System Testing does not fall within the scope of a BA’s work, as there is no corresponding task or process in the BABOK. However, a BA might often be required to support the System Testing activity, especially if they have been involved in specifying non-functional requirements. Whether a BA is involved in System Testing or not, it is certainly important for the BA to understand how functional and more importantly, non-functional testing (such as performance testing, security testing, usability testing etc) are performed. This is because it is the BA’s primary responsibility to elicit and document ‘testable’ non-functional specifications, a requirements-related activity that I have seen many BAs with little if any familiarity. It would be difficult for a BA to write ‘testable’ non-functional specifications, if he does not understand what they are or how they will be tested.

5. Documentation

This is one competency area that I would say, is the single biggest contributor to effective and successful business analysis, though the others are certainly very important. It is a known fact that a large percentage of the defects discovered during the System Testing and UAT activities are associated with poor quality requirements documentation. One of the major reasons for this is that the BA invariably assumes that the consumer of the documentation, primarily, the System Development team that actually builds the solution, possesses the same level of understanding of the business domain, as him or her. This makes him subconsciously exclude a lot of important details that deserve to be specified.

This problem gets compounded by the fact that most project team members, including BAs, ‘detest’ documentation, if I may use that word. The interesting aspect of an ambiguously written requirement is that the individual reading and interpreting the requirement might believe that he has perfectly understood the requirement, when his interpretation might actually be quite different from what was meant by the BA who documented the requirement. Unfortunately, the only time both might get to realize the discrepancies is during the UAT, or worse, during the production run, that leads to an unacceptable amount of rework. That explains the need for ‘unambiguous’ documentation.

6. Business Domain

By business domain, I mean industry verticals like finance, insurance, banking etc. Though the BABOK explicitly mentions that the role of an SME is distinctly different from that of a BA, it also mentions that often both might be performed by the same person. That is very true, especially on many IT projects with limited resources. The BA would probably not be called a BA if he is not an SME in the relevant business domain. And to a great extent, a BA is likely to be more effective in his role if he possesses a fair amount of breadth and depth of knowledge and experience in the business domain relevant to the project.

7. Business Process Management (BPM)

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, a BA is primarily a problem-solver. One of the things that enable him to identify and analyze problems (or opportunities) and to recommend the best solution is his ability to understand and analyze business processes. Modeling and analyzing the ‘as-is’ business processes and business rules in scope and then the ‘to-be’ processes is one of the key business analysis activities. Hence, it is essential for a BA to have a good understanding of BPM concepts and techniques.

The ABPMP’s (Association of BPM Professionals) BPM CBOK (Common Body of Knowledge) describes nine different knowledge areas of BPM that a BA must understand well. Though some aspects of BPM, like business process modeling and process analysis (to a smaller degree) have been addressed in the BABOK, there are other aspects of BPM like process design, transformation and performance management that are equally important and central to the role of a BA. They are essential in order to solve a business problem.

8. Technology Awareness

Though a solution need not necessarily have an IT component, in all probability, most of them will, because most businesses today are IT-enabled. Hence it is imperative for every BA to possess the ability to understand how IT systems and technology can help solve business problems. In addition, since an IT BA works within the context of a software or IT-enabled project, a good understanding of the SDLC is essential to perform business analysis activities effectively. In fact, the organization’s approved SDLC methodology (waterfall, iterative, agile etc) that is applied to the project directly influences what business analysis activities will be performed by the BAs and what activities are the responsibility of other team members.

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 By Prasad Kamath   Email: [email protected]


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