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The Future of the Business Analyst

Many of us are in that crucial planning point of the year when we’re looking forward to what our key initiatives will be for 2010, and with this forward-looking mindset, I thought it might be fun to look forward 10 years or so and speculate on the future of the Business Analyst. Violently agree or disagree if you will with my thoughts – I think the important issue is to create a dialogue, and get people talking.

In a prior life, I spent almost 10 years as an executive at a technology trend forecasting firm. A few bits and pieces to share with you from that experience:

  • People tend to overestimate change over the short term, but under-estimate the impact of systematic and continuous change over the long term. In 2000, the Internet flurry created an unsustainable bubble founded on short term profit belief. Now, ten years later, the revenue, profitability and transformative effect of the Internet is generally acknowledged.
  • Every few years, a different wave of focus will come along which re-energizes a concept. Time and motion studies became re-engineering which is kind-of-like SOA and enterprise architecture.
  • Modernization never really happens… or more accurately, as soon as you modernize, you’ll need to do it again. Mainframe, Mini, client-server, SAAS, Cloud.
  • Devices gain way more intelligence.
  • The pace of change accelerates.
  • We figure out how to do more with less.
  • People find more ways to communicate, socialize and build community.

Here are my, out-on-a-limb predictions; and I’d encourage you to put your own out there. Let’s look out over the next 10 years. By 2020:

  1. Requirements practices will mature amongst F1000 companies dramatically. This will further fuel the ‘professionalization’ (if I can make up a word) of the analyst function. We’ll see a dramatic rise in performance expectations of individuals and the analyst function. Over the last three years I’ve seen huge strides forward in this area, but I think it will still take a few more years for us to start hearing CEOs talking about business requirements and business analysts in the same sentence as they use the words strategy and competitive advantage.
  2. I think you will see a sub-group of this F1000 that are differentiated in their ability to get more successful, technology-based products and services into the market, faster. With this group, the requirements function will play a big role. We’ll see far more examples of ultra-high requirements maturity organizations and see public stories that showcase the impact of continuous optimization.
  3. Technology for analysts will become much more holistic and cover the spectrum from scoping and elicitation through to QA. The technology will also be more SDLC method independent, so that analysts can accommodate more domains of analysis. Today’s tools tend to be fairly task-specific and limited to one of process flow, or data flow, or managing structure statements of system capability, or modeling, or stakeholder communication, or system visualization – or – they are locked to a specific layer in the requirements life cycle. Task oriented tools are fine, but I think we’ll see an explosion in new players in the market before a rationalization occurs by the time we get to 2020. The winners in this will provide analysts with a well-rounded capability across all those elements above in a well-rounded tool-kit and tight integration into both other layers of the SDLC and other critical change functions. IAG already tracks over 100 tools principally designed for analysts at IAG – in the near future, we’re going to see many more.
  4. Establishing business requirements will take far less time. Dare I say a fifth of what it is today. What you did with stakeholders over half a year, you’ll be accomplishing in a month on average? Why is this important? I think application complexity will continue to rise, I think organizations will continue to remain flat, and analysts will have to respond with far more efficient mechanisms for engaging essential stakeholders, if they are to achieve their objectives.
  5. I think you’re going to see more expansion in the analyst role definition, greater centralization in the organizational specialists that play these roles, and more fusion between business analyst, project manager, portfolio manager, change management and business architecture roles. Business transformation is a strategic function that companies will continue to optimize. We may see this function within the business used as an incubator for developing senior executives.
  6. We’ll see at least two major shifts in SDLC and another two in IT infrastructure/architecture. In five years, will we be talking about Agile – or will we be talking about something else that looks even more promising and scalable. Ten years from now, pundits may be shouting “Scrum is dead” and “cloud computing is the way of the past”. I think organizations may increasingly decouple requirements practices that set need from these other areas which deliver on the need. All analyst methods, project manager practices, SDLC disciplines have techniques that are solid and can be applied within the analyst function regardless of the SDLC is in place. I think you’ll see fewer ‘purist’ shops, and more ‘practitioner’ shops that have a strong framework in place – and adapt new ideas into it, rather than making wholesale changes to the framework.
  7. If I were a betting man, I’d say we’re going to see a massive upswing in the collaborative nature of the BA role. I think Agile is the first of many ‘team-centric accountability’ models for development. If we go into the future and envision an Agile 2.0 somehow harmonized with Plan Driven 9.1 the key to success in that world would be managing controlled and efficient collaboration of business needs on a more massive and virtual scale. Rather than three people in a Scrum, how about 100 in a Scrum 2.0? This would require tremendous skill, automation and collaboration on a scale we’ve not seen yet.
  8. We’ll see greater virtualization, globalization, and automation in mundane analyst activities. As the importance of the activity rises, so too will pressure mount on the function to scale at a lower cost by off-loading non-strategic activities to other delivery channels.
  9. We’ll see ‘twitter 2.0’ and a future generation social media/information sharing technologies integrate themselves into the analyst function.
  10. We’ll see a reemergence in focus on data and how information moves within organizations. From my perspective, this one is getting a little lost in the shuffle and there is lots, and lots of room for improvement.
  11. You’ll have ten more years to gain wrinkles and grey hair… and, by then, someone may have figured out a pill to deal with that.

The BA role has always struggled; it has responsibility without authority. This will never change. As a result, the optimal model for any particular business will continue to swing between centralization and decentralization as businesses wrestle to establish the business analyst role in the value chain. What I think will eventually break this gyration is the economic concept, ‘specialization of labor’. Specialized work-forces are more efficient. What we may see emerge is a more specialized class of very high value BA which the business recognizes has an integral role in the value chain. What happens to the lower value roles, and less specialized team members? These are likely vulnerable to globalization, automation, cost reduction, and the whims of SDLC focus.

Who knows what the future holds – I certainly can’t predict it. I think that in speculating on what this function looks like 10 years from now, there is an opportunity to think about what is strategically valuable in the function today. I also think, while some organizations may be decades away from being able to achieve this vision, some of you are already well along the path.

The future is closer than you think!

Don’t forget to leave your comments below

Keith Ellis is the Vice President, Marketing at IAG Consulting ( where he leads the marketing and strategic alliances efforts of this global leader in business requirements discovery and management. Keith is a veteran of the technology services business and founder of the business analysis company Digital Mosaic which was sold to IAG in 2007. Keith’s former lives have included leading the consulting and services research efforts of the technology trend watcher International Data Corporation in Canada, and the marketing strategy of the global outsourcer CGI in the financial services sector. Keith is the author of IAG’s Business Analysis Benchmark – the definitive source of data on the impact of business requirements on technology projects.