Thursday, 29 November 2018 07:01

What’s in a name?

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I just got back from the Building Business Capability conference in San Antonio.

It was the first time I’ve attended that particular conference, my first time presenting to that sort of audience, and my first time visiting the United States.

My head is still spinning.

Lots of great speakers and tutorials, a larger-than-life venue, and an entire community of business analysts - I was lucky enough to meet people from all over the world, many of whom share my particular way of looking at a problem, of trying to make sense of complicated landscape of information. It was a revelation.

There were a couple of themes that just kept popping up - Agile Agile Agile (of course), AI and new tech and what that might mean for BAs, the ever constant struggle to connect strategy with execution, the importance of a customer-centric view, and the need for business analysts to adapt to these, and other tectonic shifts in the marketplace.

All this had me reflecting on what it means to be a BA, and how I got here. I remember being incredibly relieved when I discovered that there was a name for the sort of work I had been doing all these years. Solving business problems, particularly solving them in a way that works for the customer, is something I’ve been doing in one way or another for more than a decade. Whether it was putting together grant applications for a not-for-profit, designing a better back-of-house process for a restaurant (there is no better playground for process improvement than hospitality and commercial kitchens), or refining requirements for large IT infrastructure projects, the common theme was a need to solve a business problem in a constrained environment while maximising outcomes for customers.

Discovering that this had a name, that I had a capital P Profession, was a powerful thing. I joined my local IIBA chapter, and thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to talk with people from diverse backgrounds that had a common way of making sense of the world.

I can’t help but wonder if the challenges we face as a profession mean we need to do things a bit differently to stay relevant. If we take a customer centric view, does the title ‘Business Analyst” still make sense? Does it in fact confuse the issue? Many of my colleagues complained about not getting the sort of access to the C-suite they needed in order to provide real value for the companies they work for. A number of people asked me last week how to become a trusted advisor to the people who ultimately make the big decisions - I’m amazed that they seemed to think that I had some secret formula for this, that I had cracked the Da Vinci code.


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Perhaps the problem (or at least a part of the problem) is the way we describe ourselves. Our customers don’t care about our job titles. I don’t care how Apple is organised internally, I just want my phone to work the way I expect it to - I want a solution to a problem (although many of my Android using friends would claim that Apple is the problem rather than the solution, but that is an argument for another day). If we apply some customer-centric thinking, what does our profession look like? How do we best describe our value proposition? When my mother-in-law asked me what I did for a living, and I told her that I’m a business analyst, her eyes glazed over. I made the mistake of saying that I worked in IT - it’s hard enough to describe this in English, let alone my somewhat limited Swedish - at which point she asked me to fix her laptop.

Like many other industries, we are under pressure. New technologies, increasing customer expectations, shorter deadlines, a general sense of uncertainty et cetera ad nauseam. There is of course an opportunity to be seized here. Who else is better placed to help our customers navigate these challenges than a great BA? But how would they know this?

A friend once told me that I if couldn’t effectively explain the value I could provide a client, no one would bother engaging me. Does ‘Business Analyst” do that? “Strategic Analyst”? “Digital Advisor?” “Technology Expert”? “Business Consultant”? All these and more have been suggested.

To be clear, I don’t know what the answer is. I used say that I worked in Change Management, but this means different things to different people depending on where you are in the world. And my brother claims that change management is the act of emptying the coins out of your pockets at the end of the day.

What I do know is that we need to get better at explaining what Business Analysis is, and how truly valuable it can be, especially to those people that make the big decisions. Otherwise we will be stuck in the loop of delivering projects that just don’t make sense. One comment from the closing remarks of the conference has stayed with me:

“We are all doing business analysis all the time, what people call it is irrelevant.”

What is relevant is that good business analysis is more important, more necessary than ever.

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Julian Coady

Julian Coady first dipped his toe into the world of business analysis 10 years ago, and has since been a zealous practitioner of the art in a broad array of organisations and industries including not-for-profits, government agencies and large corporate institutions. With a passion for business improvement and creative problem solving, he is currently engaged as a Lead BA at Nordea in Copenhagen, where he is a loud and proud promoter of the benefits of good business analysis.

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