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Would You Hire a Project Manager or a Business Analyst?

PaneldiscussionThis was one of several questions posed to a cross-functional panel of industry experts encompassing the product management, project management, and business analysis professions at Project Summit and Business Analyst World Chicago. The resulting dialog shed light on several topics that underlie current practices.

The panelists were George Bridges (GB), Director of Business Analysis at the International Institute of Learning, Greg Geracie (GG), President of Actuation Consulting, Frank Kowalkowski (FK), President of Knowledge Consultants, and Neal McWhorter (NM), President of Strategic Value Partners. The panel discussion was moderated by noted project management author Steven Starke.

Moderator (Steven Starke): Greg, let’s begin with you. If you had to choose between adding a project manager or a business analyst, which would you choose and why?

GG – As a product management professional and a frequent project sponsor, I tend to take a broader view of this decision. A good analogy might be an orchestra. Within the orchestra the business analyst would be a violinist creating wonderful music. However, the project manager would be the conductor. The business analyst is an important individual contributor while the project manager is in a leadership role within the context of the project team.

So, I’d lean toward selecting a project manager because project managers can ensure that whatever value is created by the team gets to market. The business analyst role can create a lot of value, but if the value never gets to market it’s like the proverbial tree falling in the woods – no one is around to hear it.

Moderator: George, which would you choose?

GB – I‘d choose the business analyst. This is a shift in the way I’ve traditionally thought about this issue. I’ve always believed that the project manager could manage the project and make sure they have subject matter experts and all the resources they need to complete the project. However, after listening to Dr. W. Edwards Deming’s presentation “Management’s Five Deadly Diseases,” my concept of the business analyst has changed.

I now believe that business analysis skills and assets reside in the analyst’s knowledge of the business. They need to be conversant about the business at every level of the organization, and this includes formal and informal communication with the executive management team. This is not to say that the project manager is not conversant; but the business analyst should know the strategic business objectives of the company. Business analysts with this knowledge create value for the organization and can justify those decisions to senior management. These are the main reasons I’d choose a business analyst.

– Steve, I’d like to add to George’s comments. I’d start with a business analyst because the first issue the team would face is problem solving. Once you get to a solution or a set of solutions, the project manager role comes into full play for effective planning and a cost/benefit analysis of alternatives. If the limit is one full-time person, I might consider having a contract business analyst followed by a contract project manager. Alternatively, one could hire the business analyst full time and add a contract project manager because they’re more readily available than a contract business analyst.

NM – As someone who has spent years helping organization build up their business analysis capabilities, I’m sorry to say that I’d have to choose a project manager. The rationale is pretty simple. With a project manager I have a pretty clear value proposition. I’m looking for an individual who knows how to identify and track issues and risks, can track resources and work dependencies to schedule effectively, and who can monitor time, cost, and quality to quickly identify when a project isn’t where it’s expected to be.

With a business analyst, I really don’t know what I’m getting. I might end up with someone who is little more than a scribe or someone who takes charge of delivering a holistic business solution. The skills and techniques could range from an expert facilitator to a subject matter expert to a process analyst to someone who is little more than a technical writer. While any particular individual could bring a valuable skill-set, the current grab-bag-like assortment of business analysts really makes it difficult to believe that the role means much as it stands right now.

Business analysts have the potential to deliver great value but right now they’re a pig in a poke.

Moderator: So it seems our panel is evenly split between adding a business analyst or a project manager. Since that’s the case, let’s find out what each of you perceive as the value of a business analyst.

NM – This question gets right to the root of the problem with the business analyst’s role. In many organizations, this role is considered that of a “translator,” “facilitator,” or “requirements document creator.” None of these terms has a direct link to business value. So the business analyst’s role is a hard sell. In some organizations Agile is a direct attack on the business analyst role because this kind of intermediary role is seen as overhead or – even worse –as a drag.

If I were a business analysis practice lead, I would be really working hard to define the specific business value that my group delivered and align my people to that. I think the best place to start is to focus on three roles for the business analyst: designing the technology-focused aspect of a product, creating technology-based capabilities that enable new products or significant changes to operational processes, and optimizing operational processes.

Unfortunately I don’t see a lot of organizations aligning their business analysis practices to this kind of value proposition.

GB –The business analyst should understand the business need, business capabilities, and range of available options and provide a robust justification for the proposed solutions. For me, there are several elements that define the business analyst’s value. First, they help define, manage, and control the scope of the product or solution. Second, as a dedicated resource, they communicate the urgency, value, benefit, and risk of the proposed solution. Third, they clearly elicit, analyze, document, and manage the project’s requirements. They also define the problem, get buy-in from stakeholders and the project team, and define and communicate the business solution.

GG – Like George, I believe the true value of a business analyst is their ability to correctly research business problems and develop solutions that address needs. When appropriately aligned with organizational goals, business analysts can create a tremendous amount of value. However, I think their full value gets diluted when they’re solely focused on internal initiatives. I believe business analysts could be aligned with product managers very effectively. This would further expand the scope of a business analyst’s responsibility outside of the organization and further increase the value of the role.

Moderator: Let’s move on to the project management role. I’m interested in hearing your thoughts about the value of a project manager. Who would like to go first?  

FK – I’ll go first. This one is pretty clear cut from my perspective. Project managers play the governance role of an asset steward. They’re responsible for keeping resource usage on track for a given initiative of the enterprise. As such, they take a proposed solution, develop the cost/benefit (or other type of value analysis), prepare a plan, monitor adherence to plan, take care of deviations, and minimize the impact of problems during implementation.

NM – I’d agree with the others and just add that the project manager can have a relatively wide range of value. There’s the traditional time, cost, and delivery tracking that is part of any project. But there’s a lot more to this role than simply tracking progress. A project manager adds real value when they can fully embrace their initiative’s goals. When this happens the project manager can help direct issue resolution towards outcomes that make well thought out trade-offs and prevent a project from being delayed and from straying from its objectives.

Moderator: George, what’s your take?

GB – The value of the project manager to the organization is their ability to effectively manage the competing demands of time, cost, scope, resources, risk, and quality. These six competing demands — along with customer satisfaction — are the basis for managing the success of any project. The project manager has to manage the inevitable tradeoffs associated with these competing demands throughout the project. Project managers coordinate all of the contributors to the project to deliver value to internal and external stakeholders.

PART 2 –

Moderator:  Now that we’ve framed how each of you perceives the value of project management, what is the biggest issue with the project management role today? Greg, how about going first?

GG – Sure, Steve. I think the greatest issue project managers face today is the possibility of being viewed as overhead. I’ve never felt this way, but I know that this is a risk in some organizations. This is particularly true of project managers that don’t effectively link the goals of the project to the company’s business objectives. Project managers really need to focus on correctly defining this linkage and ensuring that their projects demonstrate value to the organization.

Tied to this issue is the fact that too many projects don’t actually add value, are never cancelled, and sputter on consuming valuable resources when everyone involved in the project knows it’s a wild goose chase. It’s one of the most difficult aspects of a project manager’s job in my opinion – akin to telling the emperor that he has no clothes as the saying goes. But frankly, project managers must find creative ways to tackle these types of challenges.

Moderator: Frank, I take it you want to go next?

FK – Absolutely. I think the biggest issue relates to the type of problems project managers deal with. They’re more skilled at implementing a solution than solving business problems. This often depends on the industry. I’m actively involved with a lot of construction projects, and the project management role in these efforts is critical; construction projects require program offices with many project managers. In this setting, the central issues are consistency of project manager performance, skill level, and experience level. Many of the project managers that I see in that industry are Project Management Institute (PMI) certified.

In the computer applications systems space, I think project managers lack a good feel for the reality of gathering requirements and what’s needed to successfully manage product development projects. The technology field is less mature than the construction industry, and the skill level you’re managing is much higher than you typically find on a large construction project. So the issue is one of dealing with educated professionals.

NM – I’d add to Frank’s comments and say that the biggest issue for project managers today is that they are often little more than a project’s bookkeeper. For a project manager to create some larger value to organizations, they have to play a larger role in evaluating issues and risks. The project manager must evaluate issues for impact and resolve them, if possible. If this isn’t possible, the project manager must create a decision framework for quick resolution. If the issue is outside of the control of the project, then it’s a risk and the project manager needs to quickly identify and escalate this while they begin to develop risk mitigation plans. This is much more proactive role than most project managers are taking today.

Moderator: Let’s circle back to the business analyst. What’s the biggest issue with the role of the business analyst today?

GB – The biggest issue with this role is that it’s perceived as a new profession and isn’t as understood as it should be. The generally accepted practices are new to everyone and most of the enterprises see this role overlapping with the project manager and the system analyst. Business analysts are often not given enough time and resources to effectively do their job. The biggest challenge is simply gaining acceptance and anchoring the role effectively in the organization. Business analysts need the space to do their jobs effectively so they can contribute solutions that will meet company objectives and strategies.

GG – Although the International Institute of Business Analysis (IIBA) has done a good job of defining the skill set a business analyst needs, I think the biggest problem is that the role and responsibilities vary so widely among organizations. The act of business analysis is a component of almost any job inside an organization and I believe the roles of a business analyst should be more segmented. Thoughtful segmentation would give more clarity to all involved — from practitioners to hiring managers.

FK – Greg and I view this question similarly. I see the biggest issue as the definition of the role. The term business analyst is very general. There are many types of analysis, analysts, and analytics. The word analysis defines the domain or subject area that is of interest — like process analysis or financial ratio analysis. An analyst is the person who does the analysis — like the process analyst. And analytics are the algorithms you need to draw a conclusion from the analysis — like calculations. Our organization has listed more than 50 types of analysis that a business analyst might do and maybe 75 or 100 types of analysis. You can put the words analysis, analyst, or analytics after any one of the possible subject areas.

I also see another issue related to modeling. Many of today’s problems require different types of modeling such as decision structures, feedback models, dynamic models, management, and discipline models. I find that business analysts are good at interviewing and drawing diagrams, but not as effective at analyzing the problem. I think this reflects the current emphasis on business analysts doing application systems requirements and not really focusing on solving business problems.

Moderator: I’d like to conclude by asking each of you to look into the future. What does your crystal ball tell you about the business analysis or project management professions?

GG – I’m seeing greater emphasis on clarifying the role of business analysts. From the product management perspective, I can envision more emphasis on the product manager and business analyst relationship. I’ve always been a bit puzzled by the business analyst and project manager relationship, although I understand how it evolved. I think the common thread of creating value is a more natural linkage between the business analyst and the product manager, and I can envision a future where this becomes a preferred career path for a subset of the business analyst community.

GB – I see more project managers adding the business analyst skill set to their professional development by taking certification courses and training in business analysis. Some project managers may take on business analysis as a full-time profession. The same is true for senior business analysts. They may seek project management certification and take on project management full time. The roles will become more clearly defined and professionals will flock to the role that best meets their personal, professional, and organizational needs.

Some project managers will set aside their project management skills to learn the business and begin working in executive positions and provide business analysis to the organization. I see business analysis establishing their own department, where they’re not tied to IT or a particular business function. They will establish a business analyst Center of Excellence and offer independent objective solutions to the organization.

FK – The future business analyst must be much more versatile in applying problem-solving skills and techniques to the business. If they don’t, another discipline – like auditing – will take over the task. Auditing is already doing operational analysis because automation has decreased their role. And auditing can justify taking over the role because they have risk analysis experience related to process execution. So I see risk ahead for business analysts.

The future of project management may be a little brighter as the skills and methods seem to be better defined and I don’t see any other discipline interested in taking over.

NM – For the business analysis profession, I think the key will be whether it creates a single definition of business analysis. Business analysts must show a more direct relationship to value, or they face increasing marginalization.

Instead of the big tent approach to business analysis, I think it makes a lot more sense to break the role into different designer functions: process, product, business rule, content, etc. Successful organizations will find that moving the business analyst toward design roles that are aligned with concrete business value will yield real benefits. Organizations that don’t follow this path will likely view the business analyst role as overhead.

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