Is the business analyst the Rodney Dangerfield* of the business and IT worlds? When you listen to business analysts talk about their jobs and careers you would think so. A common complaint among business analysts is “we don’t get any respect”. No one seems to know what business analysts do, not even most business analysts. Are we requirements writers? Are we members of the project team? Are we an important cog in the organization that identifies business process problems and recommends solutions to those problems? Are we disguised Six Sigma practitioners? Maybe we are business architects (solution architects, enterprise architects) in training?
Suppose we step back away from the fray and consider business analysis as a profession like the medical profession or legal profession? Perhaps our perceived lack of respect comes from a feeling of professional inferiority. If we belong to a ‘profession’ like doctors and lawyers, perhaps we would garner the respect that we feel we deserve.
Are we professional business analysts? According to one definition, a “professional” is someone following an occupation as a means of livelihood or for gain”, in other words, he gets paid. Thus we have professional ball players as opposed to amateur ball players. Among the road travelers and frequent business flyers, those who commute by plane to their jobs, the term ‘amateur’ is assigned to the vacation flyers and those visiting relatives once a year. The term “amateur” can be somewhat derisive in nature, referring with scorn to the type of flyer who asks the flight attendant to open the window on the plane to let some air in (true story).
From the perspective that those with the title ‘business analyst’ get paid for what they are doing, whatever it is, a business analyst is a ‘professional’.
However, there are other meanings for ‘professional’ than just one who earns money doing something (are kids who run lemonade stands “professional retailers”?). ‘Professional” also means “of, pertaining to, or connected with a profession”. For example, we don’t consider Football a profession; we consider it a sport, even though the people who play it for money (lots of money) are considered professionals.
When someone mentions the term ‘profession’ we generally think of the medical profession, the legal profession, science, engineering and the like. There is a certain cache associated with being a professional connected to a profession. In the minds of the average person there is something special and distinguished about being part of a profession, not to mention something lucrative.
What is a profession?
As a good business analyst should, we go to the source for our information, The source in this case is the ultimate source, the dictionary: “a vocation requiring knowledge of some department of learning or science”. With the possible exception of Ted Williams, baseball players don’t apply scientific exactitude to the playing of the game. Football players don’t need advanced scientific degrees in their specialties to gain positions on the team.
Perhaps it is this science thing that distinguishes the ‘profession’ from the ‘job’. There is a similar debate over among the technocrats about whether there is a programming or software development profession. The discussion points out that there is a lot of science behind the creation of software, and those who study it and practice it are ‘software engineers’, part of the engineering profession and following the engineering disciplines. Those who have degrees in history, English literature, or other non-related major and who have learned and practice programming are software developers and not part of the ‘profession’. (Note that this is no reflection on the quality or quantity of work produced, or the ‘professionalism’ of their work ethic, only a comment on the existence of a ‘profession’ as defined above).
Is business analysis a vocation requiring knowledge of learning or science? In some aspects it is. In a previous article I discussed a number of traits that a business analyst would need to be successful, such as critical thinking, system thinking, analytical thinking, and strategic thinking. Each of these has bases in science and learning. Sherlock Holmes, who we all revere as a shining example of a business analyst, certainly was well ensconced in the sciences.
And those soft skills – mediation, influence, communication, negotiation, elicitation and investigation, and so forth – are all learned capabilities and are improved through constant attention and learning.
To the extent that we study and adopt the research in these areas into our practice, business analysis might be considered a profession. And as such the problem we have with multiple titles apparently meaning the same thing, and fragmentation of responsibilities might disappear. If business analysis were a profession we might not have the domain or technical knowledge , as in “Oracle business analyst”, “Health care business analyst”.
A Profession is an Umbrella
When someone says they are a doctor (not a PhD) we know that person practices medicine and the healing of humans. When someone has the designation of lawyer, we know that they practice law and are qualified to do legal stuff. We also know that each of those professions has specialties and specialties within specialties. The doctor is not just a neurologist, but a pediatric neurologist. The lawyer is not just a corporate lawyer, but a corporate tax lawyer. And so forth. So we have the business analyst who practices business analysis. Within that broad profession are those who are business systems analysts specializing in financial systems and those who call themselves business process analysts who work only on the business side. And so forth.
The catch is that regardless of the specialization, a doctor is always a doctor and a lawyer is always a lawyer. Just as a member of the US Marine Corps is always a Rifleman regardless of what actual job he or she is performing, all doctors and lawyers are trained in the basics of their profession. Even the most specialized of the specialists – a pediatric heart neurosurgeon for let handed children – would still be able to treat you when you asked for medical assistance and tell you to take two aspirin and call her in the morning. In other words, the professions have a basic body of knowledge learned by all members of the profession before they specialize. One goes to engineering school and learns basic mathematics and physics whether one is a mechanical, chemical or nuclear engineer.
Applying the umbrella concept of the profession to business analysis, we can see that there is a basic business analysis body of knowledge (with the Guide to that Business Analysis Body of Knowledge maintained by the IIBA) and that every professional business analyst should be grounded in those precepts and principles regardless of the specialty. And since the basic essence of business analysis is working with the business to identify and solve business problems then a wider range of job categories such as business architect, user experience analyst, human factors analyst, information architect, process improvement specialist, and so on, might be considered within the business analysis profession.
Then we can conclude that, just as all doctors treat patients, all business analysts analyze the business to solve business problems. And this keeps us in line with the other professions.
Professional Problem Solvers
While most jobs are task oriented – the worker has a task to do and accomplishes it. The taxi driver gets you to your destination, the bar tender pours your drink, and so forth - one aspect of a profession such as medicine or law or engineering is that it is problem oriented. Doctors deal with health problems; lawyers assess and resolve legal problems; engineers solve problems standing in the way of getting things built. As many of us have pointed out, including Kathleen Barrett, one of the founders of the IIBA who said that “the business analyst is the organization’s problem solver”, the business analyst is totally problem oriented in the same way that doctors and lawyers are. We solve business problems, things standing in the way of successful business operations and meeting organizational goals.
From the perspective that the members of a profession apply their learning and science to solving problems, we can count business analysis among the professions of the world.
A Profession not a Job
When we characterize business analysis as 'gathering requirements' for software developers or other specifically IT related team, it is easy to see why most business analysts think that all business analysts have only one job and therefore have difficulty correlating some of the business analyst activities unrelated to defining requirements.
Saying that a business analyst’s job is defining (writing, gathering, recording, maintaining, managing) requirements is like saying a doctor’s job is writing prescriptions or a lawyer’s job is writing contracts.
Certainly if a doctor determines the cause of the illness through testing, diagnosis, and analysis and does not write the prescription or writes it incorrectly or writes it in a way that the filler of the prescription cannot interpret it, then the patient will not be cured. Similarly if a lawyer gathers the information, investigates, interviews, analyzes and comes to a conclusion, but the contract is not written, there is no final agreement (under law) nor settlement of the issue. Thus, a business analyst who, after investigation, research, gathering information, and analysis does not define the requirements to produce the solution, any solution produced will likely not solve the problem.
However, the writing or documenting is just the end game of the activities in which the professional solves the problem. The doctor has determined the diagnosis and treatment before the prescription is written, the lawyer has figured out the solution to the legal puzzle before the contract is written and the business analyst has determined the solution to the business problem before the requirements are written.
Once we understand the scope of the profession of business analysis we can accept and acknowledge the wide range of specialties and ‘occupations’ that exist within it.
There is another aspect of a profession, and the professionals associated with it, that is a defining characteristic: education and certification. If we are considering a career as a medical or legal or engineering professional we expect that four years of college will not be enough. We know we will be going on for additional education, first in the general aspects of the profession (medical school, law school, business school, etc.) and then further study in our chosen specialty, should we have one. This corresponds to the definition that a profession requires “knowledge of some department of learning”.
But in these professions, that is not enough. There is generally a period of “apprenticeship”. Doctors are interned for a period of time, lawyers also spend a few years doing nothing but research for the partners of law firms.
And then there are the exams that certify one is eligible and then qualified to practice in the profession: the MCAT and LSAT to get into the advanced education facility in the first place and the Boards and Bars that must be passed in order to practice professionally (that is, for money).
Unfortunately at this point, there are no such advanced education and study requirements for business analysts, and there are no government required exams or other hurdles to jump to become a professional business analyst. There are some certifications, notably the CBAP (Certified Business Analyst Professional) from the IIBA in the US (and other BA certifications in Europe and Australia). However, there are currently two issues with such certification. First the CBAP and other certifications have not kept up with the demand for business analysts in the industries so that most organizations are hiring non-certified business analysts who are doing quite well. If the certification is not necessary to determine a business analyst is qualified, and a certification is not necessary to obtain employment as a business analyst then the certification will have minimal meaning and importance in the profession. Secondly, there is an entire certification industry now offering certifications in just about everything: Certified Software Development Professional (CSDP), Certified Microsoft Anything, Certified Casual Google User Professional (CCGUP), Certified Requirements Analysis Professional (CRAP). There are lists of the 15 top paying certifications this year, or perhaps this month. And there are certifications awarded just for attending a two day class without test or experience or other proof that the person is qualified for that certification. With the plethora of certifications, all certifications become suspect and lose value.
From this perspective, we might not have a business analysis profession. However, as late as the early part of the twentieth century (I remember it well) there were no boards or bars for doctors or lawyers. Many who professed that profession merely hung out a shingle, called themselves “doctor” and started practicing. It took years for the industries to form into professions. When I started working with a company to form a business analyst department back ten years ago or so, I was asked to identify colleges with degrees in business analysis. There were none, not advanced or undergraduate degrees. Today we have a growing number of very good undergraduate business analyst degrees and advanced degrees and even doctorates in the field.
Thinking as a Profession
We in business analysis may not have all the trappings of a profession similar to doctors and lawyers…yet. But if we consider that we are a profession and act accordingly, continually improving our skills through education, joining professional organizations devoted to the advancement of the profession, and all the other accruements that accompany any occupation regarded as a profession, we will considered a profession soon enough, because we really are.
Perhaps those who are asking 'who am i?" are thinking in terms of a task-orientation are not accepting the broader picture of the business analyst and the heavy responsibility that goes with the profession, just like the responsibility of doctors and lawyers, engineers and architects.
So that is one point of view in the discussion of the business analysis profession. What do you think? The opposing perspective of this personal Point-Counterpoint will appear in the next article.
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