Business Analysts: Choosing Sides

For the sake of this article, let’s set aside the obvious larger issue at hand: the silo-bureaucratic approach to IT rarely works well.

So there they stand: two captains, multiple IT roles, numerous onlookers. The CEO flips a coin and the “business” gets to choose first. What happened next was unexpected. The COO shouts out, “We choose the business analysts!” Everyone, including the business analysts, expected the business to choose the developers, or the project managers, or the architects…and for good reason. It was assumed by most of the onlookers that, by choosing one of these three roles, the business would have more control over the areas in which they currently had the least.

At the end of the exercise, the managers and other stakeholders sat down to review the outcome. When asked, “Why did you choose the business analysts first?” the COO answered, “They’re business analysts — I was simply bringing them home.”

Upon hearing this story, it became clear to me that it was time to revisit the core role a business analyst fulfills in an organization. In my experience thus far, well over 75% of the business analysts I know report through the IT side of their organization. Of the 25% that report through the business side, most have a primary responsibility that is outside of the typical business analysis role (training, operational manager, strategy director, etc.).

In the early days of defined organizational business analysis, the BA role resided on the business side. This was due to the unstructured nature of IT departments and an early, basic understanding of solution delivery. There was typically a handful of developers, folks who could “keep the lights on,” and a manager or two. As technology became more commonplace within organizations, it became evident that the distance between business and technology was growing. The need for a role that could speak to IT but understand the business became necessary, hence the slow migration of business analysis from the business side to the IT side.

…There is An Opposite…

As time went on, the role of business analyst became quite comfortable in IT. Most business analysts use specialty tools or methods to accomplish their goals. Many business analysts have former developer, technical, or hands-on education or experience. The business enjoyed having an ally in IT. All was right with the world.

Steveb2However, the stars no longer align for this structure. The same deficiencies experienced by early business analysts who reported to the “less-than-technically proficient” business are now realized by the “less-than-operationally proficient” IT department. Business analysts, more than ever before, are relied upon for more than just requirements and domain knowledge. Business analysts must understand the answers — not just communicate them. Business analysts must be subject-matter experts. Business analysts must be positioned to analyze the business.

Today, business analysts operate in an environment where the business side of the organization is potentially more complex than the IT side. This leads to an environment where IT developers, architects, and implementers face greater uncertainty than when business stakeholders first dealt with advanced technology long ago. Highly integrated systems, reusable architectures, and cross-departmental solutions require roles that understand both sides. Luckily for business analysts, the IT side has multiple roles that own this knowledge within IT (architects, systems analysts, etc.). However, on the business side, there is lesser knowledge for the capabilities of such technologies.

This is why it is critical for business analysts to reside on the business side. The value for IT having an ally in the business is now greater than ever before.

…And Equal Reaction

The advantages of migrating business analysts from IT to the business are numerous. Now the business analyst has significantly more exposure to business operations and strategy — not just from a “doing my job” perspective but an availability perspective. By definition of the role, the business analyst is included in meetings, operational decisions, etc., without having to seek out and petition for involvement. The business analyst now has more authority and influence over the solution. This can be risky if the business analyst lacks technical knowledge and a clear-thinking discipline. But overall, such a structure can benefit the organization by reducing the obstacles a project team may encounter when seeking answers and direction.

Another advantage is the impact to project timelines. Many projects factor in enough analysis time for a business analyst to come up-to-speed on a domain, understand the domain, understand the problem, etc. By virtue of existing in the business to begin with, much of the critical thinking, brainstorming, and high-level analysis are readily available, thus reducing the up-front analysis time required for many projects.

The disadvantages of migrating business analysts from IT to the business are clear. Take a look at the current state of most business stakeholders. Many are overloaded with assignments, rarely have time for in-depth requirements discussions, sometimes execute to fulfill personal agendas, and are focused solely on their individual role within the organization. The greatest threat for a business analyst reporting through the business is succumbing to these operational role pitfalls. A clear understanding by all decision makers of the business analyst’s role with the business in addition to proper time-management can effectively mitigate these risks.

Conclusion

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for business analysis. This is why there are numerous methods, tools, strategies, and knowledge areas. Every company is different and every industry is different. What some folks see as advantages above might view them as disadvantages and visa-versa. Flexibility and adaptability have always been core strengths of the best business analysts — regardless of reporting structure or corporate hierarchy.

Don’t forget to leave comments below.


Steve Bixler is a Business/Operations Analyst with over 10 years IT experience in multiple industries.  Steve has analyzed and implemented numerous enterprise-wide solutions leveraging nearly every SDLC and analysis method available.  Steve can be reached via LinkedIn

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