The rise of the business analyst -- again

The role of business analysis now

When I got into the IT business years ago, I thought the business analyst was the most pivotal person in the whole profession. That was the person who was the bridge between business and technology, the one who could see and understand both sides and whose goal was to apply technology to support business initiatives that would help the company grow revenue or shrink operating costs.

Over the last 20 years, we lost sight of that, as the technology focus began to shift away from IT and toward the business users. The PC dethroned the mainframe and minicomputer. Local-area networks enabled whole companies to run on PCs and servers. The chips powering PCs got more and more powerful, allowing the software to get more full-featured.

Then the Internet hit the big time, and for the past 10 years, we've been exploring the many things you can do when you combine people and computers in real-time networks via the Web. But by now, the newness has worn off, and we are back to thinking about that old concern of how to use this stuff to make money. That's where the business analyst comes in once more.

A lot of IT functions have been outsourced, including data center operations, programming and the help desk. The one function that doesn't seem to lend itself to outsourcing is business analysis. To effectively look out for their best interests, companies have to analyze their specific challenges and find unique responses to them. If they play the "me too" game of simply doing what everyone else is doing, they will reap no real competitive advantage. Sure, a company can bring in consultants to help and to train its analysts, but it cannot get consistently good results if it outsources the whole analysis function. Why? Because an analyst needs to really understand the company he is working with, and the best way to do that is to live there and be part of it.

I often hear that companies have not developed their business analysis capabilities because they believe that analysts use soft skills that anyone can exercise without much training. I beg to differ.

I was once asked to start up and run a group of business analysts for a company that already had a 100-person IT department. As part of that job, I had to define the specific skills my analysts should have and then put in place a training and career advancement program that would develop those skills. This gave me cause to think carefully about the skills that analysts need and how to develop them.

Here's what I found:

- Business analysts must be able to facilitate joint application-design sessions that involve groups composed of both business and technical people. They need to actively include everyone in the sessions and encourage people to contribute their ideas.

They need to do process mapping. This is often a very good way to focus the conversations of a group in a design session and provide a big-picture context in which to place people's ideas.

- They need to apply data modeling to organize the data flowing through the business processes they are designing. By this I mean logical data modeling (not the creation of physical data models in fourth normal form).

Once analysts have facilitated groupdesign sessions, created proc­ess flow diagrams and organized the relevant data into a logical data model, they must pull this all together and create the user interface for the system that will drive the activities in the process flow and handle the data in the data model. This is where analysis turns into synthesis, and where the design of any new system emerges. And as ifall that weren't enough, good analysts must also be skilled at system testing, user training and even project management.

Soft skills? These are some of the hardest skills to master in the whole IT profession. And companies need good business analysts now more than ever if they are going to thrive in our fast-changing global economy.

Michael H. Hugos is a principal at the Center for Systems Innovation and a speaker. He is a member of the 2006 Computerworld Premier 100 IT Leaders class. His books include CIO Best Practices: Enabling Strategic Value with Information Technology (John Wiley & Sons, 2007). He can be reached at www.MichaelHugos.com.

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