This segment is about Business Analysts, and it relates to job descriptions and hiring expectations. I spend a lot of time perusing openings for Business Architect positions—Senior Business Architect positions to be more precise—, and ‘intelligent’ (in air quotes) search engines tend to return positions for Business Analysts and, for whatever reason, Project Manager and Product Owner jobs I end up having to wade through and filter out. But this segment is not about that.
This segment discusses the relevant importance of knowledge, whether a hiring manager should prioritise BA discipline knowledge—how to perform the BA function at a top level—or domain knowledge. The domain knowledge might be requested in the form of industry vertical knowledge—e.g., candidate must have experience in capital markets, financial services, healthcare, mortgage processing, or whatever—or system knowledge—e.g., candidate must have experience with Salesforce, Workday, Peoplesoft, or whatever. I’ve even seen requirements for programming languages—candidate must have experience working in a Java or .Net environment. This is especially curious.
Save for this statement, I am going to ignore the hiring managers seeking BAs who are also expected to act as Project Managers or Programmers. I started as a Programmer Analyst. I understand the space, but there is a title for a BA who also programs. It’s not Business Analyst. It’s Programmer Analyst. And BA and PM work is so functionally different… I won’t go there, but you know that I want to. Pet Peeve. All of these are signs of an immature organisation, but let’s move on.
In a perfect world, I can see that a hiring manager would hope for someone who excels at all three of these—discipline, industry, and system knowledge. Unless one is seeking a Programmer Analyst, the programming language requirement is irrelevant. As noted, this is out of scope for this segment. The question is how many people are going to excel at all three. Let’s look at them in turn. Did I miss any?
Let’s begin with discipline knowledge because that’s the role being sought. Business Analysis is as much an art as it is a science. I have worked with many Business Analysts. I’ve even led BA disciplines and people-managed BAs on their career path as well as led BAs on project engagements. I hope I am not guilty of the No True Scotsman informal logical fallacy, but there are very few I’ve met that are much more than scribes or administrative assistants. There is nothing wrong with either of these, but they can be hired at a fraction of the cost. So if that’s all you need is a notetaker and documentarian, just hire for that role and you can probably buy four and get one free.
All of these skills are necessary, but they aren’t sufficient. Besides these, there are two crucial skills—systems thinking and elicitation. Let’s look at each of these in turn.
Systems thinking is the ability to look at a problem holistically. It’s a right cerebral hemisphere function that is needed to balance the categorising and analytical left hemisphere. Although this balance is critical, it is very rare in the business world and is even increasingly rare in politics and the sciences. But I digress.
First, one must see the Gestalt of a system. Only then should one switch to the left hemisphere for understanding the parts and dimensions. If one starts on the left and remains there, it will never equate to the whole, and gaps will become evident, risking an eventual death by papercuts.
Elicitation is the next key component. Business Analysts are not order takers. We already covered that a moment ago. Elicitation is having a heuristic understanding of how a system operates and being able to add value by pushing back or providing unforeseen options. Effectively elicitation requires empathetic active listening skills. This is fairly rare, too. In a Zen way, the BA needs to become the user, to truly put themselves in the user’s or customer’s moccasins—and then walk a few miles. And then walk some more.
I’ll share a related true story toward the end of this segment.
I feel that industry knowledge probably goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. This is the specific domain knowledge of a given industry. In the insurance industry, you know all of the forms and procedures. In healthcare, you know the jargon and all about HIPPA and PII. In capital markets, you know all of the transactions and money laundering statutes. Perhaps is the domain of lawyers or salvage or shipbuilding or mega-construction. You’ve been there. You won’t have to learn these ropes.
As I said at the start, everything equal, if you can secure someone with the base BA discipline skill set and that person has industry knowledge, scoop them up. If you don’t know, don’t bother. In my almost twenty years of consulting, I’ve come to realise that the Pareto effect is alive and well. Eighty per cent of industries are ostensibly the same. Within an industry, eighty per cent of companies are the same. Within a company eighty per cent of cross-functional processes are the same. When I say, the same, I am speaking conceptually. I know accounting is not the same as receiving and engineering is not the same as customer service, but a process is a process is a process is a process. A database is a database, and user experience needs are similar. The twenty per cent can be handled by a SME. If the BA becomes a SME or at least a promy SME, then great. If the BA is the SME, your organisation has other maturity challenges beyond the scope of this segment.
I my experience, an average engagement was between three and four months. Rarely did I repeat a vertical. Starting from a position of solid discipline knowledge and leveraging the Pareto rule, I spoke with SMEs and stakeholders for the rest of the story. In most cases, my exposure to other industries allowed me to provide unconsidered outside perspective. In one instance, the industry as a whole was notoriously immature. The last thing this client needed was another resource from this industry. It didn’t help that companies in this industry were notoriously Ebeneezer Scrooge-level stingy—and so their own worst enemy—, most of their ideas were dated and stale.
I saved system knowledge for last because it makes the least sense of the three. The system knowledge requirement is that you’ve had exposure to the base system, whether Salesforce, Workday, NetSuite, EPIC, SAP, or what have you. On one level, I understand. All of the listed systems are clunky and nuanced, but in the end it needs to do what it needs to do. No one is going to ask you to design an air traffic control system on Workday or a securities trading system on NetSuite.
If you worked on NetSuite in an accounting context at company A, it’s likely that company B has their own processes. I can almost guarantee that if company A did it better and best in class, company B is not going to implement anything you recommend if it doesn’t comport with their processes.
Knowing a system might give the BA a slight advantage, but this misses other considerations. BAs come in flavours. Just to start, there are Functional Analysts, Process Analysts, and Technical Analysts. And there are architects, typically Solution Architects or Technical Architects. These people should know the technical ins and outs of the system. They are the Yang to the BA’s Yin. If you are looking for a competent Functional-Process-Technical Analyst—otherwise known as Al Gore or the mythical Man-Bear-Pig—, you a signing up for slow progress or failure. If you are so small and immature that you feel backed into this corner, I extend my sympathy. Buy yourself a bouquet of Lilium candidum and a tear jar. I’d get a swear jar while you’re at it. You’ll need it.
Verdict and summary
If you can assess the competency of BA discipline knowledge and it ticks all the boxes, fast track that person. If you can’t determine this because you’ve actually never met one, hold off and aim for the other two. But unless you are in a pinch, my recommendation is to wait for a competent BA—and shell out the extra shekels. If you are on a budget and don’t expect to acquire this skill set anyway, don’t even bother, hire an intern or a good administrator out of high school or college—or perhaps a person who happened to work in an industry or with a system—and save yourself beaucoup shekels. Using an analogy from the healthcare sector, you don’t need a doctor or a nurse; you just need a CNA or health aid. Train them up if it makes you feel better.
Here’s a quote from the inimitable Oscar Wilde:
“Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.”— Oscar Wilde
As promised, here’s a parting story. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
I had a client who needed to build a system to allow their customers to self-service so they could reduce the expenses of headcount in the call centre. I brought up the principle of least effort (read: people are inherently lazy), and will generally take the path of least resistance. Her take away was, “Oh, so you are saying I should make it more difficult to call in?”
“No, you need to make it easier to self-serve.” This is what empathy should look like. Can you imagine how she would have felt is she discovered that a company she did business with had intentionally made things more difficult to steer her in another direction? I’ll bet you can. She wasn’t devil spawn, but my faith in humanity dipped a few points in that moment.