A Good BA Is Hard to Find
AAPT is well along the evolutionary trail of building a community of business analysts, and its general manager of technology and shared services, Bob Hennessy, disagrees with any suggestion that business analysts and systems analysts can be cut from the same cloth. But he does acknowledge that good business analysts are hard to find. "There is an industry of people who call themselves 'BAs' but they are not the people we want. If you think that systems analysts are business analysts — well that's the problem."
The danger Hennessy sees in segueing a systems analyst into a business analyst role is their perspective would be "heavily influenced by their knowledge of systems", and that might prejudice their thinking. Similarly he is concerned that people who slip into the role of BA after working in a line of business tend to favour incremental advances on the current way of doing things. "There's no one to look at alternatives or examine what is the real problem. The fact is, if you give a problem to three different business analysts they tend to build a solution out of the toolkit they have. To a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail. Over the last five or six years I've woken up to that," he says.
For Hennessy, the ideal BA is someone that the business wants to pull in to provide options. They have to take a strategy and ownership role, and ownership of the business and processes and technology, which he says requires the business analyst and systems analyst then to work together. "They have to understand the business, identify the problem and the way to solve that — that isn't just about ROI and the short term."
Hennessy says he has found a few business analysts in the consulting field but also a number of "mature IT guys who've been in architecture and can see where there are problems but very often don't have the mandate to fix the problem".
Wilson agrees that there is a need for BAs to have experience — although he and Hennessy may differ on what constitutes experience. According to Wilson, one of the issues is that the business analyst role is quite "experiential". "I'm not sure you could go out from university and tackle a role as a business analyst." However, he believes that graduates with just two or three years' experience could consider themselves BA candidates.
However seasoned the candidate, Hennessy warns that while there are some breeding grounds for BAs, most people who call themselves BAs do not think commercially or really understand the business. He thinks, however, that he struck lucky with his BA team leader, Sean Kennedy, who has both consulting and architecture experience, and a diverse background (see "New Attitude, New Job"). "He seems to have genuine skills and knows that the BA's job is to identify what has to change and not worry too much about the technical solution."
AAPT's BA team exists as a shared capability group. "It's a pooled resource that is owned by me but is on assignment to the business," says Hennessy. To get at one of the BAs the business still has to satisfy the centralized and rigorous capital management process. Once a project has passed that test, they can get a business analyst, who is then embedded in a management team comprising the BA, solutions designer, business owner and project manager.
Hennessy has been working to get the BA model right for the past three years, predicting once the model is spot on there are big benefits to be had. "Where you start to get the big lift in value is when you are lining up what is the problem to solve and how to deal with that," he says. "I find that business analysts are more critical than project managers. The big challenge for me is to find people who are pragmatic about business and operate in a reasonable time and budget. They need to be able to have adult commercial conversations and tend to have to pull themselves up to [communicate with] the executive level."
Hennessy will know the model is right, he says, when the business owners say: "We got together, got to the heart of the problem and see the way to an appropriate solution in a teamed effort." He doesn't think there is any way a BA's performance can be more explicitly measured. "All the benchmarks in the world won't tell you if you're right," he says, "because all industries' norms are very different. The best indicator of success is when the business is happy."
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