Bridges Over Troubled Waters

Full-blown business analysts are, like homo erectus, an end point in an evolutionary process. But it’s an evolution that is very much a work in progress

Acting as a bridge, spanning the gap between the business and IT, good business analysts are increasingly sought after by enterprises wishing to extract more value from their current and future information systems. But finding a business analyst is not easy: there are only 60 paid-up members of the Australian Business Analysis Association, and the Australian chapter of the International Institute of Business Analysis claims a paid-up list of 120 members. If finding business analysts is no mean feat, harnessing them effectively poses an equal challenge. The potential benefits, however, make it a challenge worth tackling for many enterprises.

To reap more value the survey recommended IT integrate business planning and IT planning, measure IT operating performance and also track IT assets and issues

A survey conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit earlier this year found 84 percent of organizations felt IT could deliver more value to the organization. The survey, sponsored by BMC Software, found that the adoption of strategic planning and operational processes across the IT function and the business seem to increase significantly the tendency of senior business executives to recognize the positive contribution of IT to the business as a whole. To reap more value the survey recommended IT integrate business planning and IT planning, measure IT operating performance and also track IT assets and issues. Enter the business analyst.

Mark Carmichael is CIO of PKF Chartered Accountants and Business Advisors, and is embarking on his business analyst evolution journey. PKF's heritage of Lotus Notes-based applications meant that in the past, people working in IT were all accountants, according to Carmichael. "There was never a need for business analysts because the accountants knew the business."

Since Carmichael joined the firm, and kicked off an IT overhaul, the accountants have retreated to the business. "We needed to put back the middle ground," explains Carmichael, who has been using two Lotus Notes developers as his business analysts. "They can talk directly to the business and talk to them in layman's terms, scope the project and go out and develop products," he says.

Re-establishing that middle ground between IT and the business will put IT in a better light, Carmichael says. "The business will have someone they can talk to, but who sits in IT and reports to me. In the past they were hidden in the business."

David Wilson, associate professor and associate dean of teaching and learning at the faculty of IT at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), says transitioning IT staff into the business analyst role makes sense. He sees the business analyst role as essentially the systems analyst role viewed through a business lens. "In the old days the systems analyst created the specifications for technical analysts." Now, he says, business analysts are less likely to be involved in actually changing the underlying information systems but are involved in using those systems to generate business-appropriate reports.

Business analysts are in such favour because organizations have reviewed their approach to IT, Wilson says. "IT is largely providing infrastructure while applications are more owned by the business." He also suggests that reporting relationships between the business, the business analyst and IT are becoming more contentious. Although business analysts logically sit in the business they ought to have a "dotted line" of reporting back to the CIO to ensure "they are leveraging off the IT systems", a structure that could alleviate some tension.

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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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Underpinning Everything

For Colin Knowles, director of technology and distribution for national broadcaster ABC, the challenge of keeping the business happy is doubled as the boundaries between information and broadcast networks blur. Where IT infrastructure once supported the broadcaster's information systems, it more and more has to support the production and distribution of content.

It makes Knowles heavily reliant on business analysts with clear insights about how the business currently uses technology and how it might use technology in the future — and what that means in terms of delivering robust infrastructure and tools. He needs the big picture view. And, since the data and broadcast networks are increasingly meshed, any new applications have to be "bet the business" in terms of robustness.

The ABC employs several layers of business analysts: a couple who work directly to the managing director Mark Scott "looking for business opportunities" plus a few working at the "big picture" level with the CFO. Knowles has a handful of business analysts reporting to him and brings in others when required. For example, he currently has some business analysts working on a business continuity issue.

"We tend not to have a whole harvest of business analysts because we don't want to be wedded to current practices," explains Knowles. In one recent situation, a business analyst was brought in to examine how the use of new tape-free cameras might impact on the ABC's data network. "One of our analysts spent a couple of months looking at workflow and storage requirements then generated some respectable costs involved. We sent that to finance and their business analyst looked at whether it stacked up from a business viewpoint."

The business analysts looking at business continuity have also spent a couple of weeks working with ABC journalists to understand workflow. "Once they understand the current workflow they can examine what technology solutions might do for improving workflow, the impact on skills, recruitment and training." Once that analysis is complete, Knowles says, a fuller business case can be created seeking input from a range of stakeholders, for example technology, management and human resources.

"It has to be very holistic," he says. "There are applications that are run-of-the-mill that can bear casual analysis but when it comes to applications converging on the network, more and more it has to run to carrier quality — to five nines."

Knowles says that the use of information systems-focused business analysts at the ABC has matured over the past five years. "Up until then there was very little relationship between broadcast and IT and some of the IT stuff was pretty pedestrian," he admits. There is no longer room for that, and business analysts understand the ramifications of their decisions where in broadcast, one minute of silence or black is quite serious and they need to design architecture to withstand any problems.

To do that the BAs need a deep understanding of the business. Knowles outplaces his BAs to work in particular support divisions and even to do the job. "I've had one BA working in TV production and scheduling trying to learn about the business. I think unless you do that the analysis is superficial. You need to be able to ask the appropriate questions."

That deep understanding of the business is particularly important for organizations where the network not only supports but is the business, he says. "There are plenty of people who can develop a technical solution and define the problem properly. If you run a traditional IT house then IT is a service function that we complain about when it doesn't work. If IT is an integral part of the business then the analysis has to be much deeper."

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Pooling Talent

While the ABC is well evolved in terms of its BA use, project delivery specialist Sinclair Knight Merz (SKM) is perhaps even further advanced in terms of its use of business analysts to support information technology. Group system manager of information Peter Nevin acknowledges the relatively swift rise of the BA in corporate Australia. "Roll the clock back five or 10 years and it would be difficult to find BAs focused on end-to-end business processed in IT," he says.

Today SKM has a pool of 10 business analysts serving the information needs of 6500 people in 65 offices around the world and an IT group 150 strong. However, since Nevin believes it benefits both the business and IT to capitalize on an individual's strengths, the firm has four BAs focused on business and six concentrated on IT.

Nevin says this approach stems from a realization that finding an equally business-savvy and IT-smart BA is unlikely. A business-savvy BA might develop an ideal solution that would be too costly to implement or not mesh with current IT systems, while someone with an IT systems focus would develop an elegant technical solution that might not meet the business needs. To address this issue, SKM has actually split the business analyst role into BA-business and BA-IT. Currently both roles are in IT, however given the cross-divisional responsibilities of the business process managers, ultimately they could report to the GM business processes directly supporting that important function in the company.

Nevin says that by separating the business process from the supporting IT, the business process manager is able to remain agnostic about any proposed solution and select the best solution. The genesis of the structure came about five years ago when IT was called upon to create a collaborative document management system for SKM. "We created a business owner, and scoped that role beyond being a system owner role. That matured into the concept of the business process manager and all big projects now move ahead with a business process manager."

Nevin acknowledges that one of the challenges is to ensure the business process managers keep focus beyond their area, making sure that end-to-end business processes are always considered. As the model matures, there is a natural tendency for the business process managers to work together. Now, rather than having to step in and conduct the team as he expected in order to orchestrate a whole-of-business view, Nevin has found that the BA group forms into a "dynamic and self-forming team" able to form a virtual "super BPM" when required. "And that's really taken me quite by surprise," he adds.

Surprises, however, are a feature of most evolutionary processes — just ask a giraffe.

Sidebar: Skills Set

Good business analysts are:

  • good listeners
  • good conversationalists
  • non-threatening
  • able to communicate up to senior executive level.

Good business analysts:

  • empathize with the business
  • ask sensible questions
  • avoid making promises
  • can communicate bad news sensitively
  • have a good general grounding in IT
  • document conversations and check for accuracy
  • run a meeting without imposing their views.

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Sidebar: New Attitude, New Job

The big picture is what counts now

Four years ago Sean Kennedy got himself an executive coach. "I was having trouble on my team. People were crying, and I suspected it was me not them with the problem," confesses Kennedy.

The coach introduced him to Human Synergistics' Life Styles Inventory tool, intended to identify and manage behaviours. Gradually Kennedy found himself changing the way he operated. He also found he was increasingly interested in people management and less focused on technical delivery — a shift that prompted his move into business analysis.

Having worked in various technical, project and program management roles and also in strategic architecture development at Accenture for 12 years and NAB for five, he moved across to head AAPT's business analyst team earlier this year. With him went a whole new attitude about his function. "All my life I've been paid to deliver a task outcome, a deliverable. This is more about trying to stand back and identify who can help you; who can you work collaboratively with," says Kennedy.

At present he runs a team of about 40 business analysts, 20 of whom are permanent. It is a significant group, especially compared with the 200 people in IT at AAPT. Even more so when compared with the situation at NAB where eight business analysts were employed as part of a 1500-person systems delivery team, according to Kennedy.

He says that AAPT is in essence striving to create an internal consulting company, housing the business analysts in a separate business unit in order to reduce the risk of conflict with either the business or IT. Kennedy also has tiers of business analysts including business consultants who are engaged with the portfolio managers in the business who crystallize the needs of the business for portfolio planning. "Then you move to the concept phase where you have a BA who is in there for the long haul and has a long-term relationship with the business. This lead BA will initiate the program with the systems architect and at that point a project manager and senior business analyst are allocated and it goes into the sausage machine — ours or outsourced. The lead BA then goes back to the business and takes on a governance role."

Besides clearly allocating roles for the different BAs, Kennedy has set out a modus operandi for the business analysts in order to reduce the opportunity for friction. "The way I mechanically approach this is via a communications plan setting out the outcome they are hoping to achieve. This becomes the charter for the program and also identifies the outcomes for other stakeholders. It identifies what value looks like and what success looks like."

Kennedy explains that a holistic approach is required as successful outcomes may look quite different to different stakeholders. So for example where business value may arise from delivering a value-for-money solution that grows revenues, for IT the value comes from delivering a sustainable solution or one that reduces costs. Meanwhile, success for the business analysts arises from the "positive legacy we need to leave behind".

Given those three value propositions Kennedy acknowledges that, "it is always a trade-off but the important thing is when initiating a project, if you don't make a conscious choice, people will make implicit choices. You have to put it all on the table at the beginning", which includes coaching the business owner to understand how other stakeholders might also benefit from any change.

"If the general manager is only given KRAs [key result areas] and incentives for his own team, it's easy to set it up as a competitive unit against IT or other groups," he says.

And that spells trouble.


SIDEBAR: A Business Analyst by Any Other Name

As business analysts seek to professionalize, a couple of organizations have sprung up to help them

The Australian Business Analysis Association (ABAA) was set up in 2003, and to quote its president, Peter Gibbins, has "grown gently" to its current population of 60 paid-up members. Meanwhile, in June 2006 an Australian chapter of the International Institute of Business Analysis (IIBA) was formed, with John Katsiris as its acting president.

According to Gibbins, who is currently on a BA contract with Customs in Canberra, business analysis has developed as a profession over the past 10 to 15 years, although the roots of the profession hark back to project managers or subject matter experts, he says. He acknowledges that at present just about anyone can hang up a shingle and profess to being a BA, something he says tarnished the view of the profession when so-called business analysts popped out of the woodwork to help enterprises through their Y2K and GST challenges.

In an attempt to professionalize the role, the ABAA is attempting to develop a competency framework, which it hopes to then tie to accredited training courses. According to Gibbins the role of BA is predicated on the soft skills — eliciting a clear understanding of what the business does and what it needs, then turning that into an agreed written paper setting out requirements, which is then given to the person who will deliver against that set of requirements.

"I try and not get into the solutions space. It's one of the greatest pitfalls for BAs," Gibbins says. "You can't go into the problem solving space before you get into the business understanding space."

The IIBA has taken a different tack, assembling an international body of knowledge that it provides to map out the role, function and capabilities of business analysts. Katsiris says that August would provide the first opportunity for Australians to become certified by the IIBA with programs organized for Sydney and Melbourne. "One of our key goals is to build professionalism around business analysis and also increase the maturity levels, and so contribute to better results," he says.


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Sidebar: What Makes for a Good Business Analyst?

All about what to look for — and what to avoid — when hiring for this key position

JOB DESCRIPTION: A business analyst (BA) provides a bridge between the business and IT, working with both sides to propose changes to processes and systems to meet the needs of the business. Carlo Carbetta, senior director of recruiting operations for staffing firm CIO Partners of Atlanta, says that a business analyst acts as a liaison between functional areas such as HR, finance, marketing and technical areas, like development.

Many work with project managers and are involved with software development or process management, he says.

The business analyst is a hot commodity right now due to business reliance on technology, according to Jim McAssey, a principal at The W Group, a consulting firm. "The global delivery capabilities of technology today make the challenges of successfully bridging the gap [between business and IT] even harder," he says.

WHY YOU NEED ONE: Companies typically don't invest in an IT project without a solid business case, says Jeff Miller, senior vice president of Aetea, an IT staffing and consulting firm. A good business analyst is able to create a solution to a particular business problem and act as a bridge to the technologists who can make it happen. "Without the BA role, CIOs are at significant risk that their projects will not solve the business problem for which they were intended," says Miller. "This can cause project overruns, limited ROI or manual workarounds to meet business needs. The CIO also risks alienating his customers within the business if he fails to deliver solutions that target their needs."

DESIRED SKILLS: The ideal candidate will have five to 10 or more years of experience (preferably in a specific industry), a technical undergraduate degree and an MBA. Strong risk assessment, negotiation and problem resolution skills are key, as is knowledge of the Rational Unified Process, a software development framework. Hands-on experience is critical. Look for BAs who have worked as programmers or analysts, or in development or quality assurance.

HOW TO FIND THEM: Miller suggests conducting your search in an industry similar to your own. Good places to look are large companies with internal development teams or complex infrastructures. BAs can also come from academia, but such candidates may lack exposure to business processes.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Good communication skills and attention to detail. Carbetta says a BA must be process driven and able to see a project through conflict and change, from start to finish.

The BA also must have the ability to learn new processes, says Miller: "A good BA learns business concepts and can quickly relate them to the specific needs of the project."

ELIMINATION ROUND: Ask how the cost of hiring a BA justifies the return on a project, says Miller. Expect specific examples showing why a BA is critical to a project's success. A candidate who can't articulate this may not be a good fit.

GROWING YOUR OWN: People who are social and engaging by nature tend to make good BAs. Look for these qualities in your developers and QA staff. Programmers who excel at identifying solution requirements and who interact well with customers make good candidates, even if they are not technically as strong. Consider business users who possess some technical knowledge and have worked on past projects. Mentorship is also a good way to groom an internal candidate for the BA role, says Miller.