What skills does a business analyst need?
Effective business analysts need a wide range of skills. This is what makes their job so interesting and challenging.
The core role of a business analyst includes the following activities,
- Investigate business problems and opportunities
- Propose changes to business and IT systems in order to solve problems and realise opportunities
To perform these roles, a business analyst needs a combination of capabilities that include,
- Professional techniques to investigate and improve business systems
- Business knowledge relevant to the organisation for which the business analyst works
- Personal characteristics, particularly related to the ability to work effectively with an organisation’s stakeholders
Business processes, data and rules
The core role of a business analyst is focussed on the inter-related topics of,
- Business processes
- Business data
- Business rules
A business analyst should know how to model and analyse business processes with a view to,
- Improvement, e.g. for greater process efficiency
- Alignment with business strategy
Similarly, a business analyst should be able to model and analyse the data used by the processes. Data analysis is becoming ever more important with the opportunities obtainable from artificial intelligence, analytics, big data and machine learning.
Business rules are defined and owned by an organisation’s management. However, they may be,
- Outdated, i.e. no longer relevant or not supporting current culture or strategy
- Difficult for business stakeholders to access, e.g. buried in computer code
- Poorly defined and difficult to understand and apply
- Inconsistent or contradictory
A business analyst can help bring business rules into the open, providing the business stakeholders with easy access to them.
Business analysts can then work with the IT team to load the rules onto an automated repository so that they are,
- Accessible to many people at the same time
- Able to be updated in a controlled and secure manner
- Better able to control the running of processes and the updating of data
Looking for problems
By its nature, business analysis is about looking for and solving problems. The business analyst therefore needs to identify and research problems, digging below the problem symptoms and uncovering their root causes.
Getting to the root cause and the essence of a system paves the way for the identification of creative solutions.
A business analyst has to be someone that enjoys and is naturally good at solving problems and developing solutions. There are techniques to assist them in this.
Discovering requirements for change
Identifying problems and opportunities will lead to recommendations for making changes to business processes, data and rules.
Such changes are often associated with changes to the supporting IT systems.
The changes that are needed are defined in a set of requirements. Discovering and specifying requirements is often considered to be the main function of a business analyst.
Requirements must be expressed in a way that makes them understandable to,
- Business stakeholders who can confirm the relevance and correctness of the requirements
- IT roles such as solution architects, programmers and testers who develop IT systems based on the requirements
The business analyst’s role is often thought of as bridging the gap between the business and IT. The business analyst must be able to understand and be understood by both of these parties.
Although identifying requirements might sound easy, the reality is that has been a history of problems in this area. This is due to factors such as,
- There are two languages, business and IT, involved
- All stakeholders are different and each can understand a situation in their own way
This takes us naturally to consider the communication skills needed by a business analyst.
Communication skills are sometimes referred to as soft skills or people skills.
Business analysis is, at its heart, a people centred activity. Business analysts need to be,
- Be great communicators
- Relate well to the stakeholders
- Be able to negotiate
- Be able, where necessary, to take the lead.
Communication skills include:
- Effective interviewing
- Business analysts interview stakeholders to learn about what they do and need
- Making presentations that support decision making
- Facilitating workshops, for example, to define requirements, processes and data
- Participation in meetings
- Leading teams to success
- Writing reports and requirements specifications
- Listening – This is one of the most important skills for a BA – Not everyone is good at it
- Team building
A business analyst’s capabilities in all the soft skills can be improved by training. Unfortunately, this is not always given the attention it deserves.
Programme and project skills
Most of a business analyst's work is performed in the context of a programme or project.
Project skills include,
- Defining terms of reference, e.g.
- Objectives and scope of the project
- Deliverables – What the project will produce
- Assumptions – Attempting to make the uncertain more certain
- Responsibilities and authorities
- Identification and sequencing of activities
- Estimating, e.g.
- Duration of an activity
- Cost of an activity
- Creating a calendar of activities
- Comparing what is happening with what was planned to happen
- Responding to this real world feedback
- Responding to changes from the business
- Defining terms of reference, e.g.
- People management and leadership
- Working with people can be the most challenging and interesting part of a business analyst’s role
Why does a business analyst need project skills?
- A business analyst, in cooperation with other team members, defines requirements for change
- A change programme or project delivers the change based on the requirements
- The requirements, in turn, define the scope, objectives and deliverables of the project
- There is, therefore, a close link between requirements and project management/leadership
The business analyst should also have knowledge of different project approaches, e.g.
- Linear, 'plan driven' approaches such as waterfall and V model
- Iterative and incremental, approaches, designed to respond quickly and effectively to change
- Such approaches include,
- Such approaches include,
- Some BAs may work in environments such as Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) and .Disciplined Agile Delivery
- These are designed to apply agile approaches at an enterprise level.
Required business Knowledge
Sector specific knowledge
Business analysts must know the business sector in which they work. They must be able to talk in the business language of the organisation.
A business analyst may well be, or become, a specialist in a particular business sector, e.g.
- Banking and finance
Some business analysts will become specialists and experts in a tiny section of a sector.
Some business sectors have a very specific language that will take time to learn. Speaking the language fluently can be vital to achieving credibility and ensuring that the analyst properly understands the stakeholders.
General business knowledge
All BAs must actively seek to expand their general business knowledge. For example,
- Business and financial cycles such as acquiring funds to create products for sale
- How to prepare a business case
- Legal aspects such as intellectual property
- Stakeholder and client management
- Awareness of different organisation structures
- Understanding strategy: a business analyst must be aware of the strategy of the organisation they work for.
- This includes,
- Who the customers are
- The organisation's value proposition to the customers
- This includes,
Effective business analysts will have at least some of the following characteristics and abilities:
- Great communicators,
- Verbal, e.g Making presentations
- Written, e.g. for documentation and writing to stakeholders
- Able to see detail of a situation in relation to the big picture
- Able to identify the root causes behind the symptoms of problems
- Enjoy solving problems
- Able to abstract and generalise situations rather than being stuck in specifics and detail
- Differentiate between problems and solutions
- Empathy and understanding of and for the business stakeholders and colleagues
It is unlikely that one person will possess all of these ideal characteristics.
Business analysts are usually members of a team. Being an effective team member is a vital skill. For a team to be successful, it is vital that team members,
- Listen to each other
- Respect each other
- Learn from each other
- Support other team members
- Consider other people’s ideas and opinions
- Work for the good of the team
Each individual is important in their own right. These individuals should be able to achieve more as a team than they can by working alone.
The breadth of the skill set required for effective business analysis is great.
Business analysts have a choice of many niches and specialisms where they can display their particular skills to best advantage.
Successful business analysts can come from many backgrounds.
Some personal characteristics will lead BAs towards certain niches and away from others.
Most if not all skills and knowledge can be improved and extended with learning. There are many ways of doing this. We look at some them in the article, ‘How to learn business analysis’.
There are a number of professional bodies that identify skills needed by business analysts. These include: