What skills does a business analyst need?
There are a great many skills needed for business analysis. For a new BA, the full set can seem a bit overwhelming; how can any one person possibly do them all? To make the list of skills manageable, it is useful to separate core ones from supplementary ones.
Before doing that, we'll consider what business analysts do.
What business analysts do
Business analysts identify changes to business systems and their supporting IT systems in order that their organisation can adapt and prosper in a changing world.
The necessary changes typically concern the business processes, business data, business rules and the infrastructure in which these things operate.
This is of course very extensive, and so successful business analysts have to structure their work. This article proposes ways of doing this.
Core roles and capabilities of a business analyst
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,
- Recommending improvements, e.g. for greater process efficiency
- Ensuring alignment of process objectives and business strategy
Similarly, a business analyst needs to be able to model and analyse the data used by the processes. Data analysis is becoming ever more important for maximising the opportunities obtainable from artificial intelligence, analytics, big data and machine learning.
Business rules control the operation of business processes and the use of data, protection the organisation by ensuring compliance with legislation and internal policies.
They are the glue that binds the processes and data together.
Rules are defined and owned by an organisation’s management. However, the rules 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- Outdated, i.e. no longer relevant or not supporting current culture or strategy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 skilled business analyst can help to bring the rules into the open, providing the business stakeholders with easy access to them.
This enables the stakeholders to review the rules, ensuring that they are correct and relevant.
The business analyst can also help 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 and interpersonal skills needed by a business analyst.
Communication skills may also be known as
- Soft skills
- People skills
- Interpersonal skills
Business analysis is, at its heart, a people centred activity. Business analysts need to be,
- Great communicators
- Great listeners
They need to relate easily to the business stakeholders, able to,
- Negotiate compromises
- Know when they need to say no
- Take the lead
- Make things happen
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
- Proactive and useful 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
Some business analysts have a natural ability in one or more of the above skills. However, the interpersonal skills of most business analysts can be improved by training. Unfortunately, given the importance of these skills, they are not always given the attention they deserve.
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.
- Calculating the likely,
- Duration of an activity
- Cost of an activity
- Calculating the likely,
- Creating a calendar of activities
- Comparing what is happening with what was planned to happen
- Responding rapidly 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 discovered by the business analyst and others
- The requirements, in turn, define the scope, objectives and deliverables of the project
- There is, therefore, a close link between project success and the ability to discover the real requirements
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 may need to 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,
- The basics of finance and accounting
- Business and financial cycles such as acquiring funds to create products for sale
- How to prepare a business and financial case for change
- 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, as already mentioned
- Able to see the detail of a situation in relation to the big picture
- Able to identify the root causes behind the symptoms of problems
- Enjoy and be good at 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:
- International Institute of Business Analysis (IIBA)
- International Requirements Engineering Board (IREB)
- British Computer Society (BCS)
See how to self study for business analysis qualifications.