Last week Michael Fitzgerald wrote an article for Computerworld titled "Tech hotshots: The rise of the IT business analyst". The article comments on the increasing visibility and importance of business analysis in software development projects as well as emphasizes the criticality of the business analyst as a project team member.

The article highlights a few key messages including:

  • According to Money Magazine, the IT Business Analyst position ranks 11th out of the top 20 "Best Jobs in Fast Growth Fields"
  • Mark McDonald, an analyst for Gartner, is quoted as saying business analysts have been "transformed into a senior problem-solver" versus a low-level note taker that documents the "bill of materials" for a project
  • Linda Martino, Clorox’s Vice President of Business Engagement and Application Delivery, points out that in her experience it is more common for an analyst to come from the business side and learn IT
  • Ms. Martino also argues that, while business analysts may be organizationally aligned with IT, to be effective in their role business analysts should take on a position similar to an "embedded" journalist where they reside primarily with their business constituents. This position is reiterated by another article contributor Matthew Metcalfe, Director of IT for Northwest Exterminating.

While these are all interesting food for thought, my favorite content came at the end and addresses the "5 Tips for Managing IT Business Analysts". These five items are arguably more about hiring and developing analysts versus managing them, but are still important none-the-less:

  1. Focus on people skills – This mirrors the comments made by Ms. Martino and Mr. Metcalfe in regards to emphasizing business skills over technical skills when searching for your next analyst candidate. This theme isn’t exclusive to Mr. Fitzgerald’s article either. In fact, these skills are also reflected in the International Institute of Business Analysis’ (IIBA) Business Analysis Body of Knowledge: Underlying Competencies such as Behavioral Characteristics (Ethics, Organization, Trustworthiness), Communication Skills (Oral, Teaching, Written), and Interaction Skills (Facilitation, Negotiation, Leadership, Influencing, Teamwork). 
  2. …but don’t forget technology – Software Applications knowledge is also defined as an IIBA underlying competency for analysts. To understand how business needs align to a given technology solution, you must understand how those solutions are built and function. Along with business knowledge, another underlying competency, it is fundamental to an analyst’s ability to perform.
  3. Train them with their business units – The idea here is that you learn the same skills as the communities you serve. As an outside consultant, I am not usually in a position to attend the same training opportunities as my clients. However, I can research their industry and organization as well as take generalist training such as project management or business management courses that apply across multiple arenas.
  4. Keep them talking to one another – Similar to the environment referenced at Clorox, Catapult has a Community of Practice for our business analysts where individuals can collaborate on best practices and problem solutions. Having that type of sounding board within a peer group is a significant value, particularly given the complex issues often faced by analysts. Catapult also encourages active participation in local or online networking groups such as the IIBA or Project Management Institute’s (PMI) Requirements Management Community of Practice.
  5. Consider cross-training – Similar to the training point above, it would be unusual for a consultant to be given an option to jump from one department in a client’s organization to another. However, analysts in other business models, such as a product company, may have this option. For those that do not, cross training may be accomplished by diversifying your project portfolio. Diversification could be by industry vertical, such as finance versus healthcare, or technology platform, such as web portals versus business intelligence systems. The goal isn’t to be a "jack of all trades and a master of none", but rather to have both a breadth and depth of knowledge in more than one area.

Whether you are looking for a job or are already employed as an analyst, the take away from these tips should be that there are ample opportunities for skills development. Not only are there many knowledge areas, ranging from facilitation skills to specific applications, there are many avenues for gaining that knowledge, such as networking groups, formal courses, or internal communities of practice. Make a goal to tackle at least one new area every three months so that you will be well positioned to either join or stay ahead of the curve in this fast growing field!