Considerations on the changing role of the BA

bas_faqs_bsgWhy does the traditional business analyst (BA) role need to change?
10 years ago, new ventures expected long turnaround times to establish offerings and service channels. Business stakeholders alone drove what these offerings and services looked like, using traditional methodical approaches to document the supporting system requirements. Today, people manage their lives through their mobile devices. Pokémon landed worldwide in a matter of days, not years, influencing millions of people overnight. Customers make instant decisions based on data that is constantly available to them, and demand better, cheaper and more customisable products.

Digital transformation has meant that the big fish no longer eats the small one – the fast fish eats the slow one; with digital platforms being the foundations for speed to market. Hence BAs need to learn how to think and deliver effectively in this fast, ever-changing environment.

What new skills are important for a BA?
The internet of things, coupled with mobile technologies, means users have the opportunity to dictate how they engage. Thus analysing and designing systems is no longer about solving a puzzle, it’s about unearthing the mysteries of changing customer needs. A puzzle implies a defined problem and method i.e. one follows the process, documents the detail and the solution will emerge. Defining and solving mysteries requires a different set of skills:

Facilitate effective conversations within a cross functional team. Capture the ideas of the group effectively so that actions can quickly occur and the business receives feedback regarding different options as soon as possible. Collaboration is key to solving mysteries.

Understand Agile delivery principles. Change is a constant, rather than something to be eliminated. Do not simply follow a methodology – choose the correct techniques within your arsenal which are appropriate to solve the given challenge and can give you the best feedback in the shortest possible time.

Get under the skin of your customer. Go directly to the source when trying to understand a need. Identify and analyse data so that you operate based on fact. Customers are able to switch loyalty quickly (and loudly via social media), so we need to stop ignoring them, no matter how much we think we know about the systems they use.

Understand concepts first. Back these up with detail as it emerges. Engineering thinking trains us to understand all the detailed ins and outs of a problem. But very often, the broader conceptual picture is lost e.g. why would this detailed component be valuable? What outcome is being achieved? How does that play with other key intensions? The ability to conceptually model a domain and the customer needs within it gives one a “true north”, when iteratively rolling out features to users who regularly change their minds. My observations are that very few BA’s play well in this “design thinking” space.

How do teams have effective conversations?
Certain Agile methodologies have no formal BA role. This is based off the assumption that effective collaboration takes place between business and developers directly, and that designs and decisions can be taken forward with the direct involvement of the person requesting a feature and those who can implement it. Collaboration is a pillar of iterative approaches, designed to deliver a minimum product early, and offer incremental value over time.

However, my observations are that people do not have effective conversations. A collaborative meeting does not mean that everyone is on the same page. It does not replace the need for a written record of discussions, thinking and decisions. Projects grind to a halt when the same conversation happens over and over again and there is no clear outcome. Documenting pages of models to be reviewed at length by multiple stakeholders is not the answer. The solution is to facilitate those conversations effectively and to visualise the discussion, the outcomes and the points of contention – to ensure everyone in the room is on the same page. If BAs learn nothing else, they really need to be able to stand at a white-board and capture what the room is saying.

Which UX / CX perspectives are helpful?
If getting under a customer’s skin is so valuable, I believe BAs should learn some typical UX / CX skills.

  • User and customer interviews define insights that we typically do not uncover using a process or use case approach
  • Observations techniques, which aim to find out why the customer or user behaves in a certain way, have a different outcome from observing an existing system being used – with the system rather than the user taking centre stage
  • Personas are a great tool for summarising observation data into a format with which the team can engage
  • Customer journey maps drive the correct identification of bottlenecks and areas of innovation
  • Wireframing is a very effective tool to define a process for a user. We spend so much time drawing process models, only to discover that the corresponding screen flow would be cumbersome and frustrating

It does not make sense to load analytical time with artefacts if they do not provide value and feedback quickly.

What new BA career opportunities exist?
I believe that many large organisations in South Africa have a long road ahead on their Agile journey. As organisational agility matures and cross-functional feature teams take shape, the translation role that BAs have typically played may become less important. However, the ability to question why effort is being spent, or to design solutions which can create a step change, becomes a strategic business role. BAs are well positioned to take on such a role, especially if they are proficient in the new skills highlighted above. What an exciting prospect!

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