I've given a fair amount of thought in recent weeks to what is one of the most fascinating, albeit fuzziest, roles in the typical enterprise: the business analyst. That's because I recently wrote a story about business analysts, for which I interviewed Forrester Research analyst Mary Gerush and three BAs.
As they realize the importance of BAs, companies are striving to develop a clearer picture of what BAs can do for their companies and to identify the skill sets that make someone an effective BA. Two skills mentioned repeatedly in my conversations with Gerush and the BAs were an ability to communicate with both IT and the business and the ability to analyze and solve problems.
Both come into play during requirements gathering, one of the key tasks performed by BAs, as Gerush elaborates in my interview with her. She says:
... There are statistics out there about the high costs of poor or missing requirements. Combine that with the statistics showing low project success. The business analyst is key in producing successful project outcomes. The business analyst is able to draw out and interpret requirements, almost in a lot of cases, being able to anticipate, crystal-ball style, what a business stakeholder is trying to say without their having to say it. ...
With all of this fresh in my mind, I was especially interested to see a CIOUpdate column written by Brian Cook in which he makes the case that cross-functional BAs are generally more effective in producing requirements than BAs with expertise in specific areas. A key reason: Cross-functional BAs lack the kind of biases that may prevent them from seeing the "big picture." As Cook writes:
When a BA is too familiar with a domain the BA will share the same thought processes and concepts as the rest of the team for better or for worse. However, a BA with expert level skills who is new to the domain is much more likely to ask the "dumb" question that will uncover misaligned assumptions early on when they can be addressed at the lowest cost.
Cook also cites some IAG Consulting research that stresses the importance of effective requirements gathering. Companies with strong requirements-gathering practices will come in on budget 50 percent of the time, vs. less than 20 percent of the time for companies lacking such practices. The latter companies will spend, on average, $2.24 million per project than their savvier peers.
IAG Consulting's suggested approach is to organize cross-functional BA teams into requirements-gathering centers of excellence "to optimize the use of elite analysts across the enterprise." It also suggests having BAs report to both the business and IT to improve the odds of project success.