Helping the Business Analyst Helps Your Project

Back in May 2009, I talked about value of the Business Analysts (BA) to a company and a project in facilitating communication among stakeholders, making certain that users are effectively represented in requirements definition and testing of software products, and bringing a broader context to the project. (Business Analysts – the unsung heroes of successful projects)

I recently read an article by Derrick Brown and Jan Kusiak—an update from their 2003 article—called What is a Business Analyst. The article caused me to reflect on how a project manager can help a BA do their job and thereby help the project and the organization.  I recommend the article to you in its entirety. However, here are a few key observations and comments:

  • The BA’s job is to identify the business’s requirements as well as the specific requirements of the client.
  • The BA should extract real needs not just wishes and desires.
  • BA’s are skilled in analysis, modeling, interviewing, presenting, and writing.

How do BAs do their job?
A survey in 2008 by the International Institute of Business Analysts (and reported by Brown and Kusiak) found that 68% of BAs were knowledgeable of waterfall development methods, iterative development (46%), object-oriented (44%) and agile (34%). In terms of tools, the same survey reported that BA’s use flowcharting (63%), use cases (55%), data flow diagrams (42%), activity diagrams (38%), context diagrams (34%), entity relationship diagrams (30%) and business process modeling notation (13%). BA’s use interviews with stakeholders as one of their primary data gathering and analysis tasks.

How to Help the BA
First, it is important to accept that the project manager and the BA are on the same team. Finding the right balance between project goals, client needs, and organizational objectives should not be an adversarial process. Although the BA brings many skills and a broad, general knowledge to his or her job, the project manager better understands the implementation details including possibilities and issues unique to the organization. Therefore, it is important for the PM to be able to articulate capabilities and constraints, supported with data, when converting requirements into actions and schedules.

The BA works with data and information gleaned from interviews with clients, users, and staff. You can help by recommending individuals to be interviewed that have the depth of knowledge and the ability to organize that knowledge in a coherent fashion for the BA.

The communication between the BA and clients or users is two-way. If you or team members need clarification about expectations and requirements, as they exist in the user’s world, ask the BA to help you gain better insight. Explain clearly the implications of the stated requirement to the execution of the project. “Yes, we can give each user control over report screen data entry. However, that will require developing a semantic translation module in the infrastructure to convert entries into usable data. This will make the product more difficult to maintain and slower in execution.”

Make sure your BA understands your development methodology and tools. Although BAs have a broad general knowledge and continuing education, they do not know everything about everything. Offer to provide an overview or tutorial about unique aspects of your project work. Do this in the spirit of camaraderie, not in a condescending way. Remember, your BA knows many things you do not know, too.

Take advantage of your BA’s knowledge of the business world and contacts outside of your experience base. Ask questions, engage in dialogue, and ask for help. If you need a resource to support your execution, such as a tool or a specialist, the BA may be able to help you get what you need. He or she may suggest ways to present a business case to the decision-makers that will significantly increase your chances of success or help find a niche specialist to solve a problem.

Provide your BA with workspace and support services if those are not readily available in your work area. Make it a point to interact with the BA frequently and be friendly. Introduce the BA to the development team and provide a bit of background on the key players that will help him or her find the right person when needed. In addition, include your BA in the informal interactions of the team members.

I am sure many of you have other great ideas about how to help a business analyst, so please share.

Business Analysts – the unsung heroes of successful projects

If your project has a Business Analyst (BA) consider yourself fortunate because a BA helps solve problems when they happen and often prevent them from happening in the first place. On a project, the BA works in tandem with the PM to create a successful project outcome with the PM focusing on resource management and schedule compliance and the BA assuring accurate collection of and compliance with the requirements of all stakeholders.

According to Wikipedia, a BA is “responsible for analyzing the business needs of clients to help identify business problems and propose solutions. Within the systems development life cycle domain, the business analyst typically performs a liaison function between the business side of an enterprise and the providers of services to the enterprise.”

Alternatively, the International Institute of Business Analysis offers the following definition of the BA’s role: "A business analyst works as a liaison among stakeholders in order to elicit, analyze, communicate and validate requirements for changes to business processes, policies and information systems." The BA’s work may include eliciting functional and non-functional requirements, translating business needs to developers and developer’s constraints to other stakeholders, and managing the customer relationship. WOW! I bet they are also expected to part the Red Sea and feed the multitudes.

Why is the BA’s job so difficult and challenging?
The skills required to be an effective BA are spread across such diverse skill sets that they may seem contradictory—logical analysis, understanding state-of-the-art software capabilities, excellent written and verbal communication, diplomacy, knowledge of best practices, attention to detail, and the ability to see and communicate a bigger business picture—it’s a long list.

Let’s consider just one of the crucial BA tasks to see why it can be so difficult and challenging—usability requirements. Usability goes to the heart of acceptance of a software product by the stakeholder group called “users”.  According to Usability First:

“Usability depends on a number of factors including how well the functionality fits user needs, how well the flow through the application fits user tasks, and how well the response of the application fits user expectations. Usability is the quality of a system that makes it easy to learn, easy to use, easy to remember, error tolerant, and subjectively pleasing.”
You may think that the BA could just ask the user’s what they want, document it, and give the requirements document to the project manager. Well, believe me; it does not work that way in practice. One of the problems is that user’s rarely know what they want—at least not in sufficient detail to derive product design specifications. Users may find it difficult to imagine what their experience will be like without actually working with the software to accomplish their job tasks. Then they find all kinds of flaws.
Not to mention that human nature does not always like change and so people will look for details to complain about.  Or, there may be multiple users with competing preferences. Here is how the BA can help ensure usability and acceptance.

  1. Identify the current process and any problems the users have with it
  2. Talk with users about their known preferences and wishes
  3. Create a concept of operations that walks users through the operations of the new software, document their responses, explain them to developers
  4. Create use cases, user personas, or scenarios that explain the varied user’s needs and tasks to the developers and project managers
  5. Use words and pictures to help developers and users communicate more effectively
  6. Maintain requirements compliance and give feedback to both the PM, the users, and the paying client—facilitate continuous communication

You can learn more about BA best practices by ordering a copy of the Business Analysis Body of Knowledge (BABOK) recently updated in March 2009. The book is free for International Institute of Business Analysis members and $29.95 for non-members.

If you have worked with a BA please share your experience.


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