To BA or not to BA: that is the question

By Robin Grace, Principal consultant, IndigoCube

Johannesburg, 11 Nov 2011
Read time 7min 40sec

In several discussions with large corporates, a theme is beginning to emerge: when does the BA become involved in a business initiative?

The problem is that 80% of CEOs believe innovation will drive efficiencies and lead to competitive advantage, according to PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PWC). Almost 70%, says PWC, are investing in IT to reduce costs and become more efficient, and as many as 54% of them are funnelling funds towards growth initiatives.

Those guys are not about to be shooting projects down before they get off the ground. Those CEOs will look for ways to drive and manage innovation, something not done by many organisations outside the products arena, says Robin Grace, Principal consultant of IndigoCube.

So, returning to the original question; how, if at all, is the BA involved in a business initiative (innovation, efficiency, opportunistic, and new technologies exploration, etc)?

The answer lies in the fundamental skills the BA brings to any problem or endeavour. Anybody who has heard me waxing lyrical about business analysis will tell you I always throw this question out to the audience.

What does the BA fundamentally do?

I get all sorts of answers:

Document the requirements, communicate with users and IT, etc. While they are true, the thing we do is to follow three steps.

Elicit information from stakeholders, document the information in a manner that is understandable to those stakeholders, then go back to those stakeholders and say, did I get it right, or did I understand you correctly?

If you look at a good BA, these are three steps they get right. Please don't get me wrong, there are lots of other things we do, but these three steps are core to what we do.

With that understanding, we can re-look at the question asked at the beginning of the article, when to involve a BA in a business initiative. Rather, we can ask: “When do we need to elicit information from stakeholders and document the resultant information?” Hey, that's what a BA does well. The answer becomes much easier. Often business is aware of a problem, or opportunity, but the need is not clearly identified, defined or articulated. Well that's what we BAs do well, ask a lot of questions to get a documented answer so the business can say that's it.

Business need

There is a knowledge area of the BABOK called “enterprise analysis”. This is all about documenting the business need.

Enterprise analysis starts off by defining the business need, then assesses how the need can be met, by a solution and its scope, and lastly and most importantly, what is the return on the investment?

Often the business need can start off as a one-pager, which outlines the reasons for further study, nothing more. This should be used as a guide as to why this business initiative is worth pursuing. It should look at the overall business strategy and see if there is alignment of this initiative with that of the overall corporate strategy.

With this documented, we can accept the initiative or reject it, in other words, it is a go or no-go. If it is given a green light, we can start with more analysis, which includes the scope of the problem or opportunity. It will also look at the several approaches that can be used to provide a solution.

At the end of this, we can now put in some numbers as to the cost involved and the expected returns the business is expecting from this initiative. As we don't have enough detail, these cost and returns will be estimates at best. Again, this needs to be a no-go point. You don't want to waste more time and money if there is no business reason to go ahead.

If we have established why this is worth doing, we can proceed with further investigating. The question: is this a BA job?

We can look to the IIBA for guidance on this question. Anybody looking at the recently released Competence Model 3.0 from the IIBA will find a whole new beast in there called the strategic business analyst.

“The strategic business analyst works with business leaders in identifying and bringing strategic initiatives from concept to implementation and validation of benefits realisation and return on investment.”

You can see from this description that is exactly what enterprise analysis is aimed at doing, so the strategic BA and enterprise analysis appear to give us the answer to the question posed at the beginning.

Strategic BAs are not your run-of-the-mill requirements gatherers. They're someone with more skill, someone who can work with an undefined wobbly thing, and turn an amorphous something into a defined solution to a problem and a scope of delivery that meets strategic business objectives.

Identifying risk is a major part of the job, and it isn't done without knowing the ins and outs of the overall business. Strategic BAs also know the organisation's appetite for risk. Knowing every facet of the business is what makes strategic BAs stand out from the crowd. It's what enables them to bring value to the business. Being a strategic business analysis asset requires leadership and credibility, with leadership in the organisation. To establish credibility, the strategic BA must have a very good understanding of the business, because it is that understanding that underpins their value.

But this introduces a whole new set of challenges to the BA world. Most of the time a BA is allocated to a project, but often enterprise analysis is not a project yet, but rather an investigation; only after this process is finished, is there a possibility of a project, maybe more than one.

You still want to record the effort and cost allocated to these initiatives, but in some of my clients, they have no formal structure to monitor this effort. Most record effort by calling the initiative a project, even though it is not a project yet, and might not end up being one. They do this so resources can be allocated to the initiative. This has the effect of having hundreds of projects, and it becomes difficult to see the trees for the forest. Others are setting up a new set of tasks to which time and effort can be recorded, but are having difficulty in understanding what tasks are needed.

In this vein, the organisation should be instituting some form of idea management or innovation management.

Obviously, ideas should work through a process before they become projects. Simplistically, that process is:

1) The idea is voiced;
2) The business problem, need or opportunity is articulated;
3) Solutions are explored and one is identified;
4) A cost benefit analysis is conducted and the solution is prioritised against strategic business goals; and
5) The idea becomes a standard project when it is decided the solution will be designed and rolled out.

But you don't want every project to go through that entire process. Each step requires resources, which costs you, so you want to bullet the bad ideas before the curtain closes. For that you need gates at each step, gates that check ideas against specific criteria.

You must ascertain:

* Criterion 1: What the extent of the idea is;
* Criterion 2: Whether or not it meets the business strategy;
* Criterion 3: What the return on investment (ROI) or cost benefit analysis is;
* Criterion 4: The business risk; and
* Criterion 5: The solution risk.

These criteria should be applied at each of the steps above.

Although the BA will be driving the enterprise analysis initiative, it is probably wise to put in some type of project management as well and by that I'm not saying you need to allocate a PM. The reason for this is some sort of milestone management needs to take place. One of our clients is suffering because there is a lack of managed milestones defined, so there is a lack of urgency and the BAs are under pressure from all sides, so these efforts tend to fall to the bottom of the pile.

A BA needs to elevate their skills to be in a position to be considered a strategic BA, but it should be most BA's dreams to become one. Another saying I am known for saying to Bas is: “If you deliver business value, then the business will value you,” and hopefully that will translate into value in your back pocket.


IndigoCube enables and improves business analysis, software development, software testing and legacy modernisation. It operates at the forefront of these areas and assists its customers to simplify and improve the delivery and maintenance of custom-built software. IndigoCube understands all aspects of software development and has been a custodian of best practice in software development in South Africa, partnering with some of the world's leading vendors. Through these partnerships and the application of best practice, IndigoCube is ideally positioned to boost software delivery and long-term return on investment.

Editorial contacts
Predictive Communications Karen Heydenrych (011) 452 2923
IndigoCube Robin Grace (011) 759-5907
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