The Real Role of the Business Analyst: Connecting Strategy to Action

If business analysts were just people who "analyze businesses" they would have, at most, a passive role that wouldn't contribute to their organizations' achieving their goals. The real role of the business analyst is a far more active one and provides the essential link between the organization's goals and its IT projects.

Business analysts who adopt a passive approach of only providing "analysis" as an input to the people who actually make things happen are letting their organizations down. In a world with a constantly changing business environment, if businesses are going to achieve their goals, BAs need to take a more active role. That passive role is an easy one to fall into. Wikipedia, for example, defines four kinds of business analysts...but all four definitions use words like "identify," "define," "standardize," and "interpret." Those are four passive verbs, suggesting that BAs don't actually "do" anything.

You can see that more active role in the definition used by Villanova University. Villanova describes BAs as "the vital link between a firm's information technology capabilities and its business objectives." Business analysts, for Villanova, are instrumental in "corporations achieving their goals" and make achieving those goals "happen more efficiently and effectively."

Succeeding in that role involves a lot more than "identifying" things. To achieve that link between business objectives and technology, BAs play a role both at the enterprise level, where strategy is made, and at the team level, where projects are implemented.

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An Active Role at the Strategic Level

Learning Tree's course The Strategic Role of the Business Analyst, describes the business analyst role at the enterprise level as critical to helping the organization adapt to a changing world. The BA does this by answering these three questions:

    • What is happening outside of our organization?
    • How might what is happening outside affect what we do inside?
    • Which functional areas of our business will respond to what is happening?
Notice that the business analyst doesn't just provide the inputs to those decisions -- the business analyst provides answers to those questions.

This doesn't mean that BAs usurp the role of the organization's managers. There will always be more opportunities and threats for an organization to address than the organization can deal with individually. Managers must decide which of the things going on outside of the organization will get a response and which ways of responding make the most sense for the organization. But a BA who just provides raw data without answering those three questions isn't making their full contribution to aiding the organization in achieving its goals.

A Critical Role at the Team Level

But, to provide that link between the organization's objectives and IT, BAs also have to play a role at the project team level.

In an earlier blog post, I described the BAs' role on Agile teams as ensuring "that the delivered solution is a real solution for the organization" ("ensuring" isn't a passive verb either, by the way). If that sounds like the role of the product owner in Agile projects, that's not an accident. The International Consortium for Agile's course Business Analysis Introduction: Defining Successful Projects describes the BA's role at the team level as having a "large overlap" with the product owner. The difference between the two roles is "largely in the authority levels": People called 'project owners' have more authority; People called 'business analysts' have less.

To ensure teams deliver real solutions, Scrum.org describes the BA/product owner as responsible, among other things, for three tasks:
    • Expressing the team's backlog items
    • Ordering those items to best achieve goals and missions
    • Optimizing the value of the work the team performs

I've added the emphasis in the last two tasks because they are what links projects to the organization's strategy. It's only possible to order backlog items at the team level if the person involved understands their organization's "goals and missions." What counts as "optimizing value" is also going to vary from one organization to another (speedier delivery? cheaper delivery? higher level of technical sophistication?) and requires understanding the organization's goals and mission.

Linking the Roles

Deciding "what the organization's goals are" and "what optimizations matter" brings us back around to the BA's role at the enterprise level: Knowing how the organization's world is changing and how the organization can respond to those changes are what drive the organization's goals and values. By having a role to play both at the enterprise level and the team level, BAs function as the link between defining the organization's goals and achieving those goals through leveraging technology. Only through that link can organizations implement the changes that allow the organization to both survive and thrive in a changing world.

AUTHOR: Peter Vogel

Related Training:
Business Analysis Training
Project Management Training
Agile and Scrum Training