Business Analyst Career Progression

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Many business analysts' find themselves in their role quite by coincidence but once there either decide this is a role they love or hate. There are certain requirements (if you'll pardon the cliche) or competencies you must display to be successful in this profession. We will first explore the foundational knowledge and skills needed in the early part of a business analysts' career and then what is required to progress.

Entry-level Business Analyst

From a foundational knowledge perspective, the first thing a BA must possess is some technical aptitude. This does not mean a BA has to have a degree in Management Information Systems, or Software Engineering but they do have to understand what a software application is and how it works i.e. processes translate to logic, data is information the business cares about, business rules govern the way a business operates. The reason this knowledge is important is because most BA's will start their careers at the project level working on software enhancements and implementations. In addition, junior BA's are expected to have an awareness of analytical techniques but many times will be leaning heavily on senior BA's to help them think through which techniques are most appropriate for each project. For business analysis positions in particular, mentoring is an effective way to support and enhance learning.

When evaluating potential candidates for this role, the foundational skills become more important than the actual knowledge the person possesses. The skills necessary to be successful as a business analyst are difficult to measure and even more difficult to teach so it is particularly important to evaluate individuals carefully.

Critical skills needed:

  • Critical thinking
  • Analytical ability
  • Ability to negotiate
  • Ability to facilitate meetings
  • Collaboration
  • Continuous learning
  • Strong communication skills (both written and verbal)

The challenge is creating an interviewing or assessment process that will tell you clearly if a person has these skill sets. Many times it is a guessing game. One approach for assessing competencies in this area is utilizing very robust analytical and behavioral type questions. Please see a list of some suggested questions at the end of this article.

Mid-level Business Analyst

As a business analyst matures in his or her career, the expectations should change. You would expect an individual to gain a deeper understanding of the business environment they are serving but in addition to that you would expect to see maturity in their ability to apply new and varied analytical techniques. By the time a BA has 5-7 years of experience they should have the ability to be deployed on new projects, assess the needs of the project, recommend how to approach the project; including who to elicit information from, what techniques to utilize, and how long it should take.

Critical skills needed:

  • Increase business knowledge
  • Action oriented
  • Leadership
  • Ability to escalate issues appropriately
  • Present information for decision making purposes with little to no direction
  • Increased acumen for planning
  • Strong time management skills
  • Ability to multi-task i.e. managing multiple projects

By this point in their career, most BA's have decided if they love it or hate it. It should be clear to anyone evaluating folks at this level where they stand. If a BA jumps on new projects with enthusiasm and excitement - they love their role. If they don't and they complain a lot about every project - then it is probably safe to assume - they hate it.

Senior-level Business Analyst

In addition to all the knowledge and skills mentioned above, at the senior level you would begin to see or should see a resource that is helping to drive the business analysis practice, mentoring others, and strong problem solving ability. Other skills needed at this level are a high degree of professionalism, and the ability to easily balance the big picture (or strategic vision) of the organization with the day to day operations (or projects).

Critical skills needed:

  • Creative problem solving
  • Ability to influence others
  • Mentoring others
  • Strategic agility - strong understanding of why projects are being done
  • Ability to ask tough questions and push back professionally and creatively to ensure the success of the organization and projects
  • Comfort with presenting at the senior executive level
  • The individuals that make it to this level should be high performers. If there are currently people in your organization with this title that don't look much like this description, you have a problem.

Enterprise Business Analyst

Enterprise Business Analyst is actually a new role for most organizations and some organizations have not even created it yet but the need for it is undeniable. In organizations that have created this role, they have created a career path for highly skilled analysts to move into and continue to add significant value to the organization. Most analysts' performing in this role have a thorough understanding of the business and in depth knowledge of the overall project portfolio. Their primary responsibility is to understand the strategic direction of the organization and do research on new ideas / initiatives the organization may want to pursue. After the research is complete, the analyst will make recommendations on what projects should be pursued. This work is considered "pre-project" because a go / no-go decision has not been made yet. The analyst will provide information around cost / benefit analysis and the feasibility of specific solutions. By having a resource perform in this role, the organization is investing in research before making a multi-million dollar investment in technology, or infrastructure.

Critical skills needed:

  • Conduct research independently
  • Conduct cost/benefit analysis
  • Present information at the executive level
  • Informing and making recommendations
  • Influential leadership
  • Leverage a wide variety of tools / techniques to facilitate communication
  • When leveraged properly, this role can considerably impact the ROI of an organization by ensuring the right projects are being invested in at the right time for the right reasons.

Reference - Analytical / Behavioral Based Questions:

  1. Can you tell me about a time you were having difficulty on a project and how you solved the problem?

  2. When confronted with problems in your personal or professional life, how do you resolve them?

  3. Tell me about a time you had to gather a large amount of data and analyze it - how did you do it and how did you present the information?

  4. Have you ever made recommendations on a project that ended up being wrong? How did you handle that?

  5. Can you tell me about a time you discovered a more efficient way to do a task?

  6. Can you tell me about a time you had to influence a decision without being direct?

  7. Tell me about a project where you had to negotiate between two different stakeholders.

  8. What technique would you use to visually represent the scope of a project?

Author: Kimberly Terribile

Kimberly recently moved back to Madison, Connecticut and is enjoying doing strategic business analysis and helping to build the business analysis practice at Pfizer, Inc.

For more information on any of the information mentioned in this article, please contact Kimberly Terribile at kimberlyterribile@yahoo.com.

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COMMENTS

fizz posted on Monday, June 8, 2009 11:43 AM
In the region where I work (Middle East), the Enterprise BA role is extremely rare. Due to a lack of growth opportunities, BA's continue to remain a BA's (or at best Senior/Lead BA's) in their organization after many years because either the organization is not sure what to do with them or they've hit the proverbial plateau with regards the levels that can be achieved.

This while many of their peers who started off as System Analysts of Application Analysts get the flashier title of Project Manager, considered more lucrative and certainly higher paying. It is because of this that many BA's are using the role is a springboard to get into the more visible, more transferable (from a skills perspective) PM role which has more defined progression - Project Director, Program Manager, Head of PMO etc.

Still, the article is insightful and sheds much needed light into the continuing evolution of a BA.
Anonymous posted on Wednesday, June 10, 2009 8:09 PM
Kimberly,

I'm not sure the profession is mature enough to provide a real career path for BAs (except on paper). A more pragmatic path may be recognising a real career path is impossible at the moment and focus on providing support for the right on-ramps and off-ramps can be more constructive than defining a formal career path.

The comment above is right when it talks of the BA role as a springboard instead of a destination.

The PM shift is a common one, but I've also seen a number of BAs make the switch to Solution and Enterprise architecture, into the business proper, or as strategy/process consultants.

The PM/Architect/BA Troika all have significant cross-over of needed soft and hard skills. Looking at the bullet points of needed skills you've put down for Jnr/Mid/Snr BAs I could use that list for any of the Troika.

I tend to look at BA career "progression" going along three axes, each combination providing a different possible career exit:
A) Technical vs. Business (Do you get systems working for business, or businesses using systems?)
B) Project vs. Program (Do you deliver results, or deliver power points?)
C) Do vs. Control (Are you delivering yourself, or managing the delivery of others?)

There's no intrinsically "Senior" end to any of these axes.

"Snr BA" tends to be different in each organisations - sometimes its the person who sets overall strategy, sometimes it's the person who manages the BAs, sometimes it's the person who elicits the business requirements (In the BABOK sense) and does program of work managements. Sometimes its just someone who's been around for the longest time.
harris.lloydlevy posted on Wednesday, June 10, 2009 8:13 PM
(Above comment was posted by Harris Lloyd-Levy. http://consultnik.blogspot.com/. Not sure why it was posted anonymously.)
peterleather posted on Tuesday, June 23, 2009 4:57 AM
Hi Kimberley

Interesting article! I wanted to mention that another great source for Business Analyst skill definitions is the Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA).

SFIA is an open-source skills framework owned by the SFIA Foundation. It is open to use by anyone and is free of charge if it is used as a skills management tool within an organisation. SFIA provides the most widely accepted description of Business Change & IT skills in the world today. Although created and maintained in the UK it has been accessed by approximately 15,000 organisations from more than 100 countries. It is used in a range of industries and covers the private, public and not-for-profit sectors. It has been translated into Japanese, Chinese and Spanish.

SFIA version 4 was published in December 2008 and the framework now defines several business analysis-related skills e.g.

- Business process improvement
- Innovation
- Consultancy
- Business analysis
- Business process testing
- Change implementation planning and management
- Business modelling
- Organisation design and implementation
- Stakeholder relationship management
- Data analysis
- Requirements definition and management
- Usability requirements analysis
- Usability evaluation

The framework is a large matrix with 2 dimensions. The first dimension is levels of responsibility (levels 1 to 7) and the second dimension is skills (there are 86 skills overall).

The responsibility levels map onto the generic levels you mention in your article.

The great thing about the framework is that each skill has an overall description and then a number of levels within each skill are also defined. This is really helpful for career and personal development planning as you can map and plot your desired path in terms of skill progression.

I have some additional articles on the SFIA framework at www.exceptional-performance.co.uk/category/sfia/

SFIA can be downloaded for free from the SFIA website at www.sfia.org.uk/cgi-bin/wms.pl/932.

There is also a SFIA Users forum (I am the host) at www.sfiauser.ning.com

regards

Peter Leather
jennyjen4000 posted on Monday, June 29, 2009 11:00 AM
I've been seeing more and more openings for business analysts, and was just recently sensing that this role is being valued more in organizations. Do you agree?
Anonymous posted on Tuesday, June 30, 2009 7:18 AM
I am a newbie to business analysis and I've been finding it difficult to get a jnr.BA role. So I've re-branded my CV and I'm marketing myself as a business analyst which seems to be working because I'm getting calls.

Your post will enable me prepare for my interviews by concentrating more on the skills that are expected from a mid-level BA person.
laith_ob posted on Tuesday, October 6, 2009 10:09 AM
its an interesting article, but as Fizz said above this position in the middle east is not mature enough, even all over the world this position is not clearly defined yet and you can find alot of defintions for this postion :S.
my question here how could a business analyst measure his/her soft skills as we all know most required skills for business analyst are soft skills ????
kim.moose posted on Thursday, October 22, 2009 9:37 PM
I think it is fantastic to see how seriously the role of the business analyst is now being taken, but I do fine these career path discussion to be a little misleading.

The skills and attributes that make an excellent business analyst are not the same that make for a good PM, EA, or even a BA Manager.

Having transitioned from being a senior BA to the manager of the BA I can say with some confidence that it is a very different skill set. Many of my most experienced BAs are happy solving problems. Often they are little more mature and perhaps a little less insecure with their place in organisational hierarchy, so my role is about making sure they kept challenged intellectually and supported emotionally.

I worry when I hear people describe the BA career path as a dead end because this implies that all career paths must lead to the management ladder. I think it's fantastic role that keeps getting better with more recognition of what's involved.
slkelly posted on Wednesday, November 4, 2009 1:33 PM
Who say the career path is a dead end? JennyJen4000 I agree - I've seen more recognition for the role of business analyst in the last ten years, more openings in the field, better pay etc. - particularly after you hit the 5 year mark in experience. Jr BAs - Be prepared to "do your time" just like any field working on mundane stuff no one else wants to touch. Anyone in the field worried about maturity and recognition of the role - spend about a fifth of your time documenting the value of your work.

Here are some other things I've leared about BA work:
- One should spend the time showing people that your work is NOT a "make-work" exercise this is a common misconception about the value of the work, that you only know when analysis fails and not when it is working well.
- Good analysis is about finding problems and progress, not perfection - if an analyst publishes work which paints a rosy picture, it is always suspect
- simplify simplify simplify

Add "resourceful" to the critical skills list - YOU MUST be prepared to find answers on your own when asking questions gets you nowhere.
slkelly posted on Wednesday, November 4, 2009 1:35 PM
Oops, one more thing ... found this today: http://www.amazon.com/Analyst-Leader-Elevating-Role-Business/dp/1567262139/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1257362297&sr=1-2 thought it might be helpful to some of you ( I have received no money for this plug :) ).
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