5 Business Analysis Trends to Watch in 2018


Introduction: The Conditions are Strong for Business Analysis!

It is often said that we live in a ‘fast moving world’, and many would agree that in recent years we have seen extremely fast movement in the context that organizations operate within. Whether it is political change, the availability of new technology, changes in social trends or customer expectations, increasingly there is a need for our organizations to respond quickly. Organizations that cannot innovate, adapt and respond to the market risk losing their market share as they slowly dwindle away. Stakeholders want change, and they want it now… gone are the days (if they ever existed) where schedules were empty and time was available in abundance.

In situations of fast-paced change, business analysis is even more relevant than ever. BA Practitioners are able to help organizations identify problems, opportunities and threats, and work with stakeholders to create new products, new ways of working and new ways of solving problems. Skills that underpin business analysis such as holistic and systemic thinking have a huge part to play in this context.

Given the speed of change, it is really tricky to predict what trends will grow in popularity or relevance. I am sure whatever emerges will seem obvious in hindsight, even if it would have been difficult to foresee. Yet, I have always thought that making predictions has a useful place in that it creates a conversation and it creates debates. So, what follows is designed to provoke discussion, and is intended to represent ‘potential trends to watch’. It is certainly not intended as a definitive or extensive list. I’d love to hear your views, so please do connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn and let’s continue the conversation.

Trend 1: Increased Focus on Organizational Agility (as well as Agile!)

In order to keep up with the fast-paced external environment, organizations increasingly rely on their underlying organizational agility, and business analysis has a key part to play in enabling this. Agility is a broad term (be sure to check out the ‘business agility manifesto’ for a wider discussion), but a key angle relates to how quickly the organization can respond to a stimulus from its environment and adapt. Imagine an opportunity or threat presenting itself— did the organization predict it? Did it even see it when it happened? Does the organization have the ability to act quickly, experiment, test and learn? All of this requires a commitment to agility throughout the organization.

Agility requires a coordinated response from different actors within the organization, and it can be small-scale or huge. This probably sounds rather abstract, so let’s take a fictional example. Imagine three online retailers dominate a particular niche market. All three have ‘free three day delivery’ or ‘express one day delivery’ options, which customers accept as the norm. A new innovative competitor emerges that offers free one day delivery, and can even offer 3-hour delivery for a limited range of products in some cities.

The entry of a new innovative competitor threatens to reduce sales and create higher expectation from existing customers.

How do the companies respond?

Retailer 1: The Dodo
  • Doesn’t notice the change, as it isn’t carrying out regular competitive analysis
  • Therefore takes no action
  • Only becomes aware once profit has dropped: Then launches into an investigation and lengthy feasibility study
  • Proceeds through a long, tortuous decision making process
  • Eventually delivers a change a year or so later
  • Has no mechanism for checking the effectiveness of the change
  • Moves on to the next ‘crisis’
Retailer 2: The Snail
  • Notices the change, and decides to offer new delivery options to compete
  • Writes a business case, based on entirely fictional data (as it’s impossible to know how much extra business will be gained, but the project appraisal process requires tangible benefits)
  • The business case is approved
  • A team is given the technological work to deliver; but the organization has constrained the team to only focus on the technology (much to the team’s protests, as they want to take a holistic approach!)
  • The technology change is developed incrementally, and is ready to go
  • However…few of the picking and packing processes are documented; so whilst the technology change is relatively easy, actually getting the holistic change implemented is much harder
  • Technology changes are handed over to ‘business readiness’ team to roll out the change
  • The change is finally implemented, after significant teething problems
  • There was supposed to be a follow-up evaluation on whether the change achieved benefits, but that never happened…
Retailer 3: The Chameleon
  • Pre-empts the change. Waits to see if any competitors try it first. Has a strategy of being a ‘fast-follower’ rather than a ‘pioneer’
  • Sees a competitor makes the change. Immediately agrees ‘seed funding’ for an experiment
  • Defines clear desired outcomes from the change
  • Key business processes are deliberately designed to be flexible and can be ‘impact assessed’. It is quickly seen that there is a viable way of creating an experiment to test the idea
  • Creates an experiment for a defined segment of customers. Involves key stakeholders
  • Tests, learns, adapts
  • Looks at real data to determine whether change is viable and should be continued
  • Continues to monitor the external environment, innovate and prepare for the next change

We could consider agility to be a spectrum and we would probably all agree that retailer 3 is showing most agility. Of course, this example is deliberately provocative, and the spectrum is much wider than that illustrated by the limited examples above.

Utilization of agile approaches will be an important step towards organizational agility, but the picture is broader than just ‘doing Scrum’ (or any other approach). It requires a change in how organization’s think about change, how they monitor the environment, and in the governance procedures that allow it to respond to the change. It requires a commitment to look at change systemically, empowering teams to experiment, and facilitating learning throughout the organization. It requires commitment at all levels of the organization.

So, agility requires, amongst other things:

  • Regular strategic analysis of the external business environment
  • A joined-up mechanism by which the relevant organizational stakeholders can make decisions and enable the organization to respond
  • A mechanism for testing and learning
  • An ethos and culture of experimenting and learning

This provides significant opportunities for practitioners of business analysis who can work with the relevant stakeholders and help facilitate the strategic analysis. We can then help facilitate the experimentation, implantation and refinement—our skills are relevant throughout.

Trend 2: Recognition of the Breadth of the Role (And it’s the role not the title)!

It is hard to believe that it will soon be two years since BABOK® v3 was released. One of the significant ‘upgrades’ in v3 was the more explicit recognition of the breadth of the BA role. It is certainly true that in some organizations and teams, this breadth is recognized already—however other teams may find that their stakeholders have a much narrower expectation of what business analysis involves.

A trend that is likely to continue is the international BA community’s collaborative effort to raise awareness of what business analysis involves—which could be anything from pre-project problem analysis, strategy analysis, requirements elicitation & analysis, solution evaluation and much, much more besides. I sense we have all faced misconceptions and misunderstandings of the BA role during our career—perhaps a stakeholder has never heard of a BA, and we have to explain to them our role (and why it is beneficial). I remember once meeting a stakeholder who thought my only purpose at a meeting was to take the minutes (this was down to a genuine misunderstanding, and I was soon able to set him straight!) The baseline of recognition seems to be rising within organizations, but we all contribute to creating awareness with every interaction that we have. On a local level, as practitioners we can help create awareness stakeholder by stakeholder.

Of course, it’s also true that not every practitioner covers every element of the BA role in every engagement. The discipline of business analysis provides us with a rich toolkit, and a skilled practitioner reads the context and environment to decide what tool to deploy. So whilst the recognition of the breadth will continue to increase, we should also ensure that there is recognition that different practitioners will have different levels of experience, specialties and so forth.

It’s also true that not all business analysis is conducted by people with the formal title ‘business analyst’. It really is the role that matters, irrespective of the specific job title.

Trend 3: Early Engagement becoming the Norm and Outcomes Matter Most

Looking back over the past decade, there seems to have been a definite shift in when BAs are engaged. Increasingly, organizations are seeing the value in engaging BA practitioners at the ‘messy front end’ of the organizational change lifecycle. This is where the problem is ill-defined; the solution is not yet decided upon (and might not even be known). It is long before any solution requirements are discussed, and the focus is on understanding the current situation, analyzing stakeholder perspectives and helping to define the outcomes that the organization needs to achieve.

In situations like this, a practitioner can add so much value. We can help our organizations to ‘do the right things’. If we can facilitate the agreement of the internal and external outcomes that should be achieved, then further down the line discussions about solution requirements become much, much easier. Prioritization is much easier as we can ask ‘which of these two options gets us closest to achieving our outcomes’.

However, it’s certainly true that not all organizations—yet—recognize that BA practitioners can play in this space. It is perhaps a gradual trend that will continue through 2018 and beyond!

Trend 4: Learning at the Fringe

There’s an increasing expectation that practitioners of business analysis should be T-shaped; that they should have deep analytical and organizational understanding, but also a broad appreciation of a range of different disciplines.

It seems likely this trend will continue, and it creates a really exciting opportunity. In order for organizations to progress change that delivers successful outcomes, and in order for organizations to execute on their strategy, they need a range of different disciplines. As BAs we’ll have interactions with many of those professionals, and there is often a ‘shared space’ or a ‘shared interest’ between disciplines.

On the one hand, this could lead to turf wars with each profession jealously guarding its territory. However, the existing trend towards T-shaped professionals encourages us to ask “what can we learn from each other?”. This provides us with exciting opportunities to learn not just at the core of our role, but also the fringes. By understanding how different disciplines are similar, how they are different, how they interface and how we can apply techniques from one to another we grow as a profession. We might ask “How can a BA best work with a UX professional, and what can we learn from each other?”, or we might look at blending business analysis with systems thinking, or process management and so forth. This is not to say we need to be an expert in these other disciplines—but having enough knowledge to have a meaningful conversation with the relevant practitioners will enable us to build a community of practice that spans disciplines. Or, what we might more accurately define as a ‘constellation of communities’.

Trend 5: BAs in the Community

An emerging trend that I hope grows could be titled ‘BAs in the Community’, or more provocatively ‘BA Activism!’

The skills that we use during the working day have equal application in our local communities. I have spoken recently to BAs who have volunteered their time outside of work towards causes that they care about. This might involve some ‘operational’ volunteering, but there is real value in volunteering our BA Skills. Imagine: Rather than volunteering for four hours at a soup kitchen, what if you gave them four hours of analysis time? Could you find ways that they could serve more needy people? Or find new innovative ways for them to get funding? Or find other services that they could collaborate with (so a ‘package’ of support is provided). Or could you make a longer commitment to sit as a trustee on the board?

Or, perhaps you are politically minded and feel passionately about a local topic. Could you influence your local elected representative? Speak at a meeting? Present a compelling case for change? Even subtle nudge in the right direction could lead to significant long term benefits for the community.

Of course, these are just two examples, I am sure you can imagine many others. I truly hope that 2018 is a year that sees this trend accelerate, as the analysis community continues to push analytical and critical thinking into the mainstream.

Author: Adrian Reed, Principal Consultant at Blackmetric Business Solutions Ltd

Adrian Reed is a true advocate of the analysis profession. In his day job, he acts as Principal Consultant and Director at Blackmetric Business Solutions where he provides Business Analysis consultancy and training solutions to a range of clients in varying industries. Adrian is a past President of the UK chapter of the IIBA® and he speaks internationally on topics relating to Business Analysis and business change. You can read Adrian's blog at http://www.adrianreed.co.uk. Follow Adrian on Twitter @UKAdrianReed.



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