The role of business analysts has evolved to the point where, at their highest level, they enable effective business performance, says Debbie Paul, managing director of Assist Knowledge Development.

To convince senior management of their credibility, business analysts require a wide range of skills and experience and often need to show evidence of their skills, for example via ISEB qualifications.

Business analysis is one of the newest roles in the information systems industry, having come to prominence in the last decade. However, the question 'what exactly is business analysis?' is still asked on a regular basis - and often discussed by individuals with the job title business analyst.

When the role first emerged, in the early 1990s, its major focus was on ensuring that the use of IT was aligned to the needs of the organisation. This role was felt to be necessary because organisations were not convinced that the IT department really understood their needs, and complaints about the lack of support for the business requirements were all too common.

The work undertaken by these early practitioners of business analysis was primarily concerned with investigating the organisational context and identifying the business requirements needed to be fulfilled by the IT systems. This is still a key area of work for business analysts.

However, the role has developed further as it has become evident that too often the needs of the business were not met by IT changes. Sometimes, business managers have requested changes to the IT systems that would, at best, have provided a partial solution but sometimes little, if any, beneficial impact.

More often, several options could have improved the work of the organisation, some of which did not include an IT element. Where this was the case, the business analysts were required to analyse the business situation and its problems in some depth; sometimes this would require the analysts to challenge the business managers' perceptions.

For example, business analysts have sometimes found that, rather than enhancing an IT system, the organisation could introduce a new procedure into the business process or could enhance the skills and understanding of the business users so that they communicated with their customers in a different way.

In some organisations, particularly where the role has a degree of maturity, the business analysts have now moved on to another level. In these organisations, they are empowered to examine the opportunities for business improvement in the light of the strategy of the organisation and the opportunities inherent in the external business environment.

In effect, the business analysts work within the context of the business strategy and determine the tactics required to meet the strategic needs. Once the tactics are defined, the business analysts can address the operational issues and ensure that the required processes and IT systems are put in place.

The focus of the business analyst role has therefore changed from ensuring the IT systems met the business needs to understanding the business needs and then identifying the possible ways forward for the organisation.

Although a subtle change in emphasis, this has opened up new opportunities for business analysis and raised its profile. Consequently, this development has also required the analysts to acquire additional competencies and required organisations to empower their business analysts with greater authority.

Herein lies a problem, however, because, whereas the analysts are often keen to extend the scope and authority of their role, this has not always been appreciated by the organisations that employ them and hence has led to a great deal of frustration.

Many analysts have also felt that opportunities to deliver real business improvement have been lost. They recognise that they can operate as internal consultants to their organisations but some business managers feel that the analysts should limit their work to documenting IT requirements and providing support in delivering the IT solution.

So, the business analyst may work at three different levels within their organisation. They may focus on ensuring that the IT requirements really are requirements, support the business context and are well-defined.

Alternatively, they could look at the business operations and any problems inherent within them in order to provide business managers with options for business improvement within their areas. But ultimately, the business analyst may operate at a consultancy level, providing senior management with guidance on the tactical and operational working practices.

Organisations are facing increasing competition, customer demands and constant change to the external business environment. This places pressure upon organisations to respond to these issues by constantly striving to improve and develop.

Business managers often do not have the time or the expertise, particularly in specialist areas such as IT or process improvement, to react to these changes. So the specialist skills provided by the business analysts are vital. This holistic view of the organisation, and performance improvements, can also ensure that investments are made wisely and reflect real business needs.

However, if business analysis is going to deliver all of this benefit to organisations it has to be provided by skilled practitioners. This means that the business analysts have to have a range of competencies in order to handle the vast array of issues that face their organisations.

These competencies may be categorised in two key areas - the professional skills required for the business analysis specialism, and the personal attributes required to work effectively with internal customers.

In addition, because the business analyst is an internal role, organisations often require evidence of these skills; the analysts need to establish their credibility with their internal customers. If they fail to do this, it is debatable whether senior management would listen to them and follow their advice.

One way of providing such evidence is via ISEB qualifications. The Information Systems Examination Board of the BCS recognised the growth of the business analyst role in the mid-1990s and began to offer qualifications to help the development of professional skills for business analysts. In 1999, a qualification portfolio aimed at business analysts was launched with the establishment of the ISEB Diploma in Business Analysis.

This qualification is based upon a modular structure and has been designed to encompass best practice across the range of areas within which business analysts work. To obtain the diploma, candidates need to pass written examinations in four subjects - three mandatory subjects and one specialist subject chosen from four options - plus pass an oral examination. The mandatory subjects are:

  • organisational context - the fundamental areas of organisations, including IT law and business finance;
  • business analysis essentials - a framework and techniques for initial business analysis studies, typically carried out prior to the definition of business improvement projects;
  • requirements engineering - a framework and techniques for eliciting, analysing and documenting the business requirements that help to define an IT solution.

The optional subjects, from which one must be selected, are modelling business processes, benefits management and business acceptance, systems modelling techniques or systems development essentials.

The ISEB qualification provides candidates with a range of skills, based on knowledge and practical application. The examinations require candidates to demonstrate their ability to apply techniques in practice by using a case study scenario. The oral examination tests the other area of competence - the interpersonal and problem-solving skills.

As a result, the qualification rewards candidates who can demonstrate that they have a toolkit of practical skills and can apply them to business problems.

The ISEB qualifications portfolio was recently extended with the introduction of the ISEB Professional award. This gives professional recognition to individuals who can demonstrate extensive knowledge and experience in their chosen specialism, for example business analysis, plus knowledge of other specialist areas covered by the ISEB portfolio.
The inclusion of business analysis for this professional recognition reflects the increasing profile of business analysis and the benefit practitioners can bring to their organisations and the industry overall.

Further information about ISEB