It is not entirely clear when the terms ‘business analysis’ and ‘business analyst’ first entered general use, writes Paul Turner, Director of Assist Knowledge Development.

Originally, these terms referred to business finance work rather than in connection with information systems. However, now that business analysis (BA) has developed for over two decades, it is time to consider how the discipline has developed and whether it has entered a period of maturity.

As a consultant and trainer, I have met thousands of business analysts and have been able to discuss their business analysis work with them. Over the years, many business analysts have reported frustration with their role in their organisation - in particular a lack of clarity about the precise nature of the role and its scope and authority.

Whilst the work has sometimes been wide-ranging, from developing process models (as an end in itself on occasion) to specifying IT system requirements, the analysts have often reported a lack of clarity about where they fit into the overall process of business improvement and business change.

However, in the last few years there has been a demonstrable sea change. An increasing number of organisations have developed excellent BA practices, employing many knowledgeable and skilled analysts.

In many cases the analysts hold professional qualifications, such as those offered by the BCS and / or the IIBA to complement their practical experience, and they are very clear about the role that a business analyst could, and should, perform.

In these organisations, there are often principal business analysts, who guide and mentor more junior analysts. These business analysts recognise that early intervention by business analysts can save organisations money and time; that they have to analyse business problems thoroughly, and look for root causes rather than just leaping to a quick (or not so quick) IT based solution.

They know there is little point delivering a solution on time and within budget if it is the wrong solution and does not address business needs or deliver measurable benefits. They can identify where changes would bring real benefit to the organisation if they are given the opportunity to do so.

Acting as an internal consultant

However, whilst these skills and abilities are understood and valued within the business analysis community, the expertise on offer is not always appreciated, or known about, by those working in other aspects of business change and the wider organisation.

Clearly, business managers are there to manage and make decisions but often they are not the best people to identify all the aspects that are contributing to a business problem. Sometimes, they just do not have the time to fully understand a range of different views, issues and needs.

Senior managers may be too remote from the day-to-day work to see where bottlenecks and problems are occurring; front-line managers are often too close to the action or too busy to take an objective view.

The internal business analysts, acting in the role of internal consultant or adviser, have the potential to offer real benefit to their organisations. They can offer an objective view that is based upon an analytical and systemic approach.

They can bridge the different aspects of business performance, including those which necessitate a good understanding of the capabilities and limitations of the organisation’s IT systems. But this is not yet happening in all organisations.

Outside the business analysis community there appears to be little recognition of the range of capabilities the business analyst possesses. So, where does this lack of recognition originate? Perhaps it is the name - business analyst - which does not provide a clear sense of the work and responsibilities, and is open to interpretation.

Perhaps it is the lack of clear role definition. The consultancy nature of business analysis and the potential to offer real value to organisations may not be apparent. Perhaps the business analysts need to put more effort into marketing their capabilities to the organisation.

The skills held by the internal consultant (business analyst) are the same as those of the external consultants, but the internal consultant has a greater understanding of the organisation.

One approach being adopted to increase the credibility of the internal consultant analysts is to undertake consultancy skills training and gain relevant qualifications. One such qualification is the IS Consultancy certification offered by BCS Professional Certifications.

Reporting and management

The reporting and management structure for business analysts can also be a source of difficulty. There has been an ongoing debate for many years about the pros and cons of locating the business analysts in ‘IT’ or in ‘the business’; this has often been reflected in frequent, cyclical reorganisations.

Perhaps we could apply the principles of business analysis itself to this question and challenge the conventional wisdom, by asking whether there are other possible options. There are some organisations where the business analysts sit within functions dealing with business strategy, business change or business improvement.

In my opinion, these options are preferable as they are closer to the real activity of business analysis and are less likely to involve the design of solutions before a holistic analysis has been undertaken.

Twenty-five years on, business analysis is emerging as a well defined and mature specialism. A specialism staffed by highly-qualified professionals with a defined career development path and a corresponding level of authority within the organisation.

In addition, there is now a thriving BA community in the UK with its own yearly conference, regular events and network of discussion groups, supported by a well established modular certification scheme from BCS.

It would be terrific if this specialism could be led by a director of business analysis with the authority to insist that business analysts are utilised to their fullest extent.

If business analysis is a mature discipline and the expertise is available, surely this is a natural next move for organisations striving for efficiency and excellence, while responding to a wide range of external pressures.