Asking the right questions

Phil Swallow is the 2005 winner of the BCS Business Analyst of the year award. In this article Craig Rollason explores the impact of winning the award and wider issues facing business analysis.

Congratulations - How does it feel to win the award?
Extremely good – in most jobs there are feedback and review processes from which you can gauge your own performance but you don't always get an opportunity to mark your self against others in outside companies. Therefore to receive external recognition from this JP Morgan-sponsored industry award is very pleasing.

What has happened since you won the award?
I have received a lot of congratulatory feedback from peers and senior staff, but also from family and friends. My profile has been raised internally which can only be a good thing. As an award winner there is a higher expectation on what you can do - but I enjoy a challenge!

What made you apply?
The BCS awards are something RBS is keen to promote partly because it encourages staff to benchmark themselves against the industry but also because it is another way in which an individual can develop their career. Staff are nominated by the management team and continually encouraged throughout the application process. RBS were fortunate to have medallists in three categories in 2005.

How did you get into business analysis?
I was working in the business sector of RBS, running a training team for the implementation of a new system. My team fed back issues to the project team as we managed the rollout. I had the view that we were at the end of food chain of what had already been developed and I felt the need to get involved earlier in the process to influence how projects are shaped and delivered. At the end of the rollout there were opportunities for trainee business analysts with a strong understanding of the business, who could use that experience in the development of new projects. I was successful in my application and moved into IT in 1998.

What was your perception of IT before you moved into the area?
My perception of the IT industry consisted of offices full of guys with anoraks, beards and glasses tapping away at computers. Once I got to grips with the role and found that my perception was not entirely correct, I felt there was a big gap to fill between business and IT - a form of translation. Filling the gap became more important especially with banking industry regulatory changes and emerging technologies such as the internet. Recently I have spent time talking to some of the graduates in our company, explaining what I do, and outlining the importance of the business analyst role in terms of the project development life cycle. Hopefully perception is different now to how mine was some seven years ago, and that business analysts have helped that.

What is your BA role within RBS?
I get involved in all aspects of the systems development life cycle such as project scoping, producing documents, assisting the project manager with budgets, planning and estimating, as well as other duties such as chairing the internal design team and managing test environments. I am increasingly involved in setting the strategic direction of projects. I think if you take a step back and think how you could give the best possible customer service you inevitably become involved in business strategy. Rather than looking at the project in isolation, you should consider where that fits in the bigger picture.

To what extent do business analysts need to have business vs IT skills?
The key factor is to understand the perspective of the customer. My background helped me a lot through working for a number of years in branch banking. I understand how the business functions day to day and the demands placed upon it. All of the business people I work with have operational roles and by having an appreciation of what they have to do, you can tailor your approach to achieve a win-win outcome.

So does this mean that the key skill is more in empathizing with business needs rather than understand their business?
You need to do both - but above all you need to ensure your approach is not to force your way of working onto the customers - you need a collaborative approach. Developing a strong relationship with business colleagues is essential to do this.

In your view, what is the split between so-called 'softer' interpersonal skills and hard 'technical skills'?
You do need some to practice basic skills and structured methods for a number of aspects of the role e.g. problem solving etc, but I would say overall the split is 70/30 in terms of soft/hard skills. I would advise organizations developing their business analysts to assess what competencies they need going forward and align people to those. The important skills are in fact very basic such as written and oral communication.

What formal training do you have?
My main teaching has been the University of Life! I was educated to GCSE 'O' level standard and started my banking career at 16. During the nineties I studied various software packages in my own time to arm me with what I felt was necessary for the business analyst role. I have also seen a number of developers move successfully into business analysis because they can bring their 'how things work' knowledge and experience to the party. Other people have used the role as a stepping-stone into project management and consultancy.

To what extend do the perspectives of business analysts and project managers overlap?
It is certainly an interesting relationship – it's important there is mutual understanding of role and needs. I would say the analysts have more license in terms of creativity – it's more a heads up 'where are we going?' rather than heads down 'hitting the cost/quality/timescales' delivery. That's not to say business analysts don't have clear control of the project, it’s just a more comprehensive focus in my opinion.

How do you know you are doing a good job?
We have regular performance feedback sessions within the IT development organization, involving structured meetings with assignment manager (project) and practice manager (development). We also have annual objectives and a development plan. The whole emphasis is around supporting the individual and helping them develop their career for themselves - this is quite a change from 20 years ago when the personnel manager defined your career path.

Do you tie back your success to financial objectives?
Most of my work involves development to support regulatory changes and our record is good - we've never had to go back to the regulator and say we can't deliver on time. On that basis, the financial objectives are met. In the past I have been involved in projects with a bottom line impact and challenged the purpose of some projects - it's important that projects are tied to measurable criteria. My previous business experience gave me the credibility and confidence to do this.

It's said that people have two jobs - doing it and improving it. What activities are you involved with to move RBS forward?
I've recently set up a team to act provide a design review for new developments. This will ensure solutions deliver quality and adhere to standards and strategies. Where issues are found I have a role in facilitating the discussion between the parties to ensure a successful outcome. The feedback we get back from projects so far has been encouraging and that it adds value. A lot more work is needed over the coming months to achieve my aim of a natural fit of this review process within the development life cycle.

A recent Harvard business article suggested IT being more commoditized and less strategic - do you agree?
The IT industry is changing as well as the expectations on IT delivery. Within the business analyst role I think it is important to build the relationships and have the open debate on strategy with senior management. We can ensure the case for projects is robust and bring some creativity. I think a lot of companies with internal IT departments need to step back and assess how they are getting the best out of them to move their business forward. This may lead to serious changes in how IT is engaged with the business for example, but as with anything you must understand the rationale for change and fit with that.

Do you think the role of the business analyst is clear to industry?
For a number of years now RBS have fully recognized the role and seen us as a focal point in the delivery of solutions. A few years ago there was a lot of confusion about exactly what a business analyst did but this has become clearer now I think. If you look in the computing press at the jobs, just looking at a business analyst is not enough because you find the business analyst skill set in all sorts of areas, be it financial analyst, industry analyst and so on. When I explain my role I see it is providing a bridge between business needs and IT delivery. I think it's going to take more time for people to fully appreciate how crucial a good business analyst can be to the successful delivery of a project.

What advice would you give to someone aspiring to become a business analyst?
Get to know how business works, the operation, structure and what makes it tick. Try to keep knowledge as generic as possible. Continually focus on developing your core competencies. I would say a structured approach to questioning is also needed - be clear in your own mind what you need to get out of an interview before you start. Be confident and never afraid of asking the most simple questions, too often they are not asked and it can end up costing time and money!

Key points :

  • Interpersonal skills more important than technical
  • Develop a deep understanding of your business, its people and the core competencies
  • Career development is in your hands
  • Be proactive - focus on continual improvement
  • Set performance objectives for yourself and the projects you work on.

Phil Swallow is a senior business analyst at the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) and winner of the 2005 BCS Business Analyst of the year award sponsored by JP Morgan. He was interviewed by Craig Rollason who is a senior business analyst at National Grid and member of award's judging panel.

This article first appeared in March 2006 ITNOWextra.