Ditch the bridge

February 2018

Wooden bridge across the waterAdrian Reed, Principal Consultant at Blackmetric, argues that the ‘bridging’ analogy of business analysis is long past its prime, and that BAs should continue to play up the holistic and strategic nature of their roles.

I suspect many people reading this article will, at some time in their career, have had the challenge of explaining what business analysis is. We’ve all had that dreaded moment when we meet someone for the first time, tell them we’re a business analyst, only to be met with a blank stare (often with a slight look of confusion... ‘business...what?’).

I am sure that we have all developed our own elevator pitch to explain the value that good business analysis enables, and I’m sure many of us regularly adapt and refine that pitch, to try to convey the richness and breadth of the BA role.

In the dim and distant past, it was common to hear people use the ‘bridging’ analogy of analysis. Perhaps you’ve heard (or even used this) yourself. There are many variations, but one that is commonly used is: ‘Business analysis is the bridge between the business and IT’.

Whilst this statement has its uses, it is certainly very succinct and conveys at least some of what good business analysis can achieve, in reality it describes only part of the BA role. And there is a danger that this analogy may be setting up misconceptions.

The trouble with the BA bridge

To explore the trouble with the ‘bridging’ concept, let’s take an example outside of analysis. Imagine you saw an advertisement for a private doctor’s surgery. The advert has an authoritative looking doctor smiling, and a number to call to make appointments. Beneath the telephone number, there is a strapline:

‘Doctor J. Jones: The bridge between the patient and the pharmacy’.

Now, I don’t know about you, but if I was visiting a doctor I’d want to know that she could provide a range of treatment options, perhaps being able to refer the patient to a whole range of different medical specialists. Of course, prescribing medication (from the pharmacy) might be appropriate in many cases. Yet in others the patient might need surgery, further diagnosis or scans, blood tests or even just advice on their lifestyle.

Something in the patient’s environment might have changed which is causing problems. Perhaps a new job is causing stress, which is causing a lack of sleep, which is causing exhaustion and tiredness, leading to comfort eating and weight gain.

Only by taking a holistic view of the patient will the problem get solved. Approaching the problem with a preconceived idea of what the treatment will be sounds rather dangerous.

By limiting themselves to ‘being the bridge’ between the patient and pharmacy, the doctor has inadvertently placed themselves in a restrictive box. Even if they actually offer a wider range of treatment options, they will likely always be viewed as the ‘pharmacy doctor’.

They will be viewed as the place where you go when you want a prescription, a place where you go when you want a medicinal remedy. In fact, they may find that patients come to them with a particular prescription already in mind (‘Come on doctor, I just need a prescription for this new drug, won’t you go ahead and write it?’). The box is self-fulfilling and self-reinforcing: once this identity is set, it is very hard to shake off.

Getting out of our own box

I’m sure many of us will have occasionally felt like business analysis has its own ‘box’. Stakeholders occasionally perceive us as ‘something to do with IT’ and ‘only needed when there’s IT change’. The ‘IT to business bridge’ analogy reinforces this box.

Every time it is uttered we build another layer of misunderstanding about the breadth of the BA role. We reinforce the box that sometimes constrains us, and the misunderstanding about the breadth of our role grows.

The reality, of course, is that business analysis is extremely broad and holistic. Whilst some BA practitioners may focus on specific niches, the breadth of the discipline provides a varied and interesting career.

Business analysis can involve anything from understanding the external environmental factors that are affecting a business, to helping define (or align to) strategy, conducting pre-project problem analysis, helping defining change projects and programmes, defining requirements, assessing benefits and so much more.

Where we do recommend or help implement solutions it is quite likely there will be an IT element - but equally there may be business processes, organisational structures, training and staffing that need to change and there could even be location or other infrastructure considerations.

Business analysis and business change spans multiple dimensions, and whilst IT is crucial and essential, in order to be effective it must fit and align with the other elements of the business. An IT system that is ‘perfect’ may still fail to work effectively if the users are not trained and if the business processes are not adapted to utilise it.

I’m sure we’ve all seen situations where end-users have developed ‘workarounds’ because the IT system they were given did not meet all of their process needs (and little thought was put into how the processes would be changed to accommodate this).

Breaking down silos

Another crucial consideration is that the bridging analogy may, inadvertently, re-inforce an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality. It divides business from IT. Now, of course, there may be some situations where organisations are that separate and compartmentalised, particularly if there is an external vendor / outsourced IT partner involved.

Yet, in many other circumstances, organisations may be actively looking to break down silos between teams. When IT is the engine of growth of a business, the lines may blur whether we intend them to or not. Perhaps business stakeholders are co-located and working with IT developers. The need for a pure ‘bridging’ role is reduced - yet the discipline of business analysis is still crucial.

We still need to be ensuring that the change or project is aligned to strategy, that the requirements are clear and agreed and are within scope, and that they are on-track and are ‘on-benefit’. We need someone to help the sponsor pick which project to undertake in the first place, and somebody that assesses the knock-on impact of changes to other elements of the business.

All of these things fall within the broader discipline of business analysis, yet all of these things are above and beyond a bridge.

Conclusion: Knowing our value

As a profession, business analysis has a wide breadth and we have a whole range of tools at our disposal. Yet, we often face the challenge of misunderstanding - where stakeholders haven’t worked with BAs before (or haven’t yet appreciated the breadth).

We can help enable the creation of so much value in organisations - and having our ‘elevator pitch’ ready (and getting beyond the bridge) is crucial. Thinking and talking beyond the bridge is essential.

Further information
A version of this article was originally published on Adrian Reed’s blog, and is reproduced with permission. Article © Blackmetric Business Solutions Ltd.

Readers interested in a more formal definition of business analysis may find the following references useful:

  1. Paul, D., Cadle, J., Yeates, D. (eds) (2014). Business Analysis: Third Edition. Swindon: BCS Learning & Development.
  2. IIBA (2015). A guide to the Business analysis body of knowledge (BABOK guide) v3. Toronto: International Institute of Business Analysis.
 

Image: iStock.com/KeongDaGreat