Do Business Analysts Solve or Avert Business Problems?

By Tathagata (Tat) Biswas, Consultant, UXC Consulting, Sydney, Australia
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imageThe widely accepted role of a Business Analyst is to solve business problems by using a structured methodology and analytical tool-set to define the problem, document the problem, and also act as a liaison between the business and information technology teams to deliver the end solution. But what if we take a step back and ask some fundamental questions about the nature of business problems which the Business Analyst is expected to solve? Can the Business Analyst avert a business problem instead of solving it?
Quite often, by the time a Business Analyst is involved, the business has already come to the conclusion that a problem exists and a technology or process solution is required. Due to the late stage when a BA gets involved, the BA is generally not in the frame of mind to question if there is a real problem in the first place. In psychology, this is called priming effect when thinking about or interacting with something can later affect a vaguely related behaviour.
By adopting a user-centric approach instead of a business-centric approach, the Business Analyst may be able to avert the business problem on some occasions and mitigate the extent of the problem on many occasions.
What is a user-centric approach?
A business is essentially an amalgamation of a group of people who come together under the veil of a business, and recognized legally as an ‘artificial person’; to meet the needs of customers i.e. external users; using a combination of internal users (physically or virtually engaged), their individual knowledge and tacit wisdom, and organizational business processes (both explicit and implicit) with supporting technologies.
In the user-centric approach, the Business Analyst should think about the problem from a ‘user’ perspective instead of a ‘business’ perspective. By adopting a user-centric approach, the Business Analyst can be agnostic to the AS-IS or TO-BE organizational business process and supporting technology platform and just focus on the information needs of the information recipient and information provider. The information recipient can be an external customer or an internal user from the same or different organizational functional unit.
Here are the steps to practising a user-centric approach to business analysis:
  1. Determine the ‘stated’ needs of the internal user.
  2. Determine the ‘stated’ needs of the external user.
  3. Understand the ‘real’ needs of the internal and external user as opposed to the ‘stated’ needs. The Business Analyst can use the “6 Ways We See” (The Back of the Napkin, Dan Roam, 2009) and “5 Whys” technique ( ) to differentiate the real needs from the stated needs.
  4. When using the “6 Ways We See” and “5 Whys” technique to understand the real needs, the Business Analyst should investigate questions like:
    1. What are the information needs of the internal and external user?
    2. When is this information required? Is all the information required at one point in time or staggered over time?
    3. What are some of the challenges to meet the information needs of the external or internal user? Do you have a computation challenge, presentation challenge or time to respond challenge? Do all these challenges exist at the same time? Is the challenge different depending on the user
    4. Where/How is the information needed by the external or internal user?
    5. And last but not least, why does the external or internal user need the information? If necessary, also use the 5 Why technique until you are satisfied with all the reasons.
As Michael Hammer, one of the founders of the management theory of Business process reengineering noted in “Reengineering Work: Don’t Automate, Obliterate” (HBR, July-Aug 1990), “Our imagination must guide our decisions about technology – not the other way around”.
This raises a few questions for the business analysis profession. Are Business Analysts getting involved too late in the decision making process? Can the Business Analyst play a more strategic role in the organization instead of an operational implementation role?

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