Our Guest This Episode: Laura Paton
How have the primary functions of the business analyst evolved? Have the tools, practices, and expectations changed? What BA skills are most important today? In the latest Manage This podcast, BA expert Laura Paton discusses the changing mindsets and roles concerning the business analyst. The conversation also addresses the movement to more agile methods, and how those changes impact the BA. Laura builds the case that regardless of the method (traditional or iterative), the role of the BA is paramount for project success.
Trainer, course developer, and speaker, Laura Paton has over 32 years of experience in both business analysis and project manager roles. Laura has consulted with both the International Institute of Business Analysis (IIBA) and the Project Management Institute (PMI). Laura served as chair and author of The PMI Guide to Business Analysis, the PMI’s Business Analysis for Practitioners: A Practice Guide, and the IIBA’s A Guide to the BABOK® Guide v3. Passionate about helping individuals improve their BA skills, Laura is the founder of BA Academy in Orlando, FL.
Laura and our team at Velociteach examine the practices BAs are involved in today versus past BA roles. Catch Laura’s expert advice on new skills BAs should be pursuing and how to strengthen these skills.
Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:
“We’ve come a long way because these roles now respect each other a lot more. And I think it’s because we’ve been able to uncover the differences and the value that each provides. ………... PMs are wanting BAs on their project”
“ we have to step back and say it’s really not job title, it’s competency. And the competency that’s needed on a project, regardless of whether you’re Waterfall or Agile, is business analysis. So that need to understand the objective and get the requirements correct and move that work along is needed, regardless of how we’re delivering.”
“… many more organizations have adopted the mindset that there’s value here. You see that organizations have both job openings posted, PMs and BAs. And they are even using business analysts outside of just the project context focused again on that pre-project work.”
“you can create kind of your own roadmap for working on your professional development plan. ….. do that by looking at a standard to see where your skills are today, what are the good practices, and where should you be in the future.”
Table of Contents:
0:47 … Meet Laura
1:49 … Evolution of BA functions
3:00 … Value of BA on a project
6:00 … BA past vs present
8:38 … Types of BA projects today
9:48 … BA and Agile projects
11:50 … Roles of the BA on a project
13:41 … Unique challenges for the BA
16:10 … Customer advocate role
18:21 … New skills required today
19:46 … PM transitioning to BA
21:32 … BA processes
23:48 … New skill topics
25:22 … BA training options
NICK WALKER: Welcome to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers. This is our time to meet and talk about the things that matter to you as a professional project manager. Our guests include some of the masters in the field, professionals who have proven themselves and enjoy helping others reach their goals.
I’m your host, Nick Walker, and with me are two guys who are experts in their own right, Andy Crowe and Bill Yates. Andy, today we’re going to be talking about the role of the business analyst, and we’ve got the person who literally wrote the book on the subject.
ANDY CROWE: This is going to be good. You know, this isn’t the first time we’ve touched on business analysis. But it intersects so tightly with project management that I don’t know that we can get enough of it.
NICK WALKER: Well, let’s meet our guest. She’s a trainer, course developer, and speaker. Laura Paton has been a business analyst practitioner for over 32 years, with experience across various industries in both project management and BA roles. As a consultant in the International Institute of Business Analysis and the Project Management Institute, Laura is also the chair and author for PMI’s “Guide to Business Analysis,” the PMI’s “Business Analysis for Practitioners: A Practice Guide,” and “A Guide to the Business Analysis Body of Knowledge.” She’s the founder of BA Academy, a consulting/training company based in Orlando, Florida. Laura is passionate about helping organizations and individuals mature and improve their BA skills and practices. She is with us from Orlando via Skype. Laura, welcome to Manage This.
LAURA PATON: Thank you for having me.
NICK WALKER: Well, as I mentioned before, we want to talk with you today about business analysis, and specifically the changing role of the business analyst. How have the primary functions of the BA evolved over the last few years?
LAURA PATON: I think there’s been quite a bit of an evolution. Where my mind would go first with that question is thinking about Agile. I know early on our project teams, when Agile started to become more mainstream outside of software companies, as you know from the framework, “business analyst” is not a role that’s specifically defined. So many, many years ago BAs started to feel a little bit nervous, didn’t know really where they placed value, whether they would be called to work in these teams.
That whole mindset has completely shifted. And what I mean by that is, whether organizations went forth without the BA, or teams ended up failing on their projects for not focusing enough on business analysis, teams are looking to have BAs engaged from the beginning. So that has been one area we have seen where BAs are now asked to play a role on an Agile team which in the past, like I said, there was that inconsistency about whether there was a position for them.
ANDY CROWE: Laura, this is Andy. I’ve got a question for you. It was years into my career as a project manager before I worked with a dedicated BA on the team. So I had never worked with a business analyst. Explain to our listeners what that value is, what a business analyst will do on a project, kind of how that works.
LAURA PATON: Sure. And that’s a really great question because that just shows the evolution of the role, as well. So business analysts are obviously the advocate for the business, but they’re also that communicator with the product team. And the role that they have is really working with the business to make sure that we really understand the problem or opportunity the business is seeking to look at. So they help to define that need early on.
And the huge value that comes in the pre-project area is looking at whether there even is a project to be funded. So doing great analysis work, understanding the current state and where the organization is looking to go, and some viable solutions to get us there. But looking at it deeply enough to figure out whether there’s a value proposition. And sometimes some of the best work a BA can do is telling a story back to the decision-makers that these solutions don’t show enough value, and so maybe we shouldn’t fund a project. You know?
ANDY CROWE: Right. Early in my career, or a lot earlier, anyway, Microsoft came out with a model called “Rapid Economic Justification,” REJ. And it was an attempt to sort of put metrics behind projects so that you could fast-track them and so forth. What we found, interestingly enough, is that a lot of projects were getting funded using REJ as a justification. And then when we really looked at the underlying business need or the underlying problem, maybe those projects should have had a little bit more scrutiny.
LAURA PATON: Exactly. Exactly. And so we hear a lot of discussions today about the value proposition and needing to tie back our effort. And, you know, so that’s great. I mean, that’s what businesses should be doing. That’s what we do in our own financial situation when we look whether to – well, hopefully we do – look to purchase something or not; right? I mean, that makes business sense.
But then even after that, that BA is taking that role and making sure that they’re focused on defining the requirements, making sure they align to the strategy of the organization, making sure that, like, it’s great if a project manager is in a hybrid role and doing that piece. But the PM is needing to keep to schedule and scope and maintain costs. And we don’t want to be jeopardizing the work of just being objective coming from a different angle. So I think that’s the value is we’re looking at it differently.
BILL YATES: Laura, this is Bill. You’re hitting on a topic that I really think we’ll be able to resonate with, and that’s you’ve played both roles. You’ve been a project manager; you’ve also been the BA. When you look at how the mindsets of those two and their behaviors have evolved through the years, do you think we’re in a better place today than we were? Are these adversarial roles where they’re fighting over some of the “No, this is my responsibility?” Or do you see this being more harmonious now?
LAURA PATON: It’s definitely more harmonious. And it was funny because, as I was thinking of this the other day, actually, for something I was writing, I realized that we really have had an evolution. We’ve come a long way because these roles now respect each other a lot more. And I think it’s because we’ve been able to uncover the differences and the value that each provides. And it’s not the same work stepping over each other, but it’s collaborative work. So definitely I think more teams are understanding. PMs are wanting BAs on their project; right? So the value proposition has been proved by business analysis being more defined. So we’ve definitely moved away from adversarial relationships. But we had a lot of them in the past.
NICK WALKER: I’m just curious to know a little bit more about the role of the business analyst in all of this. And you say things have changed. I’m wondering, has everybody changed? Has it been a natural evolution? Or are some people still in some old mindsets of what the business analyst should be and need to kind of step it up and come into the present?
LAURA PATON: Yeah. I think we’ll always have a mix of what we see out in the community; right? We do have organizations that still do not understand the value of business analysis. So in those organizations we still see a very low maturity level. The business analysis practice is just being used as a scribe. What we try to do is educate, get the word out, and explain the value proposition. But many, many more organizations have adopted the mindset that there’s value here. You see that organizations have both job openings posted, PMs and BAs. And they are even using business analysts outside of just the project context focused again on that pre-project work.
But even post-project, after the project closes, they’re using them to come back and do the measurement for the value proposition to make sure that solution keeps delivering it. So I do see more and more organizations jumping on the bandwagon and requesting these roles and putting a lot of investment into them.
BILL YATES: Laura, following up on that, are there particular types of engagements or projects where you see the BA being brought in more often than not? So in other words, are there types of projects that tend to lend themselves more to having those separate roles? Can you speak to that?
LAURA PATON: Well, I’ve always been an advocate that we have both roles fulfilled in organizations because I believe that the objective of the project manager role and the business analyst, while the roles complement each other, they have different objectives. But I also am a realist and realize that, in some organizations, when the projects are small or less complex, we can get away with somebody that has a hybrid. And there are a lot of organizations using the hybrid role. That’s fine. We just have to understand the risks.
But as the project is larger, as it’s more complex, the stakeholders are more numerous, adding both roles is beneficial. And then, of course, depending on the size and complexity, we tend to have multiple business analysts on a project. So you have that one-to-many relationship between the project manager and the BA team. Sorry, cut you off.
ANDY CROWE: Laura, I’m curious about something. One of the things that’s taken project management by storm, probably the biggest trend we’ve seen in the past few years, has been Agile.
LAURA PATON: Yes.
ANDY CROWE: And it’s come in, and this idea is that it’s almost done away with the role of project manager in an Agile project. So now, instead of a PM kind of directing things from the top, there is a coach who works as a servant leader and makes sure the Agile process is being followed. But it’s all about team. So the PM’s role is diminished or eliminated on Agile projects. How did the BA survive this evolution? What happens on an Agile project to the business analyst?
LAURA PATON: Well, as I said earlier, there was this confusion that maybe they’re not going to survive, and they’re not going to have a role. But we have to step back and say it’s really not job title, it’s competency. And the competency that’s needed on a project, regardless of whether you’re Waterfall or Agile, is business analysis. So that need to understand the objective and get the requirements correct and move that work along is needed, regardless of how we’re delivering.
So the business analysis role has evolved either into being a business analysis contributor, where they’re taking on the responsibility of developing the user stories, writing the acceptance criteria; but they’ve also in some teams morphed into product owner. When a business advocate isn’t able to come out of the business and allocate sufficient time to an Agile team, we see business analyst skill sets going into that role more and more. So there’s multiple areas where they’ve found a niche. But on your question, PMs, what I’m seeing is a trend of project managers wanting to get more business analysis training and wanting to get that competency understood so they can help out in those areas. So it’s really good news for the PM.
ANDY CROWE: My first exposure to having a dedicated BA was when I went in to manage a conversion of one bank buying another bank. So the smaller bank’s being acquired, and they’re converting all of their assets, all of their systems to the larger bank. And I knew very little about banking, so this intimidated me to no end. But I had a business analyst who understood it cold. And it was incredibly helpful to have somebody educating me nonstop so that I was able to guide the project in the right direction.
LAURA PATON: Right.
ANDY CROWE: Now, that was not an Agile project. This was many, many years ago, and it wasn’t Agile. But what about do you ever see the business analyst embedded on the team, maybe in the customer role from time to time? Or does that work out?
LAURA PATON: It does. I mean, I’ve seen that model, as well. And it really just depends on how an organization wants to staff and structure their projects. If you’re the customer advocate, then obviously you’re spending the time understanding the customer experience, and that’s what you’re representing for the team. If you don’t have that model, then what do you do? Like you do in any organizational structure, on a team, the business analyst will take on a different role. But then you need that subject matter expert to reflect that point of view.
So I think how I look at the team structure and allocation is it depends on the types of individuals you have hired and who you have available to work on a project. I think a good project manager and BA can sit down upfront when you’re deciding, you know, talking about how to work the project, how to plan for it, and how to resource. See what skills you have, what people are passionate about. Look where the gaps are. And then figure out is the BA going to be the customer advocate? Or are they going to do something else, and you’re going to bring in that skill or passion from a different role?
ANDY CROWE: Right. I want to turn this around a little bit on you and ask this: For a lot of project managers who grew up in sort of the traditional Waterfall model, that are making that turn to Agile – and of course we believe there’s room for both. We believe there’s room for the traditional and room for Agile. But for those trying to make that transition that can be really challenging for the project manager.
LAURA PATON: Yes.
ANDY CROWE: I haven’t heard anything yet from you about what would be different for a BA on an Agile project than maybe a traditional. And they’re still doing acceptance cases and use cases and some of that. Are there any challenges unique to Agile for a business analyst? Or is it pretty much just learning how to work with a team and doing the same job?
LAURA PATON: I love that question. You’re going to get me to brag about some work that my team did. So let me explain. When we started to develop standards recently, looking at who the audience was, we realized that we’re now almost a 50/50 split, or maybe 60/40, as to who would be reading the standards and using them. So what I mean by that is the business analysts are either working hybrid or working Waterfall and Agile, and they need to make that transition.
So what the team did is we have about 30 or 35 processes we use when we define our work. And through our analysis, what we ended up finding is it’s the same 30 or 35 processes that BAs perform. But what happens when you move from Waterfall to Agile is the work is different. And it may be called something different. It may be done to a different level of formality, or the timing or frequency would be different. But it’s the same work. So that was a really cool finding. We put everything on the board as far as the processes, and we thought we would find some that didn’t transfer over. But all 30, 35 transferred.
But how we needed to explain it and teach it is really that it’s the timing frequency, level of formality, and what we call it, and the output produced. So an example, maintain requirements. We do it Waterfall; we do it in Agile. But how we go about doing that, completely different. One we have very structured change control process. The other one we’re creating a user story and throwing it on a backlog. It’s still maintaining, done differently.
BILL YATES: That’s interesting. Laura, I want to shift a little bit on you. I want to get to a soft skill, a little touchy-feely question for you.
LAURA PATON: Okay.
BILL YATES: Because I was intrigued as you were describing the BAs who were walking into an Agile scenario, an Agile environment. And sometimes they’re being either – they’re playing the customer advocate role, or they may even be stepping in and being that product owner. So for my experiences prior to joining Velociteach, I was working where our clients were mostly external. We were going onsite, working with the customer.
So I’m just laughing in my head, thinking, okay, to play that role, many times that would have been the scapegoat of our team. You know, we’d have a team that was working on the project, and we’d have that one individual that, okay, we want you to really think like the customer. So like if you think about football, you know, you have the scout team. It’s almost that mentality. Who are we going to beat up on during the week as we prepare?
LAURA PATON: Right.
BILL YATES: So who’s going to emulate, who’s going to think like the customer’s thinking? And many times their thinking was a bit at odds with the path that we wanted to take. So just from kind of a helping people think through, all right, if I’m the BA, or if I’m asked to play that role of the customer advocate in these situations, how have you seen people be successful in that? What kind of mindset or approach do they take?
LAURA PATON: Well, it depends on what experience they have and what they’re bringing to the table. So if you have a BA who has worked for competitors or other organizations, they have the knowledge of the industry. If they don’t, and they’ve been with your organization for many years, business analysts need to keep a pulse on the industry. They should be going to trade shows. They should be comfortable with techniques like benchmarking or market analysis. You know, they should be working with their marketing team to look at the great data that comes back from customer experiences, whether that’s being captured through our systems, our websites, or just through manual methods, through surveys and questionnaires.
So there’s a lot of different techniques that are outward facing. And what we want to avoid is just having that person that thinks they really know the voice of the customer, but they have a 10-year-old viewpoint of that person.
BILL YATES: Right.
ANDY CROWE: Wow.
LAURA PATON: Or a very narrow view; right?
NICK WALKER: I’m curious, Laura, as to people who might be listening and saying, you know, I’m hearing about the business analyst. I’m not quite there. I’m hearing that maybe there’s some new things required of me, some new skills I need to acquire. What kind of new skills are required in today’s world for the business analyst?
LAURA PATON: The list of where a business analyst can professionally develop, it’s all over the place, depending on their background and what point of view and what history they’re bringing with them to the role. So if they’ve been in the space a long time, and they have been practicing business analysis, they probably bring a pretty strong skill set. If they’re coming from the business or project management, they probably have a lot more to learn.
So I recommend that you start with one of the standards that’s out there, get your hands on it, read through it. Do a gap analysis. Look at those processes that you perform and are comfortable with. And what are some processes that are in the space of business analysis that you didn’t even know was BA work; and, because you didn’t know it, you weren’t doing it. So you can create kind of your own roadmap for working on your professional development plan. And you can do that by looking at a standard to see where your skills are today, and what are the good practices, and where should you be in the future.
NICK WALKER: Laura, you said that it requires a little bit more for someone with strictly a project management background to make this transition into a skilled business analyst. I guess I’m wondering why is that, and what does the project manager have to do to make that transition into the business analysis position?
LAURA PATON: I train a lot of project managers, and the gap that I see is pretty much twofold. I see that they really don’t know what business analysis is, which to me is interesting because back in the day, as business analysis was being defined, the career roadmap was software developer, project manager, business analysis. So you had a lot of BAs that understood project management. But back then you didn’t have PMs that understood BA. And today I feel like there’s a large set of project managers that don’t understand what all is involved in business analysis. So there’s one aspect there of immersing themselves in the discipline and understanding really what is comprised in it.
The second piece is changing the mindset because you’re no longer, you know, you shouldn’t be focusing on the importance of the iron triangle. I mean, that’s still important. But if you’re not in a PM space, you’re not driving that controlling costs and schedule and resources. You’re coming from the business perspective. And so now you’re championing solutions and championing value. And sometimes to get the most valuable thing we need to extend the schedule, or we need a little bit more money; right? So we don’t look at those. We look at the value proposition and the best fit for solving the problem, which is very different because right away we always want to do it quickly, cheaply, those type of things. So we have to think differently.
ANDY CROWE: Laura, I have a question for you related to this idea of process as it relates to business analysis. So, you know, when I started project managing, the idea that there were processes was super helpful. But there were relatively only a few back then. I’m dating myself now. But, you know, there weren’t that many. And over the years they’ve gotten more and more. And now we’re bumping up close to 50 processes to describe project management.
Now, I’m not sure that the work I do has grown proportionately to that. I think the number of processes used to describe the work or the possible work has really gotten very heavy at this point, probably needs somebody to look at it with a bit of a critical eye and see if any could be consolidated. I don’t know if there’s any hope for that or not. Is business analysis in the same space? Are you guys getting maybe process-heavy in terms of how you’re describing it? Or are you still on the lean side of that equation?
LAURA PATON: Well, we use either 30 or 35 processes, and it depends on which standard you’re following. So that’s about the number we’re at. But here’s where I think there’s confusion. The bodies of knowledge were never intended to be a methodology. They’re not. They’re like an encyclopedia. They are a collection of good practices. So organizations do not implement a body of knowledge. What they’re supposed to use it as, like a cookbook, you pull out the things that you need, the ingredients that help you meet the end goal, you know, whatever it is you’re needing to do. You’re not expected to follow everything from start to finish. Or, if you’re going to touch on a process, maybe you don’t have to do it that rigorously or that detailed because your project’s different or you just have a different way of operating.
That’s where I think we go wrong because even though there’s more processes, we’re supposed to be saying, well, that’s great because we’re finding areas where we fail, and we’re just being a little bit more articulate to explain what should be happening. But don’t go in and think you’re going to do all 30, 35, or 50. That’s the wrong mindset.
BILL YATES: Laura, given that background on the processes, just get real practical. Give us some very practical advice for a moment, just about new skill sets. Maybe there are some new skills that you feel like the BA really needs to hone to be most effective in the marketplace today. So what are some of your favorite topics that you address when it comes to those new skills?
LAURA PATON: Well, definitely there’s still a large set of business analysts out there that do not know how to transition to Agile. So like project managers, if you think you are 10 or 20 years of experience, and you’re going to be able to make that leap, you’re not going to be able to make that leap unless you train and understand how it’s different. And as I mentioned in my earlier answer, you know, your inputs are different, your outputs are different, and how you do the work is different. So that’s pretty much a big chunk of what you do. So you have a lot of training and energy that has to be spent there.
A lot of people right now, if you go out on LinkedIn or other portals, you see a lot of discussion on digital. What is digital? And so there’s all this big market of technology influxing. And it’s the new buzzword. “Digital” is the new buzzword out there. So business analysts need to understand what that all is. Now, is there a big role for BA in that? I think you can say business analysis skills can help in that space. That’s still all being discovered. But if you ask somebody today what is digital technology in your organization, what does it mean, you get a lot of different answers. So I think there’s a lot of exploration and study of what that space is that BAs need to get their pulse on.
NICK WALKER: Laura, as we wrap things up, I’m just curious. You touched on the need for more training. Where can somebody go to find that training?
LAURA PATON: Well, there are so many choices today. I mean, classroom training is great. A lot of our busy professionals like the on-demand training. It’s great that we can do it sitting at a desk, working on a cloud solution. But now we have our mobile devices, and we can take our training on the go. So we can look for organized classroom training that is delivered in a lot of different mediums. I mentioned the standards earlier. You can train yourself by reading, at least have that foundation before you go into classroom training. That provides you a good foundation to ask questions from.
And there’s a ton of free content out there. So take advantage of that. And of course also be wary that some of the content is maybe somebody’s personal point of view, so you want to weigh that against other channels of getting information. And lastly, don’t underestimate what’s going on in your local chapter. So become a member, and work with your peers, and learn from others.
NICK WALKER: And obviously you’re a great resource. So how can folks get in touch with you?
LAURA PATON: All right. Well, if you want to email me, you can get me at firstname.lastname@example.org. So it’s not .org or .com, it’s http://ba.academy/. So email@example.com.
NICK WALKER: Got it. Thanks so much, Laura. We so much appreciate you taking the time to talk with us. Before you go, we do have a special gift. This is the official Manage This coffee mug, and we’re going to send you this with our thanks.
LAURA PATON: Thank you. Awesome. I’m a coffee drinker, so I can put it to good use. Thank you very much.
NICK WALKER: Excellent.
LAURA PATON: And thanks for having me. This was fun.
NICK WALKER: Thank you. We want to take a moment to say thanks to our listeners for telling us what you’d like to hear on Manage This. It has been a tremendous help. Send us your questions; what sort of guests appeal to you most. Just go to the Velociteach Facebook page and use the comments section.
Now for our chance to give back. We’re always looking for opportunities to acquire PDUs, Professional Development Units, toward our recertifications. And you just earned them by listening to this podcast. To claim them, go to https://www.velociteach.com/ and choose Manage This Podcast from the top of the page. Click the button that says Claim PDUs and click through the steps.
That’s it for us here on Manage This. We hope you’ll tune back in on November 6th for our next podcast. In the meantime you can visit us at https://www.velociteach.com/manage-this/ to subscribe to this podcast, to see a transcript of the show, or to contact us. And tweet us at @manage_this if you have any questions about our podcasts or about project management certifications. We’re always here for you.
That’s all for this episode. Thanks for joining us. Until next time, keep calm and Manage This.