Part 2: Basic business analyst skills and concepts

by Jerry Foley
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Interested in finding out about basic business analyst skills and concepts? In Part 2 of this six-part series of articles, we will continue to explore the basic skills and concepts. In this section, we will review and analyze the business analysis process of gathering data and setting proper project goals. Read on to find out more about the basic business analyst skills and concepts and information gathering and goal development techniques.

As we stated in Part 1, there are a variety of techniques and tools suggested by PMI that should be in your business analysis toolkit. In this article, we will describe seven of them and examine the pros and cons of each.

 1. Brainstorming

A key aspect of business analyst skills involves brainstorming occurs in a group setting, headed by a facilitator, and is usually broken down into two parts: Idea generation and analysis.

The first part, idea generation, occurs as the facilitator introduces a topic or issue. A good facilitator will make sure all participants are taking an active role. The ideas or solutions expressed should be free form. As is the case in most group activities, the assembled group should feed off the ideas and solutions presented by the other group members. All the ideas and solutions should be recorded by the business analyst or a designated scribe so the entire group can see them and, in turn, invoke more ideas and solutions.

The second part, analysis, is designed to create a usable form of information from the initial list of ideas. The proper presentation of the ideas gathered in the idea generation part must be so that all parties have a clear and congruent vision of the landscape.

2. Document analysis

Simply stated, this is where the business analyst will review all available pertinent documents. The business analyst will extract the information that is relevant to the current initiative. The advantages of this form of elicitation include having access to hard data that others may not have. In addition, documentation tends to be more accurate than brain dumps from team members.

Lest you think that this is the easiest solution, the downside of document analysis is the danger that they are outdated, incorrect, difficult to access, or non-existent.

3. Focus groups

In this technique, business analyst skills require assembling prequalified stakeholders and Subject Matter Experts (SME), ideally 8-12. The main objective is for the business analyst to learn about their expectations and attitudes towards a proposed product, service, or result.

The focus group facilitator will provide an outline of the team discussion. The facilitator will also be responsible for fostering a healthy team dynamic. Focus groups traditionally review completed work or prototypes.

A large drawback of focus groups is that some participants may be overwhelmed by strong-willed team members and thus may be unwilling or unable to provide objective feedback.

4. Facilitated workshops

“Facilitated workshops, also known as requirements workshops, are focused sessions that bring key cross-functional stakeholders together to define product requirements” (PMBOK 4th Ed., 2008). Workshops are a primary technique in reconciling stakeholder differences. Due to the interactive group nature, well-facilitated sessions can build trust, foster relationships, and improve communication among the participants (PMBOK 4th Ed., 2008). This usually leads to an increase in stakeholder consensus.

Considering the number of individuals involved and the time commitments required for participation, facilitated workshops are expensive to run.

5. Interviews

Conducted on an individual basis, this is a formal approach to elicit responses from stakeholders. There are two basic types of questions – prepared and spontaneous. The real value in interviews is as a help to identify and define the features and functions of the desired solution.

The first type of interview – Structured – begins with a list of prepared questions. The goal is to get through the entire list of questions in a specified allotted time.

The second type of interview – Unstructured – also starts with a prepared list of questions but depending on the answer to the first question, the course of the interview may take a number of twists and turns. This type of interview requires the interviewer to focus on keeping to the topic.

6. Observations

Business analyst skills also involves observation, aka job shadowing. It offers a way to directly view people in their environments as they perform tasks and processes. Many of the people involved find it exponentially easier to show their job process versus trying to describe the process. An important aspect of this method is to make sure you are observing the actual process instead of how well the person is performing that task.

Additional benefits include:

  • Providing more insight into tasks and activities that are difficult to describe.
  • Providing an opportunity to request a demonstration of complicated tasks to obtain an explanation of the process being performed.
  • Providing information and visualization together.
  • Providing context around activities.

There are four distinct types of observation that will vary as dictated by the situation:

  1. Passive – The observer will not interrupt the process. The observer will make detailed notes.
  2. Active – The observer can interrupt the process, ask questions, seek clarification, and ask for opinions. Information elicited in this fashion does hinder the process execution but adds to the immediacy of the information collection.
  3. Participatory – The observer will actually take part in the process execution. The observer will then experience what the processors are experiencing as they execute the process.
  4. Simulation – This is the use of a tool that recreates the process execution. While more expensive due to the replication of equipment and materials, it reduces lost man-hour production due to the lack of real-time process interference.

The main drawback to the observation process is that most people will find themselves acting differently when they realize they are being watched.

7. Questionnaires and Surveys

When presented with a written set of questions concerning a process or activity, responders will tend to answer based on their own prejudices for a particular process. While this process reaches a vast number of people, the usual response percentage is so low that it is not a representative cross-section of the people involved.

If the question is written in a manner that it can be answered with a simple yes or no, input from the questionnaire/survey is suspect.

In section three of this series, we will start the detailed-oriented task of planning.


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