Becoming a business analyst – assessing your competence gap

I have recently been in discussion with Adriana Beal, an experienced business analyst, based in New York. She has contributed a stimulating and important article to the IIBA blog on ComputerWorldUK hosted by yours truly. I asked Adriana if she would be able to provide a similar article to help BA’s (or wannabe BA’s) to assess their level of competence and she was happy to oblige.

Thanks Adriana and help us both out by adding your own comments or questions.

By Adriana Beal

portfolioImage used by permission from ModernAnalyst.com, the premier
Business Analyst Community.

As a junior business analyst, you may be asking yourself, “what skills and capabilities do I need to demonstrate in order to be a strong candidate for higher levels of responsibility at some point in the future?”. Understanding the essential skill set expected from a BA is a critical endeavor for a professional starting a career in business analysis, and an important step toward identifying performance improvement opportunities.

The successful performance of a business analyst depends in large part on soft skills (non-technical skills such as team-building and listening). Many organizations require business analysts to be technically oriented as well, but differing business practices and the rapid advances in technology and methodologies affect the importance attributed to each skill on a case by case basis. For instance, in an Agile environment, documentation skills will be less valued than communication and facilitation skills. Another example: while knowing how to conduct stakeholder analysis may be very important for a business analyst working as a consultant for multiple client organizations, this skill might turn out to be of little value in an environment with a small number of end users, and stakeholder roles clearly identified.

Here are 5 steps that you can take to find out your competence gaps and develop a plan to close those gaps:

1) Identify the key skills required by your organization

As a first step to identify potential competence gaps, you should learn how to distinguish nice-to-have from non-negotiable skills for business analysts in your organization, as well as capabilities required from entry-level vs. experienced business analysts.

Certain soft skills, such as communication, are considered vital workplace skills in all types of business enterprises, since ineffective communication is considered one of the main factors leading to unsuccessful projects. (If you think you need help in this area, in-person, group training can be an effective way to hone better communication skills, focusing, for instance, on assertiveness and conflict resolution.)

As already mentioned in the introduction, many must-have skills are company-dependent. In order to identify what new capabilities would add more value to your role, talk to colleagues, business representatives, and your management team, to develop a good understanding of the current situation and potential changes. You might learn, for example, that your company is about to implement new business rules, or a new requirements management tool, or that the team is hoping to develop a deeper understanding of a certain business process to help prioritize requirements for a new project. Based on the collected information, you can start to plan your skill building strategy around the identified priorities.

The following list illustrates soft and hard skills that are important for business analysts in general:

  1. Interviewing and listening skills, to talk with individuals and groups about their needs, ask the right questions to surface essential requirements, and correctly interpret what project stakeholders say.
  2. Facilitation skills, to lead requirements elicitation workshops, work with stakeholders to define acceptance criteria, moderate brainstorming sessions, etc.
  3. Observational skills, to validate information obtained through other methods, deepen the understanding about business processes, and so on.
  4. Analytical skills, to critically evaluate data gathered from multiple sources, reconcile conflicting requirements, decompose high-level information into details, abstract from particular examples to a more general understanding, identify underlying needs from explicit user requests, etc.
  5. Writing skills, to communicate information effectively and consistently to different types of audiences, including senior management and technical development staff.
  6. Organizational and time management skills, to cope with the vast array of information gathered during elicitation and analysis, manage time well, etc.
  7. Teamwork skills, to share responsibilities, confer with others, help others do their jobs, and seek help when needed.
  8. Relationship-building skills, to develop a large, well-diversified network of valuable connections across the organization.
  9. Negotiating skills, to get consensus about priorities, help resolve conflicts among project stakeholders, etc.
  10. Modeling skills, to represent requirements information in graphical forms, produce  business object models, conceptual data models, process models etc.
  11. Requirements management skills, to help implement and/or improve requirements processes and practices and to define, for a given initiative, the tasks to be performed, the techniques to be used, and the deliverables to be produced.
  12. Change management skills, to ensure that standardized methods exist for efficient and prompt handling of all changes to baselined requirements and other change requests.
  13. Reporting skills, to produce periodic reports for the project manager and other stakeholders showing progress against milestones, status, issues, risks and dependencies.

The Business Analysis Body of Knowledge® (BABOK® v2), published by the International Institute of Business Analysis (IIBA), provides a description of generally accepted practices and areas of knowledge in the field of busines analysis, verified through review by practitioners and recognized experts in the field. It can serve as a baseline for assessing the skills you already have and the ones you may need to develop to become a skilled practitioner.

2) Evaluate yourself

Once you have gathered enough information about the skills that are relevant to your job, area and career, go through that list and establish your present level in each of the relevant competencies. Do you feel you struggle with abstraction and problem solving? Because of their lack of business experience, many junior business analysts have difficulty understanding business requirements, and the abstraction involved in translating user needs into detailed specifications presents a considerable challenge. Are you uncomfortable speaking in front of a group? It may take time for a new BA to develop ease and confidence when speaking in front of an audience.

Carry out this exercise for all the key skills identified in step 1. The difference between your current level and the desired level of proficiency in each of the relevant skills is your career skill gap or competence gap.

3) Ask for objective feedback from managers, colleagues and business stakeholders

After you have finished your self-assessment, discuss it with your immediate supervisor and other appropriate managers to get their perspective and feedback. Ask clarifying questions, but don’t become defensive (or you risk getting the person to either clam up or become less forthcoming).

You should also reach out to colleagues and business stakeholders with whom you interact on a frequent basis, to ask them where you could improve, and learn from their different perspectives. If the responses are vague and unsatisfying, ask probing questions. For instance, if you are told by a project manager that improving your business knowledge would be a desirable change, you could get this person to better define what “business knowledge” would mean in your case, by asking questions such as “what one or two things, above all others, would most build confidence in my knowledge about the business processes?”

4) Prioritize gaps and develop your action plan

When it comes to developing new skills, or closing a performance gap, it’s better to focus on one or two key areas of development at a time.

Once you have identified which areas you are going to tackle first, find out the best options available: it could be taking a training class, setting up sessions with subject matters, reading relevant books, etc. Create an action plan reflecting the various strategies you are going to use to close your competence gaps.

Finding a mentor can also be of great help in understanding and overcoming your career skill gaps: your mentor can help you assess your strengths and weaknesses, teach you new skills, and assist you in developing a long-term career plan.

5) Monitor your progress

The final step of your career skill gap analysis consists in monitoring your progress with the action plan and repeating your self-assessment periodically to confirm that you have increased your competence levels. As you reach your target level of proficiency for one particular skill, you can cross that gap off your action plan and move on to the next priority area.

Don’t forget to celebrate your milestones as you expand your skill set!

_______

SOURCES CONSULTED

A career skill gap analysis is a must.
http://www.career-change-mentor.com/career-skill-gap.html

Communication Skills
Overhaul & Maintenance, March 1, 2009, Safety & Regulatory News; Pg. 20, 739 words, Elyse Moody

Critical skill sets of entry-level IT professionals: an empirical examination of perceptions from field personnel. (Survey).
Mark E. McMurtrey, James P. Downey, Steven M. Zeltmann and William H. Friedman. Journal of Information Technology Education 7.(Annual 2008): p101(20).

RELATED ARTICLES

Measuring the performance of business analysts (ComputerWorld UK).

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Adriana Beal received her B.S. in electronic engineering and an MBA in strategic management of information systems from two of the most prestigious graduate schools in Brazil. She splits her time working as a Lead Business Technology Consultant for ThinkBRQ (a NY-based consulting firm servicing clients in the financial and telecommunication industries) and 2wtx (a small agency offering business analysis resources & online training and web presence strategy services).

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About Alex Papworth

24 Responses to “Becoming a business analyst – assessing your competence gap”

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  6. alexpapworth says:

    Hi Emmad

    I feel your pain. Like most careers, you will get that no experience no job and no job no experience paradox.

    That is why moving within your current organisation and looking for opportunities to gain experience within your own organisation or the voluntary sector is what I recommend.

    Read my free eBook for more details on how to enter the profession – http://businessanalystmentor.com/free-blueprint-f

    Good luck!

    Alex

  7. Emmad says:

    It would be nice if someone could give pointers on how to 'start' a career as a business analyst.
    Almost all job postings ask for experience not only in methods but also in industry.
    Getting industry certification is almost impossible for a beginner and getting courses without a hope of a real job offer is expensive!

    Thanks.

  8. Brandon Coppernoll says:

    Great article! I found it particularly useful because I only started in a business analyst role only 9 months ago. I came from a relatively "soft" background in comparison to some traditional BA-developing roles such as requirements engineer. This gives me a good thought on what to keep growing in. Thank you!

  9. Eric says:

    There are 2 number 4) items in this list. Other than that one minor detail, it's a good article and I found it useful since I have BA related skills, but don't have an official BA position on my resume. This will give me a good foundation for filling in the gaps to work towards my career goals.

  10. Barbara says:

    Additional resource is my book Seven Steps for Mastering Business Analysis. The last step (chapter) is Increase Your Value and includes suggestions for improving many of the skills listed above.

  11. Hi Alex – I'm not aware of any freely available alternatives. Being freely available is one of the selling points for SFIA alongside its comprehensive coverage of Business Change and IT skills.

    In my own experience – organisations usually develop their own.
    I have examples I have created or worked with previously – ranging from graduated behavioural descriptors which are then levelled against organisational roles to more basic ratings of skill and knowledge against selected tools / techniques (e.g. no experience in the technique, basic experience in the technique, mastery in the technique).
    e.g. A few years ago I managed assessments for 30 BA's against the following:

    Technical BA Work Product Skills:

    Business Context Diagram
    Process Identification
    Classified Business Terms
    Business Event List
    Process Definition
    Business Roles and Locations
    Usability Requirements
    Non-Functional Requirements
    Business Rules Catalogue
    Logical Data Model
    Use Case Model
    User Profiles
    Change Cases
    Customer Wants and Needs
    Future Organisation Scope & Requirements

    General BA Skills:

    Estimating costs and timescales for BA work products
    Contracting / Agreeing TORs
    Analytical and Creative Problem solving
    Workshop Design & Facilitation skills
    Business writing skills
    Contributing to business case development
    Data gathering & analysis techniques
    Stakeholder Management / Relationship Building
    Presentation skills
    Development method overview
    Method exponent
    Using a scale of 1 to 4
    1 Unaware (I am unaware of / unfamiliar with / have never done this)
    2 Understanding (I am aware of the relevance of this skill but do not have much experience in this area.)
    3 Competent (I am comfortable with my performance in this area)
    4 Recognised Strength (I am recognised to be strong at this. )

    The conext was the introduction of a common approach to requirements definition into an organisation which had a no defined BA processes.

    Another thought is that we could derive candidates for BA skills from the CMMi model – particularly the process areas for Requirements Definition and Requirements Management. I think that is available for free.

  12. Hi Alex,

    Anoither interesting article! I wanted to mention that another great source for Business Analyst skill definitions is the Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA).

    SFIA is an open-source skills framework owned by the SFIA Foundation. It is open to use by anyone and is free of charge if it is used as a skills management tool within an organisation. SFIA provides the most widely accepted description of Business Change & IT skills in the world today. Although created and maintained in the UK it has been accessed by approximately 15,000 organisations from more than 100 countries. It is used in a range of industries and covers the private, public and not-for-profit sectors. It has been translated into Japanese, Chinese and Spanish.

    SFIA version 4 was published in December 2008 and the framework now defines several business analysis-related skills e.g.

    – Business process improvement
    – Innovation
    – Consultancy
    – Business analysis
    – Business process testing
    – Change implementation planning and management
    – Business modelling
    – Organisation design and implementation
    – Stakeholder relationship management
    – Data analysis
    – Requirements definition and management
    – Usability requirements analysis
    – Usability evaluation

    The framework is a large matrix with 2 dimensions. The first dimension is levels of responsibility (levels 1 to 7) and the second dimension is skills (there are 86 skills overall).

    Each skill has an overall description and then a number of levels within each skill are also defined. This is really helpful for career and personal development planning as you can map and plot your desired path in terms of skill progression.

    I have some additional articles on the SFIA framework at http://www.exceptional-performance.co.uk/category/sfia/

    SFIA can be downloaded from the SFIA website at http://www.sfia.org.uk/cgi-bin/wms.pl/932.

    There is also a SFIA Users forum (I am the host) at http://www.sfiauser.ning.com

    regards

    Peter Leather

    • alexpapworth says:

      Thanks Peter

      Adriana has written a very interesting article. I know several organisations using SFIA and it is certainly a valuable framework. Do you know if there are any alternatives?

      Alex

  13. Nice article, Adriana!

Trackbacks

  1. […] (read more about Core competencies for business analysts in this article) […]

  2. […] have worked with Adriana before as she has provided one of the more popular articles on BA Mentor (Becoming a business analyst – assessing your competency gap). She is very committed to helping the BA profession with her articles and training/mentoring that […]

  3. […] Becoming a business analyst – assessing your competence gap (Article from Adriana Beal) […]

  4. […] have worked with Adriana before as she has provided one of the more popular articles on BA Mentor (Becoming a business analyst – assessing your competency gap). She is very committed to helping the BA profession with her articles and training/mentoring that […]



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