You know, one of the most common questions I get from my readers is “what specific technical skills do Business Analysts need?”
I can totally understand. If you’re new to the Business Analyst world, you may be struggling to understand what kind of skills training one should undergo.
The truth is, BAs are multi-talented folks and they possess a vast range of soft and hard technical skills.
In addition, I think what skills a BA needs also depends largely on the type of BA he or she is.
Refer to the table below to see what I mean.
Let’s first try to set some context as to the type of BAs out there in the market.
And for each type, we’d give some commentary about what technical skills they’d need. I’ve intentionally split the “technical skills” into three categories:
- Industry Skills – industry domain knowledge that the BA has, say, in banking or insurance
- Profession skills – the Business Analyst-type skills that the BA has
- Solution skills – specific software or solution areas skills that the BA has
1. The Strategic Business Analyst
The first kind of BA I’d label as the “Strategic Business Analyst”.
These are more business-oriented BAs, often working for the likes of McKinsey, Bain & Company and the Boston Consulting Group. You may also find them working in-house within the Corporate Finance or Strategic Planning departments of large MNCs.
The orientation of these Strategic Business Analysts are really more towards business cases, competitive strategy and market entry analysis. They may also focus on product strategy and also Target Operating Models.
As I’ve mentioned before in this article and also here, it is extremely important that a BA has industry domain skills. Whether that is Banking, Insurance, Telecommunications, Energy & Utilities or Pharmaceuticals etc. – make sure that as a BA, you find your industry niche.
Gone are the days where you can be a “generic BA”. Walk into any client or large MNC and I can assure you they’d ask for industry knowledge.
Case Study: I was once running BA workshops for a large bank and had no idea what “trade settlement” meant. This was a big problem as the client started to ask “What value is this BA bringing if he doesn’t understand my business?”Over the years, this is one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learnt. Whether you’re a Project Manager of a Business Analyst, you have to make it your top priority to learn about your client’s industry.
And if you’re not focusing on one or two related industry areas (e.g. Banking and Insurance), but doing all sorts of projects in Government, Telecommunications, Pharmaceuticals and Banking, I’d strongly encourage you to think about specializing in a specific industry domain.
Next up, let’s look at Profession skills. For a Strategic BA, the important skills here would be:
Strategic Frameworks – to help frame business problems. I find that many, many typical IT and Data BAs struggle with “framing” business problems. For example, there are well known frameworks like the McKinsey 7S, BCG Matrix, Target Operating Models and Business Model Innovation which can help anchor business analysis.
These specific technical skills are needed for Business Analysis involved in strategic planning and corporate finance. And these are also the things the McKinsey consultants would be doing day in and day out.
And frankly – if I can be honest – it’s NOT rocket science. Anyone can do it – it’s just that the Big Three Strategic Consulting firms (McKinsey, Bain & Company and the Boston Consulting Group) shroud their techniques in a cloud and raise them onto a high pedastal – so they seem more impressive than they really are.
My wish for the BA world is that more IT BAs and Data BAs can start to understand strategic analysis and frameworks so that they can climb higher up the value chain (and not let the Big Three Strategic Consulting Firms take the whole pie).
Business Cases – again, these are important elements of a Strategic BA’s work. Time and again, an institution will need to see if it is worthwhile to invest in a project.
A project will result in increased revenues or it might save costs. You can model these revenue and cost drivers and determine the Return-On-Investment (ROI) of a project – something you’d learn as a basic module in university.
The ability to do business case work is critical for a Strategic BA – if you want to do this kind of BA work, make sure you understand it in and out.
Business Processes – it is also critical for Strategic BAs to understand business processes in their clients or institutions they work for.
As a BA, you tend to be “outside” the day-to-day business of a firm – you see the firm receive customers, fulfill and settle customers’ orders – but you’re not really “in operations”.
So it is therefore important that you can model the business process of a firm in the form of flow charts so that you can speak to your audience visually on what they do.
Next, let’s move on to specific technical skills that a Strategic BA needs to have – across the areas of software programs or other solution areas.
One of the most fundamental software suites that any Strategic BA must absolutely be familiar with is the Microsoft Office Suite – Microsoft PowerPoint, Excel and Word.
This is BASIC and any good BA would be expert at these packages. I’m talking about knowing the deepest shortcuts, e.g. Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V, F4 to repeat formatting, Ctrl + Mouse Wheel to zoom in and out.
The same goes for Microsoft Visio – you need to be an expert at this, particularly for drawing business processes.
The best Business Analysts can do Microsoft Office at lightning speed. If you’re not there yet, do consider taking a short course to beef yourself up.
2. IT Business Analyst
Ok, now let’s try to understand the specific technical skills an IT Business Analyst would need.
The “IT Business Analyst” is perhaps the most common kind of Business Analyst. Everyone I know will comes across someone, somewhere who is an IT Business Analyst.
The reason IT BAs are so commonplace is because organizations (banks and insurance companies in particular) have a lot of large IT projects running at any given time.
These projects need IT BAs to gather requirements, support design & development and also participate in testing.
I’d even say the “Rise of the BA Industry” can largely be attributed to this kind of work, which has been increasingly on the rise over the last decade or so.
Again – I can’t stress the importance of industry domain skills enough.
If industry skills were important for a Strategic BA, it is even more important for a IT BA.
Why? Because an IT BA delves into deep, deep system requirements.
Without a deep understanding of the banking business, it is almost impossible for you to deliver a good set of requirements and ultimately a software product to the bank.
And as I mentioned, one of the most common industries that IT BAs work in is the banking industry. If you’re interested in significantly beefing up your banking domain knowledge as a BA, do check out my page here.
For an IT BA, the important skills here would be:
Software Development Lifecycle (SDLC). I always maintain that an IT BA must know the SDLC very well. Ideally, you’ve gone through one or two large-scale IT projects and seen the phases from requirements, through to design & development, testing and deployment.
If you have, you’d be very strong in the methodologies required in a BA profession, and excel at two of the key “anchor” technical skills an IT BA needs – extracting requirements and testing software.
Need to understand the Software Development Lifecycle better? Well, you should definitely check out this resource.
Business Cases – whatever I mentioned earlier with regards to business cases for a Strategic BA, will also apply to IT BAs. This is particularly true if you, as an IT BA is involved in the initial phases of a large-scale project.
Expect that you’d be roped in to help size up and scope the project IT requirements at a high level, then be involved in drawing up cost benefit analysis and ROI.
Business Processes – again, an understanding of business processes is essential for an IT BA, much like it is for a Strategic BA.
In fact, those IT BAs who have done e.g. two or three core banking system implementations would be so familiar with banking processes, they can share their expert know-how with their users and clients.
And they are highly valued in the market. Just check out those job boards.
Application Requirements – IT BAs are also very, very good at eliciting application requirements. I’m talking about documenting use cases, business logic, asking the right questions to determine error conditions, making system requirements clear enough for developers to start work.
The best IT BAs can produce functional specifications so clear that a developer has very little chance of getting the code wrong.
Enterprise or IT Architecture – sometimes, it helps if an IT BA understands Enterprise or IT architecture. I’m talking about the design of an IT landscape for an organization, how its IT systems can fulfill business needs and how they can be made more re-usable and flexible to improve business agility.
These kinds of IT BAs tend to be those who came from IT Architecture backgrounds, or might even have been Technical IT Architects in the past.
In any case, some of them make excellent IT BAs, especially since they can give a “whole of firm” view of systems architecture and how those systems can help the business.
In other words, they are “Enterprise Architects” – but we can talk about that in a separate article.
Ok, the solution skills that an IT BA needs are quite similar to those of a Strategic BA.
The IT BA must understand the Microsoft Office Suite – Microsoft PowerPoint, Excel, Word and also Visio. This is basic, foundational level knowledge and I’d recommend a cheap, short course to beef yourself up in these skills if you need them.
One of the more unique areas of solution skills that an IT BA needs would be with regards to software development. Now, in particular, I’m talking about software development tools like PlanView, Microsoft Project & Portfolio Management, Requirements Management software, Test Management software (e.g. HP Quality Center).
As I mentioned earlier, an IT BA is involved heavily in the requirements and also testing phases of an IT project. So tools and software pertaining to these two phases would be useful to an IT BA.
Myself, I’ve strongly skilled in Requirements Management software and HP Quality Center (most of the large financial institutions rely on it for test management)
Another area of mention are software development templates. If you’ve been in IT BA work before, you’ll know that IT BAs live and breathe software development templates, e.g. User Requirements Specifications, Functional Specifications, Test Specifications, Change Request Forms, etc.
It’d be useful if you get familiar with one library of such templates – to understand what kind of documentation an IT BA typically deals with.
3. Data Business Analyst
Ok, the last BA category is the “Data Business Analyst”. What specific technical skills do you think Data Business Analysts need?
We’ll try to answer that question here.
Data Business Analysts are actually one of the most important, up and coming BA types.
The world economy is headed towards a digital revolution and data analysis is right smack in the middle of it.
Case Study: I remember back in 2007 I had a colleague who was leaving our IT consulting firm to join a bank as a Senior Data Business Analyst. Myself, on the other hand, left to be a Senior IT Business Analyst in a large bank, to roll out a core banking platform.
Looking back at our decisions, I must say he may have made the better career choice. Today he is Head of Data Analytics & Insights at a large bank and you can imagine that it is an absolutely important role for the bank today.
I like to think of Data BAs as more data-oriented than IT BAs. They way they see requirements, and analyze business, is more from a data perspective.
What kinds of data fields matter to the business? Are the business users all aligned in the manner in which they communicate about business data? Is data clean and of high quality?
Large IT projects, particularly those with a data management remit or emphasis, need many Data BAs to gather data requirements, support data design & development and also participate in data testing and migration.
Yes, I’ll need to say it again – industry domain skills are also needed for Data BAs. Imagine if you’re speaking to a client or your users’ Department Head and you don’t have a clue as to what your users’ department does in the business value chain?
You’ll get your head bitten off by your users, that’s what!
Just as an IT BA delves into deep system requirements, a Data BA must understand how a business works, in order to grasp the critical data elements that are consumed by business operations.
The highest value add from Data BAs come from their ability to share what best practices other organizations in the same industry do with their data, what data fields they classify as “golden source” and keep central copies, as well as how other firms maintain clean, high quality data.
If you intend to work as a Data BA in banking, I’ve got good news – check out this page for information on how you can significantly beef up your banking domain knowledge in a jiffy.
Ok, for an Data BA, the important skills here would be:
Data Requirements – a Data BA must be good at gathering data requirements. They must be able to ask the right questions to fish out the critical data elements in an enterprise. Often, these are the same candidate data elements that need to be centrally managed in a Enterprise Data Dictionary and put under strong data governance.
Data Modeling & Relationships – good Data BAs also have an appreciation of how data is modeled. If you need to understand how to model data, you will need to understand Entity Relationship Diagrams and also some basic techniques. Here’s a great resource to help bring you up to speed on data modeling.
Data Mining & Big Data – oh, data mining and in particularly, Big Data. This is now all the rage in the digital economy. Every employer I know speaks about Big Data like they need it on tap from now on.
It would help a lot for you, as a Data BA, to invest in Data Science, Big Data & Analytics skills – trust me, it’s a skill that will go big time in the next several years.
Business Cases – yes, Data BAs also need to understand cost benefit analysis, ROI and whether or not projects should proceed. Of course, they’d do it more for data management or data governance related projects, unlike IT BAs or Strategic BAs who might do other project work.
Business Processes – a Data BA may not need to understand the full workflow of a business to excel at his or her job. However, it is still useful for a Data BA to appreciate business processes from an informational point of view.
For example, if a lot of data in e.g. a customer application form is being manually filled up, it is then prone to a lot of human input errors. Part of a Data BA’s job is to ensure high data quality standards in enterprise data – and these kinds of “manual data handling” insights could be pockets of quick wins which can be targeted as improvement areas upfront in a data transformation effort.
Next, let’s look at the solution skills that a Data BA needs.
Other than the standard Microsoft Office Suite (PowerPoint, Excel, Word and Visio), a Data BA should be strong in what I call “Data Analysis Software”.
Data analysis software scope is vast and wide, but some of the more important ones I’ve seen in the market are Business Intelligence software (e.g. Qlikview and Tableau), as well as Data Analytics tools (e.g. SAS and IBM SPSS). If you’re interested in going down the path of a Data BA, be sure to learn these software packages – it’d give you more credibility and will definitely be of use at some point of your Data BA career.
4. New Skills For The Future
Great! Having looked at the three different BA types and their associated Industry, Profession and Solution skills, we now have a better grasp of the specific skills that Business Analysts need.
However, I’d like to point out that the world continues to evolve at a rapid pace and the Business Analyst profession needs to keep up.
In future, there will be new technical skills that need to be learnt – I’ll mention two of them here.
Robotic Process Automation (RPA). RPA is a big topic and talks about “robots” or machine algorithms taking over more commoditized business processes. The genre has evolved and matured to an extent that software has been developed to support RPA, e.g. Blue Prism software which is one of the leading platforms.
Machine Learning. Machine learning is also top of mind for many a CEO and I think the area is set to grow. Machine learning algorithms and neural networks will become more and more mainstream. The truth is, we are seeing a lot of programming languages (in particular R and Python) becoming more and more popular as tools to implement machine learning in business situations.
Wrapping Up …
I hope you’ve enjoyed this article! We looked at the Strategic BA, IT BA and Data BA and discussed what specific technical skills Business Analysts need.
One important component was the industry skill set, e.g. Banking BAs need to understand the banking domain well, Telecommunications BAs need to understand how telecommunications companies work and so forth.
Different sets of profession and solution skills were required by the three different BA types, but in some cases (e.g. Microsoft Office and Business Cases) – skills were foundational and needed across all BA types.
My suggestion for you here is to take away from this article two or three skill sets areas that you think you need to beef up to better perform in your BA specialty, be it being a Strategic BA, IT BA and Data BA.
Until next time, best of luck in your BA journey!
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