The Business Analyst and Knowledge Management

Rodin
Knowledge is valuable

I have read a few articles recently that have talked about the promotion potential of Business Analyst’s, particularly at Laura Brandenburg’s excellent http://www.bridging-the-gap.com.  What jobs are open to a BA? What skills do you have that can open new avenues?  I think this is a very valid discussion as the BA role can seem pretty flat in terms of long-term potential.  What is the career path? Senior Business Analyst? Super Senior Business Analyst?

There are typical answers to this, the most common being Project Manager, but that is one that I find distinctly unappealing.  I think being an Analyst means you are the type of person who likes to get in to the weeds of a project a little too much for you to transfer nicely to a PM role.  In a previous post I spoke about the cross-over between a BA and an Information Architect, and I still believe this is an open avenue, but this may be too “webby” or design focused a step for some people, as well as being a rare field, still growing and maturing and hence difficult to access.

As part of my Masters in Business & Information Technology at DePaul, I am taking a course in Knowledge Management, and it is fascinating.  It is such a fuzzy area and almost a non-subject according to some, however I see a lot of value in it.  It centers around not only how do we collate what we know in to knowledge bases but also how do we identify, stimulate and capture this information from experts within the organization.

Something that seems very clear to me is how a Business Analyst can significantly help in this area, if they have worked within an organization for a period of time.  Over the course of various projects, many interviews have been conducted, problem domains examined and modeled, and a sense of the organizations knowledge centers would have been subconsciously formed.  As the BA who is observing and objectively analyzing how information, data and processes flow within a company, they are essentially tracking the knowledge flow through a company, how it is formed and who are the creators, experts, team players etc. who contribute to it’s formation.

So when you are next creating an Activity Model, or interviewing key stakeholders for a new system, keep in mind that you are also tapping in to a key knowledge resource, that has a broader importance.  If there is a knowledge management initiative at your company you may then be able to leverage this information outside of the main project focus.  But if there isn’t a knowledge management initiative, then maybe this is a good way to propose one and perhaps land yourself with a Knowledge Management project.

Related posts on the Business Analyst career path:

http://www.bridging-the-gap.com/can-i-be-promoted-as-a-business-analyst/

http://www.bridging-the-gap.com/whats-next-what-do-i-do-after-im-done-being-a-business-analyst/

http://www.businessanalyst.com/advance-from-business-analyst-to-business-architect/

The Business Analyst and Knowledge Management

.NET developer job

I know this is a long shot but I thought I would post this job that my company has on the off chance that we may find someone, the j0b boards are not providing good candidates at the moment. Leave me a comment if you are interested:

.NET DEVELOPER – Consultancy, Chicago IL – Local Candidates Only

We are a growing, Chicago based consulting company and Microsoft Certified Gold Partner with Microsoft competencies awarded in Custom Development Solutions, Information Worker Solutions, and Data Management Solutions. Local candidates only please, and no corp-to-corp.

Requirements:
• A technical degree in computer science, engineering, or equivalent experience.
• Strong working knowledge of Internet technologies and databases.
• 3+ years of professional programming experience in C#.
• Understanding of the .NET framework, ASP.NET (2.0 and 3.5), ADO.NET, AJAX, and LINQ.
• Test Driven Development experience using Visual Studio, NUnit or equivalent.
• Experience with SQL Server and T-SQL programming.
• Ability to communicate (verbal and written) effectively with a variety of cross-functional groups.
• Time management skills & ability to multitask.

Experience with any of the following technologies is also beneficial:
• Microsoft Patterns and Practices
• Microsoft Enterprise Library
• Microsoft Team Foundation Server
• Microsoft SharePoint Server
• Microsoft Commerce Server
• Microsoft BizTalk Server
• Microsoft SQL Server Reporting

Benefits:
• 401(k) with 4% matching
• Medical and Dental HMO/PPO/HSA
• Flexible scheduling
• Casual environment

Greater compensation considered for exceptional talent.
Please send resume and salary history to the email address above

.NET developer job

New job!

On Monday January 18th I will be starting a new job as a Business Analyst / Project Manager, at a small IT consultancy that creates custom web applications as well as offering hosting solutions.  They predominantly use Agile methodologies where possible, however the final approval comes from the client, so if the client wants Waterfall then so be it.  This is a very exciting move for me, and I cannot wait to get started on Monday.

I started this blog in 2008 to track my career change from a recruiter with 10 years experience to a Business Analyst (hence the blog name, see my first post).  My first role however was not ideal, and I knew that going in as it was an Implementation Consultant role for a SaaS product.  Although it involved business analysis type work, such as requirements gathering and extensive customer interaction, it was within a very confined environment.  Essentially the product existed, we were just tailoring where possible and getting the customer trained, live and bringing in revenue.  It was a good starting point but not what I wanted long-term.  I entered Business Analysis with the idea of working on new software product development and release, preferably web applications as that seemed so fluid and exciting.  This new role seems very much in line with what I saw in my minds-eye when I started this career change adventure.

This new job is a combination, they are bringing together the Business Analyst and Project Manager roles.  Previous experience has shown the owners that at present there is not enough work on either side for a full role and that there is also a lot of cross-over.  I will get involved in so many different areas, from requirements gathering, developing and managing a project plan, wireframes, information architecture, testing and so much more I’m sure.  I have a lot to learn.

I will be working my way through the following books recommended by one of the company owners as I get started, and will post a quick review of each as I go:

So a new chapter opens in my career change, and again I will be blogging my progress.

I would be very interested to hear from anyone who has worked in a joint BA /PM role such as this, and any other suggestions on readings would be most helpful.

New job!

The BA and Expectation Setting

The expectation gap

Expectations can destroy a project.  If the stakeholders have inflated, unrealistic expectations, regardless of the projects final deliverable, it will be classified as a failure.  The stakeholders will be disappointed and the project team will be demoralized.  The BA must play the role of project realist and ground the stakeholders, tethering them to the true idea of what the final deliverable will be.  The BA is uniquely positioned to fulfill this “Expectation Enforcer” role because of their requirements gathering responsibilities.

In my current BA role implementing a SaaS product, this is particularly critical.  I am the face of the company and product following the successful sales cycle, where they have been courted and wooed with the promises of time and cost savings and a great user experience.  During the 2-day requirements gathering meeting which follows the sales to implementation hand-off, one of the big parts of my job is not just gathering functional requirements and building the stakeholder relationship, but also gradually and carefully grounding those expectations which are often floating in the stratosphere.

This is a very tricky, balancing act that requires the BA to use all the soft skills they have at their disposal.  The customer’s enthusiasm and eagerness needs to be maintained and nurtured. Kill that now and you set up a long and difficult road for the project.  But let them run free and unchecked and you have a bigger problem and will set up the project to fail.

Expectation setting must not mean be negative.  The chips and knocks to their ideal of the project must happen organically and naturally as the conversation develops and the requirements are gathered.  It is because of this that I feel the BA is perfectly suited to the “Expectation Enforcer”.

With each requirement elicited comes the opportunity to gauge what the customer is expecting.

 

The BA must address each and every one of these expectations.  Probing, questioning, and resetting the scene to approach the problem from a new perspective, just as you would for a functional requirement.  As this discussion progresses you must latch on to what to what is possible, and enthusiastically confirm that assertion.  As we all know, start with a positive before delivering less favorable news.  Then carefully bring the customer down out of the cloud, ensuring they understand the realities of the project.  Whether that be the customization limitations of an existing SaaS product, or the constraints of a new development project, where cost, time or scope may mean their expectation cannot be met.

As is so often the case, using visuals greatly assists the process.  Working with a SaaS product, I use the requirements meeting to run demos in a test database, and show exactly what it is they are getting at every turn.  This works really well at transferring the enthusiasm from the ideal in their head, to how it will actually look and work.

Often the functionality is as they expected, it just works in a different way to the mental model they had developed during the sales cycle.

If working on a new development project, the principles of Agile and User Centered Design will play a big part in reigning in the expectations also.  Delivering working products quickly, soliciting constant stakeholder feedback, testing and iterating, will make sure that the customer understands quickly the realities of the project.  If you are working on a waterfall project (I feel for you), showing prototypes and using whatever visuals you have to hand as the project develops will help fend off the “this isn’t what we expected” comment when the product is delivered.

I would love to hear other BA’s opinions on this topic, particularly those working on new development projects, and how you approach this critical issue.

Thanks as always for reading.

The BA and Expectation Setting

Case Study Part 2: Process Flow Diagram Analysis

The diagram was a challenge but I will persevere!

 Well it took me longer than a week to post the results of my process flow diagram experiment and for that I apologize. I will not bore you with excuses. 

A quick recap for those who did not read Part 1 of this Case Study.  I submitted a proposal to my boss to add a process walk through conversation with the customer during the project kick-off, 2-day discovery meeting.  This meeting is currently driven almost exclusively by a question and answer tool and resulted in a very stale and stunted meeting.  My aim was to engage the customer by asking them to tell the story of their current process, which I would capture using a swim lane type model I had developed, for delivery with the Business Requirements Document. 

The pilot overall went well, however it was a challenging meeting as the customer was not engaged in the process and had provided little documentation beforehand to help me lead the discussion.  But it did achieve some of the goals I had set for the experiment, which were: 

  • Provide a framework for a free-flowing discussion.
  • Elicit requirements that are missed by the basic question & answer format.
  • Allow the diagram to be constructed as the discussion took place.

The challenges I experienced were: 

  • The customer was small and the process being described, although with many parts, was all conducted by one person.  Therefore the customer found it difficult to talk through the process in a more abstract way, linking one section to another.  This highlighted that I had designed the process with a larger customer in mind and would need to tailor it to a small company setting.
  • Creating the diagram neatly, on the fly, was difficult.  The meeting was conducted in a restaurant and I had to do the diagram just with a pad and pen.  I had not prepared for this correctly, not knowing the setting of the meeting until we arrived, and needed a portable whiteboard, or just plain paper and a pencil would have been better.  I will certainly be more prepared next time. 

I will persevere with this method however and continue to work on refining it.  My boss is still certainly on board with the idea. 

Once again it demonstrates the power of iteration, and learning from your experiences.  I will do this again at the next meeting and I will now have these lessons learnt and will start from a stronger position.  I am striving to make sure I personally review my work  and learn from my mistakes.  An internal heuristic walk-through of my work output if you will.  I must embrace my mistakes and challenging experiences and see them as a valuable part of learning. 

Thanks again for reading!

Case Study Part 2: Process Flow Diagram Analysis

Agile and User Centered Design

Nielsen Normal Group
Nielsen Norman Group

This new article from Jakob Nielsen was an interesting read. It relates back, in a roundabout way if you really squint at it from a distance, to my previous posts (here and here) on where the Business Analyst fits in to the User Centered Design (UCD) process. Nielsen is looking at the problem from the perspective of how UCD fits in to the Agile development lifecycle. The focus on a rapid sprint style of development leaves little room for user engagement and testing. Furthermore the concentration on small sprints to achieve functionality can be at the expense of a unified, user-focused design and information architecture. Unless of course that UCD is integrated in to the project from the beginning. This is Nielsen’s point.

The BA gets involved in many of the areas that UCD preaches (requirements gathering, wireframing, information structure, process flow etc.) but he/she is not a designer, so my query was how they fit together? Nielsen makes this comment:

“it’s important to designate a gatekeeper to track requirements and communications between the UX team and the other project teams to keep everybody on track (even though those tracks are parallel).”

This would be a natural starting point for a BA to again be that bridge between two groups. Although it sounds like a Project Manager type role at first glance, I see greater scope for engagement and influence in the project, and so more of a BA type role. To be the “gatekeeper” between the UCD team and the development team. To integrate the user and design requirements from the UCD side, and working within the information architecture and design principals, bringing that to bear on the functional requirements and delivering that to the development team.

Just a thought.

Agile and User Centered Design

Case Study Part 1: Adding a process flow diagram to a Q & A driven requirements process

I recently suggested to my boss a way to incorporate a process flow diagram technique in to our requirements gathering process. She liked the idea and allowed me to run a pilot at my last requirements gathering meetings. This is Part one of two articles documenting my experience.

As an Implementation Consultant for a SaaS product, the big kick-off for each project is a 2-day meeting at the customer site. This is a requirements gathering session driven entirely by an online tool that ensures I ask all the critical questions so I can generate the Business Requirements Documents and have the product configured. This question & answer, tool driven process is part of a broader Six Sigma, repeatable and reliable implementation path that the company has invested heavily in over the recent past. This in turn generates lots of data points, measurable and reportable milestones which the QA team use as a stick to beat us lowly Implementation Consultants with when we don’t meet them 🙂

However I felt as though this drive towards fully quantifiable actions and processes had resulted in a very stale and un-engaging requirements meeting. The tool forced the meeting away from a qualitative semi-structured discussion, in to a repetitive question and answer session…for two days!!

  • Where was the consultative approach our implementation procedure and job title highlights?
  • Where was the business process analysis?
  • Where was the free-flowing discussion and use of more traditional BA methods of enquiry and elicitation?

My concerns at this particular issue possibly taps in to a broader problem of operational efficiency programs, such as Six Sigma, throttling fuzzy, qualitative procedures, but that was not my problem to address.  However I saw a great opportunity to include a visualization technique to capture the customers existing workflow that would be directly affected by the new software I am implementing. What I proposed was a business process diagram method, but what that would look like I had no idea at the time.

The key objectives were:

  1. It must be quick and simple to draw / develop in real-time in front of the customer.
  2. It must generate discussion and allow the customer to walk through the process, as it exists today, with no consideration for how it will change with the new software, or more in-depth technical considerations.
Process Flow Diagram Example
Process Flow Diagram Example

This is the example I developed after some online research (thanks to David Morris @GreySkinnedBoy on Twitter for pointing me to the BPMN) and showed to my boss. It builds on a swim lane type method although it will not conform to the linear timeline aspect normally the case with swim lane diagrams.

My hope is that this high level overview and story telling on the customer’s part will elicit requirements that would normally go undiscovered until later in the process. I also want to create a then and now document so the customer will know how the process will look at the end of the implementation, as well as a proposed process flow diagram if efficiency saving options are open following analysis after the meeting.

Overall I hope the introduction of a visual artifact will offer both value to the customer, improve the requirements gathering process and offer more opportunity for real value add consultative work.

Look out for Part 2 next week to see how the pilot went.

Case Study Part 1: Adding a process flow diagram to a Q & A driven requirements process