Not many people-including business analysts themselves-are able to agree upon a standard job description, typical skill sets, proper training methods or a well-defined career path for the business analyst position.

Yet almost everyone who's ever toiled away on an 18-month software development project can agree on the importance of the business analyst role to project success.

So while everyone agrees that good business analysts are extremely valuable, and that cultivating business analyst talent is essential for effective IT operations, a new Forrester Research report says that businesses need to do more. To really take advantage of everything that business analysts have to offer, there needs to be an answer to a career conundrum that many business analysts face: What's next?

In the June 2008 report, "The Business-Oriented Business Analyst," Forrester's Andy Salunga offers several potential paths to future business leadership for business-oriented business analysts.

First it needs to be noted that Forrester categorises business analysts (BAs) into three roles: business-oriented BAs, who focus on a particular function, such as HR, finance or supply chain; IT-oriented BAs, who report into IT; and business technology BAs, who possess a blend of broad business experience and operational know-how as well as a high degree of tech know-how.

However, the analysis and discussion of business analyst career path seems just as applicable to all other BAs and those who are interested in becoming one.

Salunga also uses Forrester survey data from both business- and IT-oriented BAs to examine the types of positions and roles that today's business analysts think they should go after.

Overall, Salunga surmises that IT's importance in today's enterprises has raised more questions about the exact role business analysts should play, rather than providing concrete answers in determining the most logical and fulfilling BA career path.

"Disruptive internal and external forces such as globalisation and the emergence of business process management (BPM) technology and service-oriented architecture (SOA) have created intense demand for multidimensional professionals with broad business, IT and leadership skills," he writes. "Today's business-oriented business analysts must seek out and create their own opportunities beyond their comfort zones, either on a traditional business-focused yet tech-savvy path or on a new emerging path as a business technology analyst."

What's Next for Business Analysts

According to a September 2007 Forrester online survey of 230 business analysts, the project manager role was the top choice as what they viewed was the next step in the BAs' career. (The responses were from both business-oriented and IT-oriented BAs.) Following that was becoming a business subject-matter expert, business function manager (such as in finance), line-of-business manager and relationship manager.

"Business analysts aspire to business leadership, but most organisations struggle to provide a clear career path to get them there," Salunga writes in the 2008 report.

The good news, contends Salunga, is that "business leaders who hire, train and deploy business-oriented BAs agree on what they want: more BAs with deep business acumen that spans functions, technology fluency and strong nontechnical skills."

With that in mind, Salunga outlined several skillset areas that BAs should work on as they prepare their career paths.

Business analysts should broaden their cross-functional experience.

Business analysts looking to expand their career horizons must seek challenges outside of their functional heritage, Salunga states.

"Sourcing-process BAs, for example, should certainly continue to deepen their functional expertise, but they should also develop knowledge on the retail distribution processes and the manufacturing processes," he writes. "This cross-functional inquisitiveness will empower a BA to make more holistic recommendations and identifies to management the BA's interest in and potential for taking on broader responsibilities."

Business analysts should become familiar with process and IT management methodologies.

"Lean Six Sigma has become a relatively well-known and highly adopted business management philosophy, while CMMI, ITIL and other methodologies have gained significant traction within IT," writes Salunga. "Traditional business analysts should seek to understand and utilise Lean Six Sigma tools and methods to improve processes and enable broad-scale business innovation. Business technology analysts will also need deep knowledge of CMMI, ITIL and other methodologies to improve IT performance and align IT with the business."

Business analysts should increase technological knowledge and skills.

Salunga contends that both business-oriented and IT-oriented career paths will require "a higher degree of technology fluency," particularly with BPM technologies and SOA. In addition, business-oriented BAs must develop process modelling skills using Business Process Modeling Notation (BPMN) and become adept at using process analysis tools.

"Business technology analysts will need to deepen their BPM and business rules technology expertise," he writes, "and be able to turn business process models created by their business-oriented counterparts into executable logic."

Business analysts should strengthen their soft skills.

Business analysts already consider their soft skills more important to their success than analytical and technical expertise, Salunga writes. "With the tightening of budgets, BAs on both career paths must hone their organisational change management, conflict resolution and leadership skills as they work to sell their recommendations and lead ever-changing teams and initiatives."

Salunga concludes that there will not be one distinct path to business leadership for BAs, but they will have to adapt and expand their skillsets to succeed.

"The blurring of the lines between business and IT," he writes, "presents business-oriented business analysts with two career paths to leadership: a traditional but expanded business-oriented path or the business technology path. Both paths share common skill areas such as familiarity with process management frameworks, methodologies and tools, but they require different depths of expertise in each of these areas."