When I got into the IT business years ago, I thought the business analyst was the most pivotal person in the whole profession.

He was the person who was the bridge between business and technology, and could see and understand both sides. His goal was to apply technology to support business initiatives that would help the company increase its revenues or reduce operating costs.

Over the last 20 years we lost sight of that, as the technology focus began to shift away from IT and toward the business users. The PC dethroned the mainframe and the minicomputer. Local area networks allowed whole companies to run on PCs and servers. The chips powering PCs got more and more powerful, allowing the software to do more.

Then the internet hit the big time, and for the past 10 years we've been exploring all the things you can do when you combine people and computers in real-time networks via the Web. But now the novelty has worn off, and we are thinking once more about how to use this stuff to make money. That's where the business analyst comes in again.

Keeping it in-house

A lot of IT functions have been outsourced, including datacentre operations, programming and the helpdesk. The one function that doesn't seem to lend itself to outsourcing is business analysis.

To look after their best interests effectively, companies have to analyse the specific challenges they face and find unique responses to them. If they play the "me too" game of simply doing what everyone else is doing, they will not reap any real competitive advantage. Of course, a company can bring in consultants to help and to train its analysts, but it cannot get consistently good results if it outsources the whole analysis function. Why? Because an analyst really needs to understand the company he is working with, and the best way to do that is to live there and be part of it.

I often hear that companies have not developed their business analysis capabilities because they believe that analysts use soft skills that anyone can exercise without much training. I beg to differ.

Skill sets

I was once asked to start up and run a group of business analysts for a company that already had a 100-person IT department. As part of that job, I had to define the specific skills my analysts should have and then put in place a training and career advancement program that would develop those skills. This made me think carefully about the skills that analysts need and how to develop them.

Here's what I found:

  • Business analysts must be able to facilitate joint application design sessions that involve both business and technical people. They need to make sure everyone is actively involved in the sessions and encourage people to contribute their ideas.
  • They need to do process mapping. This is often a very good way to focus the conversations of a group in a design session and provides the overall context in which to place people's ideas.
  • They need to do process mapping. This is often a very good way to focus the conversations of a group in a design session and provides the overall context in which to place people's ideas.

Once analysts have run group design sessions, created process flow diagrams and organised the relevant data into a logical data model, they must pull this all together. They then need to use this to create the user interface for the system that will drive the activities in the process flow and handle the data in the data model.

This is where analysis turns into synthesis, and where the design of any new system emerges. And as if all that weren't enough, good analysts must also be skilled at system testing, user training and even project management.

Soft skills? These are some of the hardest skills to master in the whole IT profession. And companies need good business analysts now, more than ever, if they are going to thrive in our fast-changing global economy.

Michael H Hugos is a principal at the Center for Systems Innovation and a speaker. His books include CIO Best Practices: Enabling Strategic Value with Information Technology (John Wiley & Sons, 2007).