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Beyond Competency: Excellence in Business Analysis

By Ann Smith, Director, Black Circle Pty Ltd.

Excellence is characterised by having an intuitive grasp of each situation as it arises. It represents a capacity developed through significant experience to implicitly understand the full situation or context and to respond only in terms that are appropriate to that context (Benner 2001).

It is represented in IIBA® Business Analysis Competency Model at the top of a five-level model (Dreyfus & Dreyfus 1986). Whilst the skills and knowledge of Competency may be explicitly imparted and understood, at the higher levels of Proficiency and Expertise there is greater reliance on tacit knowledge—that is, knowledge that is “unspoken; … implied without being openly expressed or stated; understood, inferred” (Shorter Oxford Dictionary). Figure 1 models these concepts, clarifying the three key dimensions represented: Consciousness, Competency, and Contextuality.

It follows that Excellence is developed through widening the breadth of contexts in which the competency is demonstrated, and through multiple exposures: typically it takes some years to develop. This underlines both the importance of experiencing multiple types of projects and organisations as opportunities to develop analysts. As well, tools and approaches such as the three outlined below can support more rapid development of context sensitivity.

1. Organisational Context

The Context Level Diagram has been used since the 1970s (Yourden 1989) to:
  • document the scope in system terms
  • describe the business relationships, or interfaces, between the parties
  • provide an initial reference point from which to undertake more detailed analysis
  • clarify the system size and consultation task load

Diagram 2 combines Furbini’s ideas with the Context Level Diagram to provide a means of understanding and modelling the organisational context of the proposal.
  • The core business of the organisation focuses on the transactions that make up the day-to-day focus: this is the Operational layer. Key stakeholders are customers, clients, and regulators and Benefits may be focused on Increased Revenue
  • The infrastructure layer of the organisation focuses on the support activities such as finance, staff supervision, legal, H/R, I/T, that support the core business: this is the Management layer, Key stakeholders are Suppliers, and Benefits are focused on Avoided Costs
  • The Service layer provides services to all those parties external to the organisation, including customers, co-operators, suppliers, regulators and even competitors: this is the Strategic layer. Benefits are focused on Improved Service.
2. Stakeholder Context

Understanding the stakeholders and modelling the stakeholders’ expectations is a crucial task. There are at least three measures of these expectations (the PM-BOK suggests Time, Cost and Quality), and perhaps as many as seven—Rob Thomsett (2002) suggests: Requirements, Quality, Benefits, Time, Cost, Team Satisfaction, Client Satisfaction. Compounding the complexity of dealing with understanding their relative importance is the tendency for project team members such as analysts to address them in this order, whilst stakeholders will typically approach them in reverse order. Business analysis focuses on Requirements, Benefits and Quality—which are three of the trickiest to understand, and to deliver. Understanding these expectations and their comparative importance in detail is critical in understanding the expectations of the stakeholders, and subsequently planning and managing the analysis to meet those project-specific expectations.

3. Quality Context

If there are any expectations of quality then for project success these must be formalised as requirements. ISO/IES 9126-1: 2001 can assist here by providing a framework for characterising the quality expectations in terms of ten core characteristics: Conformance, Flexibility, Maintainability, Safety and Security, Auditability, Usability, Accuracy, Reliability, Portability, Job Impact. These may then be analysed in terms of stakeholder preference and also to identify options for partitioning options to group areas of like expectations. Next, the criteria may be reframed into verifiable criteria, some of which will contribute functional requirements (Operability, Searching and Audit control for instance), and some of which will impact the way the analysis task is undertaken (Traceability, for example, Modularity, or Correctness).

As well, the quality criteria may be further understood in the context of stakeholder expectations and project outcomes. Thus, Usability for Clients is focused on Increased Revenue, whilst Usability for Staff may be understood as a means of Avoiding Costs. Safety and Security may have very different implications for Clients, but are again associated with the Benefit stream, whilst Safety and Security of Staff may be associated with support costs and hence with Avoided Costs. Flexibility may be associated with Increased Revenue, whilst Maintainability will tend to be focused on Avoided Cost. In other circumstances Flexibility may be a requirement in order to address a volatile project context and consequent need to meet emergent circumstances and requirements.

What is not excellence?

Experience, team leadership, supervisory responsibilities, and strategic analysis are not of themselves indicators of excellence. Experience is necessary, but not sufficient in itself. Team Leadership tasks and supervisory functions have specific competencies in their own right. Strategic Analysis is where definition of the strategic intent, corporate and business objectives of the project occur, and accordingly it equates to the higher levels of Jacques Organisational Hierarchy model. It may pay more (because the consequences can be high if it goes wrong), however, as the list of examples in Table 1 shows, it is still essentially a competency with models that can be taught. That said, these models can support Excellence in further enhancing understanding of the organisational context within which the projects sit.

What, then, are the behaviours of excellence?
  • Responding to the specific context of the project or situation, the team, the specific stakeholders, and their expectations
  • Self-validating professional choices in the moment
  • Integrating quality assurance into the analysis, referencing back to the project context
  • Understanding industry context; risk-aware, but not risk-averse.
These are the behaviours required for development into context-sensitive excellent analysts.

Benner, P 2001, From Novice to Expert – Commemorative Edition, Prentice-Hall, NJ.
Dreyfus, HL & Dreyfus, SE 1986, Mind over Machine: the power of human intuition and expertise in the era of the computer, The Free Press, NY.
IIBA Business Analysis Competency Model Version 3.0 2011, IIBA, viewed 30 June 2011, 
IIBA Competency Model, see IIBA Business Analysis Competency Model Version 3.0 2011
PM-BOK, see Project Management Institute 2008
Project Management Institute (PMI) 2008, Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, 4th edition, PMI, USA
Thomsett, R 2002, Radical Project Management, Prentice-Hall, NJ.
Yourden, E 1989, Modern Structured Analysis, Yourden Press, NJ.

Ann Smith’s experience in business and information technology extends over 25 years across the private, community and public sectors through such roles as Project Manager for RADCOM at SMA, Director of Business Solutions and Services at the AIPO, and Branch Software Manager for MDS-Qantel. Since 1998 as an independent consultant her clients have included FACS, H&AC and AXA. In association with Thomsett International, Ann consults and presents workshops on Business Analysis, Business Case preparation, and Project Management to organisations covering all sectors, including financials, utilities, industrial companies, educational institutions and government departments. She has developed workshops on Data Analysis and Presentation, Facilitation for Analysts, and Agile Business Systems Analysis. Her professional affiliations include IIBA and Membership of the Australian Computer Society since 1994. Her contributions to industry include papers on Agile Methods and Complex Projects presented at the AIPM Conference in Canberra in 2008, publication in Information Age on Enabling Agility in 2010, and numerous public presentations on Business Analysis to practitioners.