Aspiring business analysts always wishes to know the skills they must possess, how these skills are useful in the business analyst profession and how to develop them? And, not only aspiring analysts but even junior and mid-level analysts are sometimes found wondering whether they possess the right set of skills and do they have all that it takes to be on top of their game?
Well, there are quite a few vital skills that are imperative to succeed in the business analyst career and we have categorized them into 3 have categories, namely:
- Fundamental skills
- Technical skills
- Business Analysis skills
For each of the skills contained within the categories above, we have not only detailed what that skills means for a business analyst but an added section on ‘how to hone the skill’.
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Now, here we Go!
1. Fundamental skills
- Problem Solving : Each project in itself is a solution to a problem and BAs frequently find themselves surrounded by different sorts of issues, problems and changes all requiring swift and stable resolution. A BA must first understand the problem from all the perspectives (i.e. business, technical and end-user), analyze the available options and constraints and then, recommend possible solutions. BAs work towards a collaborative problem solving environment in which they discuss the pros and cons of a recommendation with the technical team and come up with a solution which is technically acceptable and viable.
How to develop problem-solving skills
Use techniques like ‘Brainstorming’ and ‘Five Whys’ to get to the crux of the issue and then come up with a solution tackling the cause and not the symptoms.
If you are a fresher or are yet to have analysis experience, get the problem statements/business case documents for the previous projects executed by your organization (if such documents are not readily available, you can get them by contacting the Project Management Office of your organization), understand them and try to think of solutions to those business problems. Later, compare your solution to the actual solution and try to find the gaps.
- Communication : Nothing holds more importance than being able to communicate clearly. A business analyst should be expressive and articulate, should be an effective listener and should make sure that the receiver corrects understands what is being communicated. For an IT Business Analyst, the modes of communication could be discussions, meetings, documents, emails, virtual teleconferences, chats and many more and for each one of them, a BA must strive to be concise yet clear. Again, communication not only means getting your points across but it’s also about being able to understand what is being said, so, a BA must practice a patient listening as well.
How to be a better communicator – Try to look into the eyes while you are talking directly to a person or a group and you will find that you are being taken seriously and your audiences are keen and attentive to what you speak.
Another time-tested tip is Practice. Well, not any generic practice but conscious and deliberate practice aimed at improving yourself. To do so, pick up a concept and describe it in your language. First, explain it by writing a 1000 word article, a 200 word write-up and a 50 word crisp summary. Next, for the verbal part, vocally explain it and record yourself while doing so. Now, read and hear what you have written and recorded and see whether you are actually able to understand yourself? Believe me, practice it and you will be amazed by your findings (not to mention the improvements you will automatically bring within yourself).
- Management skills : Since a BA juggles various activities throughout the day, he should be able to effectively manage his responsibilities and excel in balancing all the sides of the project. It includes collecting requirements, getting sign-offs, documenting requirements, testing, performing change control, attending meetings, ad-hoc tasks and managing the project as a whole. I find this skill a crucial one because if the BA is unable to perform the balancing act, then sooner or later he will be caught in a vicious circle of tasks and deadlines!
How to be better at management – Management is not only for PMs and to be a BA who knows how to manage his project, you should first have all the crucial information for your project. It includes – the Key stakeholders (must be kept satisfied), the key requirements (must be documented), the key deliverables (must be developed) and the deadlines (not to be missed). Now, the whole project becomes an act to balance these four areas and all your tasks/activities should be prioritized based how well they are serving these areas.
- Research : Although not frequently mentioned but being able to research is also an important skill for an analyst. Every project starts with a problem and recommending a solution requires ‘analysis’ which in turn demands investigation, probing and researching. A business analyst must dig deep to understand the core problem, look for similar solutions elsewhere, explore approaches and come up with a novel resolution to deal with the problem. Remember, for every option that is suggested to solve a problem, there were two more which were overlooked because enough research was not done.
How to do better research – Don’t settle for a single solution or idea. Try to explore the uncommon areas and come up with more viewpoints and suggestions. Most of the time, the first idea or solution just skims the surface and it’s the second one that actually digs deeper and is better tailored as a solution.
2. Technical skills
- Knowledge of IT skills : Although the BAs are not asked to sit and code the software for the project but still they can’t get away without the basic knowledge of the various areas of the Information Technology space. Let’s take a look at those areas:
- MS Office Suite – Includes the MS Word, MS Visio, MS PowerPoint, MS Outlook and MS other applications
- Operating systems – A basic knowledge of the Windows and iOS is indispensable
- Testing Skills – Since a BA is himself expected to conduct some or the other type of testing through the project, a knowledge of different testing methods, test cases, test scripts, automated testing and other aspects of testing is a must
- Programming Languages – Although not mandatory but an understanding of at least one programming language like Java, C++, Visual Basic, PHP will help an analyst ‘think’ technically
- Database – A knowledge of different types of databases, their applications and database programs (MS Access, SQL server and MySQL).
In IT, business analysts are seen as ‘conduit’ between business and technology and are ‘expected’ that they can speak to both technical and business audience with authority and confidence. Now, to live up to this expectation, a BA must have a respectable grasp on the technology side of his project as well to understand the project better and garner respect from his peers.
Developing IT Skills – Well, developing each of the above IT skills could be a separate course in its own right but an analyst doesn’t have to be an expert in them, just a respectable level of knowledge and understanding is enough for a start. One can surf the web to find numerous resources that will teach the basics of the technical areas touched above.
- Software development understanding : In Information Technology space, the solution development for every project is carried out through a development methodology and the knowledge of these methodologies is one of the key skills for any business analyst to be successful. Some of the most common methodologies are ‘Waterfall model’, ‘Rapid application development’ and the recent ‘Agile Software Development’. A practical understanding of these methodologies will help an analyst figure out the process that will be followed for development, ‘what’ will happen ‘when’ in the development cycle and accordingly plan the analysis, elicitation and other activities.How to have Software development understanding– If one is a fresher and yet to start his analysis career then the best source will be to get as much information as possible through the internet. But, if you are already a part of a development project then look beyond your own duties and try to look at the bigger picture. Assess why the project is being developed in the first place, who are your clients, how the solution is being developed, which stage the project is in, what is the future course of action for the project – these details will deepen your understanding about the project and you will realize how your actions are contributing to the success of the project.
- Domain knowledge : A Domain is a specific area of work like Insurance, banking, infrastructure, healthcare, etc. and every project belongs to a domain. A business analyst must have a knowledge of the domain he is working in as it will help him better understand the business case of the project, its background and see how it’s meant to solve the domain-specific problems. Now, you might ask that there are scores of domains and how an analyst is expected to know about them all? Well, the answer is ‘You don’t have to’. An analyst should build upon his domain knowledge after he has been on-boarded for a project.How to build upon the domain knowledge – The best way to get the domain knowledge is by interacting with the very people working in that domain. Ask your client stakeholders for an introduction to the domain by in-person sessions, documents, notes, reference materials or even an online resource. By doing this you will get information that is relevant to the project and will also earn the respect & admiration for your commitment towards the project.
3. Business Analysis skills
- Requirement Elicitation: Elicitation means to be able to ‘draw out’ and BAs should be able to distill, collect or extract information and requirements from his/her stakeholders. These requirements are the very base of any project and a BA must be well versed in being able to facilitate a discussion, use different techniques like brainstorming, interviewing, observation and workshops to elicit functional, technical and non-functional requirements while asking the ‘right questions’ to make sure the information is relevant.
How to be better at elicitation – First and foremost, a BA should know when to use which technique. As a general rule, use:
- Brainstorming when you need isolated and out-of-the-box ideas
- Interviewing when you want to gain an in-depth insight against a complex and intricate topic
- Observation when you need to capture unconscious requirements
- Workshops when you want to gain consensus and agreement amongst stakeholders
Additionally, don’t jump into finalizing the requirements and concluding them without considering all the associated aspects and scenarios.
- Documentation : This is one of the most important skills and a BA documents requirements by creating use cases, user stories, Business Requirement Document (BRD), class diagram, Entity-Relationship (ER) diagram and sequence diagrams for the project he is working on. Writing requirements is quite tricky and with so many stakeholders relying upon the authenticity of these documents, a business analyst should do everything to make sure these documents are consistent, unambiguous, complete and up-to-date.
How to document better – Documentation is all about clarity. While documenting don’t use excessively long sentences, complex words and avoid rambling as it might increase the chances of your stakeholders missing requirements or misunderstanding your explanations. Another tip I find highly useful is avoiding the use of words like approx., etc, some, sometimes, ordinarily, most, mostly, usually and might – make your requirements specific and precise.
- Decision making : This is one of the skills that is not very obvious but plays a huge part in the day-to-day workings of an analyst. A BA, apart from the project manager, is expected to make many decision himself like controlling changes, preventing scope creep, deciding the viability of a solution and taking management decisions in the interest of the projects. They are also a part of various decision-making boards and meetings like change control board, requirement prioritization discussion, planning meetings, implementation discussions, finalization of approaches and many others.
How to take better decisions– Decision making is a complex skill which can be mastered only by practicing. While you are presented with a change or problem requiring a decision making, first employ ‘critical thinking’ by understanding why we are doing that change or what is the source of the problem. Then, follow ‘impact analysis’ aimed at analyzing all the modules and functionalities that will/might get impacted by the change – at this step you might come up with different solutions or approaches. Lastly, evaluate the pros and cons of each of the approach by doing a ‘comparative analysis’. Following these steps will result in you taking a balanced and well-thought decision.
- Creativity : A BA must think out of the box and must come out with novel solutions. Also, he must creatively portray options, suggestions and opinions in shapes of wireframes, prototypes and even white board drawings and all this calls for good creative outlook and approach. Creativity is an important skill for an analyst as it’s the step towards innovation and it’s required throughout the life-cycle of a project.
How to be Creative – Well, creativity should not be misunderstood for being good at designing and drawing. Rather, it’s being unconventional and thinking in directions which are often overlooked. To develop a creative outlook try to doodle in your free time, learn a new musical instrument/language or even do your daily chores in a different manner (like brushing from your secondary hand) – All these activities will trigger and activate the un-exercised portions of your brain and thus increase the flow of those creative juices.
- Analytical skills : To serve a customer’s business better, a BA must tackle every problem analytically i.e. first understanding a problem, visualizing it, analyzing it, gathering more information against it and then striving to solve it. This requires an investigative approach, logical thinking, problem handling and interpretation skills.How to analyze better – Analytical skills can be acquired fairly quickly because they depend a lot on the ‘approach’ you take towards solving a problem. You can make use of ‘models’ and ‘use case diagrams’ to analytically analyze issues and requirements or can make use of various analytical techniques to do so, namely Feasibility Analysis, Interface Analysis and SWOT Analysis.
Now that’s some reading and learning!
In the skills we discussed above, we have kept the focus on only those skills which are really relevant in shaping the career of a Business Analyst. Obviously, there are some more skills like presentation, flexibility and working as a team player but they all tend to be more on the ‘soft skills’ side. Since the field of business analysis is one of the fastest growing fields, a business analyst must strive to keep himself up to date with the latest developments in each of the above discussed skills.
I do believe that every analyst has a story or a tip to share. I am wondering what trick ‘You’ are hiding up your sleeve which can help the fellow analysts. Let us all know by leaving a comment below and let the analysis community benefit from your experience and insights