How Technical Should Business Analysts Be?

Have you ever found yourself in the midst of “techy guys” and feeling like you are the only one wondering what everyone else is talking about? It is common for non-technical folks to get lost in the sea of jargon-filled technical conversations. This situation would be even more daunting for business analysts with a strictly business background.

While knowledge of IT is not a prerequisite for all business analyst positions, sufficient understanding of how modern technology works would definitely add value to the recommendations proffered by the BA. The more difficult question would then be, "What level of IT knowledge is sufficient?" or "How technical do we have to be as business analysts?"

Though it is not the primary responsibility of the analyst to design systems or determine the technology adopted, analysts can indeed facilitate the design process by simplifying the work of designers and system implementers further down the chain through the identification of good quality requirements which are correct, complete and feasible. An understanding of technology ensures that impractical requirements and wish lists are nipped in the bud from the get-go.

Barbara Carkenord in her book (See Reference) asserts that understanding technology helps the BA talk about the “possibilities”. When an analyst knows that what the stakeholder is trying to achieve is not possible within the limits of the development platform, he or she would avoid making wild commitments.

A basic understanding of technology can guide the requirements that are specified or even considered in the first place. For example, if the BA knows that the organization - wide operating system is MAC OS X, only software vendors with applications that can run on this platform would be shortlisted - unless the business is ready to take up the additional cost of changing the underlying technology infrastructure and recruiting skilled personnel to manage the new technology.

Diverse opinions exist on why and to what extent business analysts should be technical.

Here’s an interesting quote from a quorum thread:

A business analyst should be able to act as a bridge that links stakeholders with IT solutions. On the other hand, a good business analyst recognizes that the first solution or answer is usually one based on process or people, not on technology. Cultural and behavioural questions cannot be answered or solved by technical solutions – Michael Cardinal

Here's another thought-provoking quote from stack exchange:

There are certainly cases where it makes sense for a business analyst to understand the technology at least well enough to understand where it makes sense to question a business user about how important a particular feature would be. If the business analyst understands whether a request from the business is going to be trivial for the development team or whether it is going to involve 20 hours of AJAX development, they can figure out whether it makes sense to just write down the requirement or engage the business in exploring alternatives – Justin Cave

A fair understanding of the complexities of technology can indeed influence the prioritization process. Analysts usually have to help stakeholders arrive at a prioritized list of requirements. If stakeholders were informed of the complexity related to delivering a feature, they would be forced to think about whether they really need it or not. When push comes to shove, they may prefer not to secure the extra resources or deadline extension associated with a particular feature. 

Here are some examples of areas where the BA would definitely benefit from an understanding of technology:

  • Assessing Capability Gaps  - involves assessing whether the organization can meet the business need with the existing structure, people, processes and technology.  Understanding the limitations of the existing technical infrastructure can help to propose recommendations for the future state
  • Determining Solution Approach – Imagine a situation where you’ve been invited to write a business case for a project – how do you recommend outsourcing, COTS software or in-house development if you do not understand the complexities of software development? An understanding of the technical ramifications of all these approaches would enable the BA make appropriate recommendations
  • Interface analysis – this technique helps in clarifying the boundaries of an application. Each identified hardware and software interface would typically have specific requirements for interoperability. For example, an external application may need to retrieve or send data to an ERP database. Understanding how (automatically via web service or creating an additional step for the user to manually upload that data) this will be achieved technically, without specifying it, can guide business process design and change management activities that would need to happen.

It is no easy feat trying to keep up with the dynamic and seemingly complex technical world. BAs who are able to keep track of both technological advancements and the ever-evolving business environment will clearly stand out.

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