There is an on-going industry debate and confusion within the project management profession about the true role definition of Business Analysts (BAs) and that of Subject Matter Experts (SME).

Typically Project Managers (PMs) will put together a standard BA job description that identifies all the core skills required of a good BA. So far so good, however more often than not there will be an addendum to the job description requesting some specific skill set or experience in a particular area of business.

The additional request for what is essentially subject matter expertise is often couched in terms of ‘nice to have’. It can, however, become the defining reason or the key differentiator when a project manager makes a decision about who to hire into the BA role.

The ‘nice to have’ and its impact on project risk

Choosing a BA based on their subject matter knowledge can introduce risk into the project because the role of the BA and the SME are very different.

Whilst they need to work in a very collaborative way there also needs to be a certain amount of competitive tension to achieve the best results for the project. In essence they need to hold each other to account to get the best outcomes.

By hiring a BA through a quasi SME lens the project runs the risk of the not engaging the best BA available, while wearing two hats can lead to a conflicted position between the responsibilities of the two roles.

The irony is that a little bit of knowledge can be dangerous. By mandating or favouring BAs with an SME background the waters get muddied and the project can suffer, particularly in the requirements gathering stage.

A core BA skill base

The core skill for any BA is a focus on requirements gathering and the ability to be a bridge between the project and the business. Accurate requirements gathering is an extremely difficult function and worthy of its own discussion.

Suffice to say that if you get the requirements wrong, the project will not deliver a successful outcome. The real challenge is to capture what the business needs not what they have always done.

The best way PMs can avoid falling into this trap is to first and foremost focus in on the person’s core BA skills. Instead of looking for SME attributes, focus on their experience within complex project environments and their documentation and facilitation skills. Do they blindly accept what the business SMEs tell them or will they challenge?

It is not for the BA to have all the knowledge of the business so this ability to continue to ask the probing question to get to the real requirement is essential, and does not require any SME expertise.

The real value of a BA

Highly skilled BAs are not that common and the really good ones are the glue that binds a successful project. If the selection criteria needlessly mixes SME expertise with the BA skills required the PM runs the risk of missing the true diamonds in the rough.

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Quay Consulting is a professional services business specialising in the project landscape, transforming strategy into fit-for-purpose delivery. Meet our team ...