It’s an ongoing debate within the project management profession: What matters more – the core skills of a BA or their experience within a particular area of business? The hues of the debate are more subtle, and the risks are more acute than you think.
There’s a reality that when it comes to looking for the right people for a role, the tendency will be for project managers to pull together a standard job description that identifies the core skills required of a ‘good’ BA for the project they’re running. And while that might be a good starting point, often there will be an addendum requesting a specific skill or set of experience in a particular area of business.
That additional request for what is essentially subject matter expertise is often couched as a ‘nice to have’ but it can become the defining reason or key differentiator as to who a project manager chooses to hire into the BA role.
However, 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.
The ‘nice to have’ and its impact on project risk
Whilst a BA and an SME need to work in a very collaborative way, there 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.
When a business analyst is hired through a quasi-SME lens, the risk is that the project may not get the best BA available. Bringing in an SME as a business analyst can lead to a conflicted position between the responsibilities that typically belong to a BA vs an SME.
There’s a certain irony that a little bit of knowledge can be dangerous. Mandating or favouring BAs with an SME background can muddy the water and as a result, the project can suffer when it comes to identifying and defining the requirements in the early stages.
Focus on the core skills before looking at SME experience
Accurate requirements gathering and the ability to build a bridge between the project and the business is the critical skill required of a BA. It is an extremely challenging function and suffice to say, getting the requirements wrong will not deliver the outcomes a business needs from its projects. The second challenge for a BA is ensuring that the business doesn’t stray down the ‘what we’ve always done’ path.
Avoiding the SME trap is important for project managers. Instead of looking for SME attributes, it’s important to apply focus to a business analyst’s core BA skills, their experience in complex environments, and their ability to document and facilitate is vital.
One of the core skills that sets a good BA apart is a willingness to listen to what the business is telling them is fact but discern whether it needs to be challenged. A BA does not need to have all the knowledge of the business. Their role is to dig under the skin and ask probing questions to ascertain what the real requirements are with as little bias as possible.
There is often an x-factor and it’s rarely SME expertise
Highly skilled BAs are something of a unicorn because they provide the glue that binds a project, a skill that is usually borne of a mix of experience and exposure to the complexities that typically accompany the delivery of change.
Of course, there is always an x-factor with exceptional BAs and it’s usually in the soft skills they bring to the team. When the selection criteria is skewed toward SME expertise rather than the core skills a BA can bring, there’s a real risk of missing a diamond in the rough.
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