3 Reasons Why We Need Business Analysts in ICT4D
November 11, 2014 Editor
In a recent M&E Tech event, I was involved in a great discussion about how technology can be leveraged to augment, support, and prove program outcomes, with the understood challenge of how to prove its value as an investment to management teams and funders. We also discussed the desire for data driven organizational cultures, and the value of people playing the critical role of connecting management and program staff with systems staff.
These conversations are like déjà vu. I often tackled this theme as I grew my career as a Business Analyst in the private sector. I worked in many “flavors” of the analyst role for major international companies (T-Mobile USA, HP) and the world’s largest foundation (the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) supporting software and infrastructure projects as the role was maturing in the industry. As faith in the value of information systems increased, the value of the analyst role to be the bridge between technology and those technology supported became apparent.
Now, organizations like the International Institute of Business Analysis (IIBA) are standardizing and sharing best practices in Business Analysis the same way that the Project Management Institute (PMI) does for Project Management. But can International Development programs truly leverage this role?
1. Liaison and Translator
Have you ever traveled to a country where you speak just enough of the language to find your way around? You head to the market to pick up a nice gift for a dear friend, but get a little lost. You finally find it, pick a merchant, and begin to ask for what you want. The shopping and negotiation lasts a while, and somehow you leave the market with a bag full of random trinkets that don’t even fit in your luggage. Having someone there to help translate what you needed probably would have helped you get the right gift.
Like the parties engaged in the transaction in that market, the language of programs is distinct from the language of technology. Each party understands just enough about the other to get by, but it is the liaison and translator that is versed in both. That is the Business Analyst (BA).
A project to implement an intervention and capture critical performance data is significantly more complex and involved than buying gifts in a foreign market. Too often technology solutions are created 1) without understanding how the information captured will later be used, and 2) with a lack of understanding of the context they are designed to serve. This leads to capturing too much data, the wrong data, or designing data capture methods that create so much overhead on the user it degrades data quality. To prove impact, however, it is critical that you walk away with the “right gift” of the right information.
Having a liaison and translator that understands the user and end beneficiary of the program, as well as all layers of the technology architecture, and speaks the two languages fluently, can drive meaningful data captured at the right place in the right time.
2. Big Picture and the Weeds
Often playing the role of “right hand” to the Project Manager, the BA is like a Swiss army knife, bringing out whichever tool is necessary at the time as they work across program and technology resources to ensure nothing falls through the cracks. It is their job to assess the needs of all stakeholders, giving them insight into the big picture that serves the mission, and the details of work across typically siloed teams. The BA builds relationships that give them a great wealth of institutional knowledge.
Having the big picture, a BA can help organizations leverage technology investments more effectively and spend less to maintain them. They bring a cross-functional and re-usable lens to solution design. The BA can connect the dots between stakeholders from different programs, and solutions across different technology systems.
Jumping into the weeds, the BA provides critical documentation that is lacking in many of today’s projects, like requirements and solutions documentation, as well as training materials, process, and user guides.
3. Proven Value
The BA role requires a skillset that is adaptable and applicable to many contexts, but it functions best in a semi-structured context. Not all organizations have the capacity, or maturity, to bring in this resource. However, this liaison and translator, big-picture thinker and details person can provide a proven value.
Some organizations, like the Grameen Foundation, are finding success adding the role into initiative implementations. Viewed as part of a well-constructed project team, they partnered a BA with a Researcher and found that having a process-oriented resource teamed with the data collection and feedback resource gave both sides more context to adjust procedures, improve data collection, and ultimately improve the design of the new service.
With this type of organizational innovation, there are sure to be some critiques.
- “We aren’t in business, we’re in social impact.” If the word “business” in the title doesn’t resonate, it can change. There’s still a lot of value in learning from the BA practices. (Social Impact Analyst, anyone?)
- “Practices from the now mature field of Business Analysis aren’t relevant.” True, not all best practices will be relevant, and some will require adaptation to be successful, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t valuable.
- Budget justification! Where does the money come from? The IT budget, or the program budget? Is the role project-based, or seen as an organizational added value? The answers are likely a case-by-case solution.
All of these are valid points — and I’m sure there are more. However, I’d argue that there is a valuable skill set out there that can help organize, understand, inform and validate impact for International Development projects and organizations.
Is this skill set on your projects already? Do you think it should be? Let me hear your thoughts!
Mary Cox works at the intersection of Business, Technology, and Global Social Impact.
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