The Business Analysts vs. Systems Analysts Debate
One of the most common debates when defining and describing Analysts has to be the one that discusses Business vs. Systems Analysts. Why? Because sometimes there can be some very fuzzy boundaries between these two roles.
In some organizations, the differences between these two roles may not even exist. In other companies, the comparison is almost an insult. Is this more than simply a Job Title or is there more to the discussion?
Business vs. Systems
Depending on the business, industry or organization, there are a number of functional differences between the various forms of Analysts. Confusion occurs when responsibilities are not clearly defined or when operational budgets are challenged.
Although Business and Systems Analyst roles may sometimes overlap, do not be mistaken. They are not the same. Systems Analysts are solving business needs using specific technologies however they may use some of the same tasks and techniques included in the formal Business Analysis discipline. Confused yet?
This blog will focus on the specific roles of Business Analysts (BA) and Systems Analysts (SA). We will leave the subject of all of the various Hybrid Varieties to future blogs. Why? There are just way too many different kinds of combos. The common denominator is that most Analysts may have things in common. General Analysts
To begin this discussion, here are a few things to consider and thoughts on what differentiates a Business Analyst and a Systems Analyst.
What Does a Business Analyst Do?
Although every business today ‘touches’ technology, before any kind of system can be developed to support the business, a thorough and complete analysis of all of the business processes is required. It is the business processes that are supposed to effectively and efficiently run the business.
Business analysis is about understanding business needs. It is about the context around those needs, facilitating the change and devising the solution (technical or not) that will ensure improvements are made. Technology and software applications may be a part of this, but they are not always the entire focus.
The Business Analyst role is to focus on a broader scope than just technology and applications. The BA’s work looks at all of the processes and activities within the environment, maps them and analyzes their effectiveness and necessity. The BA’s background is generally in both business and some flavor of technology. In some cases the best BA’s may also be a Subject Matter Expert within the business and have some form of IT qualification.
The Business Analyst is required to exam and discover –
- Why the user has the need?
- What the system should do?
- What are current business processes?
- What may require modification or re-engineering?
- Is there anything missing that could facilitate a smoother process?
- What kind of impacts are systematically and non-systematically (people, process, context, etc) going to become a part of the solution?
- What might be potential solution options?
Bottom line – the Business Analyst evaluates the business needs and identifies the appropriate solution. To some degree, The BA may even design a “high level” solution WITHOUT diving too deeply into any of the technical components.
Business Analysts use a wide range of techniques including –
- Leading structured meetings and using collaborate workshops – Joint Application Development (JAD) methodology to gather requirements and uncover expectations
- Eliciting what is behind and underneath stated requirements rather than just collecting and gathering requirements
- Analyzing the business processes for inefficiencies
- Fully understanding the business needs, drivers for change, current pain points, vision, internal and external factors
- Producing understandable documentation of the final business requirements / processes
- Presenting information that is easily understood and motivational in nature
- Assessing the business model and its integration with technology
- Prioritize system functionality based on requirements
- Review design documentation with users and representing the users with developers
- Act as the liaison between management and IT, performing as the internal “customer” during the build of the system
- Address system screens, fields, and files or on the process, rules, data, stakeholders and capabilities of the solution
- Coordinate project kickoff, project pilot test activities, training and launch
The most talented Business Analysts develop a very good understanding of the business domain and are typically superb “people persons” with exceptional communication skills. Their chief focus is on the human interaction points, what the users and system are doing (inputs, transformation, outputs) and the system capabilities.
A Business Analyst identifies opportunities for improving a business’s processes and using technology to eliminate problems that affect productivity, output, distribution and ultimately, the bottom line.
The Role of the Systems Analyst
Adding the word “System” to the title of Analyst means the role has now moved into a technical realm. Even though the word “system” doesn’t mean technology, most businesses use the phrase “information systems” when referring to their software applications.
In general, a Systems Analyst is typically confined to a specific system or application and works in conjunction with a Business Analyst. Their role requires a stronger or deeper technical skill set because their responsibilities often include system design.
Systems Analysts dig deeply into the details of the BA’s “high-level” business requirements so that they can spec out a system design. This design will include a recommendation on how to implement the requirements into code. Some Systems analysts evaluate code, review scripting and, possibly, even modify code such to some extent.
Systems Analysts are expected to investigate, specify, recommend and/or analyze potential problems in the BA’s formal written business requirements. For this reason, Systems Analysts are sometimes also referred to as Systems Designers, Solutions Architects, Technical Analysts or Programmer Analysts. Sometimes the Systems Analyst is a full-time member of a corporate IT team. Other times, they may be deployed to a project by an external consulting firm delivering a technical solution to the organization.
Traditional Activities of a Systems Analyst
- Act as a knowledge integrator, translating the high-level business requirements into technical requirements
- Present design considerations to software architects and developers who transform the business requirements into usable code
- Develop specifications, diagrams and flowcharts for programmers to follow
- Make technical recommendations and changes to existing applications
- Help project teams understand the possible technologies that are available and feasible to address the solution requirements
- Develop a deep understanding of how systems will talk to each other and what may be the interactions between systems
- Translate technical issues, verify and explain technical/architectural complexities to project stakeholders
- Consult with IT members in technical jargon foreign to the business stakeholders
- Pinpoint where changes need to be made and incorporate new data into the project
- Recognize where problems may lie in the code and rewrite code to alleviate the problem
- Develop cost analysis and negotiate implementation timelines with technical team
- Use techniques such as sampling, model building and structured analysis to ensure the solution is efficient, cost-effective and financially feasible
- Oversee implementation, coordinate tests and observe initiation of the system to validate performance
- Aid in writing user acceptance test (UAT) cases and act as a liaison for project stakeholders and the technical team during UAT
Although the System Analyst may be familiar with a variety of programming languages, operating systems, and computer hardware platforms, they do not normally involve themselves in the actual hardware or software development.
In summary, the System Analyst improves business efficiency and productivity by –
- Ensuring all information is available to meet the intended outcome of the system
- Assessing the suitability of the system
- Liaising with end users, software vendors and programmers
- Report to the Technical Department Head
A Systems Analyst is a person who uses analysis and design techniques to solve business problems using information technology.
Talking (and Thinking) about Systems
Systems thinking is what both the Business and Systems Analyst does. This is the process of understanding how multiple systems influence one another, particularly within a complete entity or what would be considered a large system.
Systems thinking is also defined as an approach to problem solving – within a system – where the parts or entities may be directly or indirectly related. Systems thinkers must know how to build and create successful arguments or business cases to support their analysis. This may require them to use a variety of methods.
What is a System?
- A system has boundaries (it is encapsulated) and the boundaries are decided on by observer(s)
- A system can be nested inside another system and it may also overlap with another system
- A system consists of processes that transform received inputs and sends outputs into a wider environment
For argument’s sake, let’s use an example of a Vehicle and a Driver as being a complete system. Individually they are only parts or entities of that system. A good system design always begins with understanding business processes and redesigning new structures.
A Business Analyst is NOT THE SAME as a Systems Analyst. While there are some commonalities, including skills and knowledge, these two roles do have significant differences.
Business Analysts are functional experts who analyze and facilitate business change and improvement. Their goal is to help organizations reach their strategic goals through continual, successful technology and process improvements. A BA does not always work in IT-related projects. Their skills are often required in marketing and financial capacities as well.Business Analysts may report either into the IT function or directly into the line of business. In most cases they would be considered “IT savvy”.
There are specific techniques and disciplines particular to business analysis methodologies. The work conducted by a BA may or may not impact technology directly. Having said that, most business change efforts today will impact technology to some extent. Most Business Analysts require a technical analyst to step in at the appropriate time.
Systems Analysts excel at analyzing the agreed upon business requirements to determine what the system needs to do in order to fulfill those requests. Most certainly there are some Systems Analysts who perform portions of the business analysis function. The key difference is that the greatest percentage of their work tends to be of a technical nature. In some cases, this may produce a hybrid sometimes referred to as a Business Systems Analyst. The same scenario may exist with the pure-play Business Analyst when they are expected to also perform as a Project Manager. In either case, what we see is a Jack of two trades and Master of one.
Depending on the organization, industry, team, skill set, size of a project, operational budget and timelines, a decision has to be made whether specialists, hybrids or a combination of both are the best solution for the business. IMHO the deciding factpr is usually based on the knowledge of the business and the depth of the technical skill.