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Tech hotshots: The rise of the IT business analyst

By Michael Fitzgerald
July 11, 2012 06:00 AM ET

What analysts deliver: Perspective

At Northwest Exterminating in Marietta, Ga., Director of IT Matthew Metcalfe employs a full-time business analyst, even though his organization is small with just three full-time IT staff and some consultants to support 330 or so employees.

A little less than a year ago, Metcalfe hired Amy Logan from the business side at Northwest Exterminating, where she did sales support, specifically to take software project management off Metcalfe's plate. Logan now works with the business side to develop requirements for projects.

Logan is good at working with business units and identifying the issues they're having with software, Metcalfe says. "She'll come back and say, 'If we can do this and this and this for them, we could have a pretty good system here.' "

She's not an IT person, and yet the people she interacts with know that she works in IT. "They see her as an IT person, sometimes to a fault," says Metcalfe, meaning they'll do things like ask her support questions. That's not her role -- in fact, Metcalfe says he wouldn't want to hire a person from IT to do a business analyst's job.

Not that IT people can't make good business analysts. Gartner's McDonald says he's often seen business analysts come from infrastructure and operational roles within IT, and the benefits to both sides can be myriad.

Effective business analysts bring IT closer to the business, its problems and their resolution. Analysts help IT by adding expertise without adding infrastructure. If their contributions are applied in the proper way, "IT gains ability to deliver value much more quickly and to much greater effect," McDonald says.

Given all those benefits, he says, it's no wonder both sides consider the business analyst to be the most popular job in IT right now.

5 tips for managing IT business analysts

How should you manage the business analyst in your midst? "The biggest thing is trying to keep them challenged. Their thrill is new projects," says Allen Hackman, senior director of information technology at Tyco International's Fire and Security unit. "Once a project is implemented, maintaining that isn't as exciting for those people."

Beyond that, CIOs and other tech managers advise:

  • Focus on people skills... "A database programmer can be very successful staying in his cube and working hard. A [business analyst] who sits in his cube will fail," says Hackman. The business analyst needs to develop strong relationships with users, so they will consult with the business analyst from the start on projects.
  • ...but don't forget technology. Because analysts serve as the bridge between the business side and the technical side, Northwest Exterminating's director of IT, Matthew Metcalfe, urges his analyst, Amy Logan, to spend time talking about the technical implementation underlying the business process. That helps the analyst create more realistic expectations with business-side clients.
  • Train them with their business units. At Clorox, business analysts might attend conferences about gathering and documenting project requirements, but they also attend the same training and conferences that business people in their specialties (manufacturing or human resources, for example) attend, says Linda Martino, vice president of business engagement and application delivery. Likewise, Tyco's business analysts attend both formal training events, like project management classes or PMI certification, and business-specific trade shows and industry events.
  • Keep them talking to one another. Clorox sponsors "communities of practice" -- grass-roots teams that meet regularly to discuss best practices, templates and tools with people who have similar jobs -- and the business analyst community is one of the most active, Martino says. These meetings explore topics like project post-mortems, discussion of positive and negative project experiences, brainstorming sessions, or note-sharing from conferences or specialized training events.
  • Consider cross-training. Clorox also has started to cross-train a number of its business analysts so they can work across departments. The company's goal is not only to keep its analysts interested, but also to be more flexible in its ability to meet business needs. "Demand isn't uniform," says Martino. If, for instance, she has three business analysts with expertise in HR, but projects in marketing or supply chains have cropped up, she wants to be able to have the expertise to handle those requirements.

Boston-area freelance writer Michael Fitzgerald last wrote for Computerworld on IT and social media.

Read more about Business Intelligence/Analytics in Computerworld's Business Intelligence/Analytics Topic Center.

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