The Shifting Role of the Business Analyst

In the business-to-IT spectrum, the analyst is squarely in the center. Is it any wonder that people are confused by the role? 

Business analysts might be the least-known people in the IT workplace: Most agree that their role is important, but few know what they actually do-or should be expected to do.

Referring to research on the subject, "Executives didn't know whether they were performing up to par or whether they should be expected to be order-takers or change agents, though they knew that the best ones were," Carey Schwaber, senior analyst with Forrester Research, told eWEEK.

Forrester Research defines the business analyst's role as a key liaison between the business and the technology that supports it. According to IT recruiting firm Robert Half Technology, a business analyst needs to have a solid understanding of business functional areas and management issues, as well as advanced computer skills and excellent communication skills.

Among business analysts themselves, few set out from the start to fill the role. Yet, by and large, they are not looking for the next big thing to move on to, Schwaber said.

"It's not clear whether a business analyst is a job that you would move through or stay and season in. Executives think that most want to move through but business analysts tend to like their jobs," Schwaber said, adding that when she'd ask business analyst audiences what roles they saw themselves in next, many were offended that it would be suggested that they didn't enjoy what they were doing.

"What this sounds like to me is that CIOs need to build out business analyst jobs so they can be career-long roles that grow in terms of salary and title with experience," Schwaber said.

Most business analysts spend more than five years in each position, amassing a tremendous amount of institutional knowledge, yet are only sometimes paid in kind. According to Robert Half Technology, business systems analysts are expected to make between $64,250 and $91,750 in 2008, up 5.6 percent from the year before.

CIOs at smaller companies wear more hats for less pay than CIOs at large enterprises. Click here to read more about the differences.

Robert Half Technology Vice President John Estes said he has seen more interest in the role lately than ever before, due to an increased focus on the business side of IT since the dot-com bust.

"Back in the '90s it was all about technology infrastructure, but now everything is about business outcomes and return on investment. They want to know, What is this new application going to do for us? Will it increase revenue, decrease percentages?" Estes said. "Demand for business skills for all IT people has increased, but this liaison role has grown especially in importance."

In a new report, Forrester said it found that though there have traditionally been two main types of business analysts-those who are more business-oriented and those who are more IT-oriented-these distinctions are blurring.

While 57 percent of business analysts surveyed said they reported to IT and 43 percent to business management, a new breed is emerging who are expected to implement changes to business policies directly within supporting software.

"There's been much more specialization in the last 10 years, as the criticality of the role has increased by a long shot. As a business analyst, you're as likely to do something outside your company as you are inside," Schwaber said.

Estes argued that this is good news for business analysts, whose importance to the business offers them some protection from outsourcing.

"A lot of these folks we're outsourcing ... are just creating code. They're not thinking about the bottom line. This is an opportunity for someone who wants to stay in IT but move into a business-related role," he said.