Project Practitioners > From Zero to SME in a few weeks

From Zero to SME in a few weeks

By Kent McDonald

In a previous blog post, I mentioned the question of whether business analysts should be subject matter experts in the domain of the project. I personally don't think that BA's needs to be SME's as long as they have the ability to quickly pick up domain knowledge. This outlook was formed based on my background because every time I changed jobs, I entered a new domain and was still able to be effective. So instead of entering a discussion that rivals “BCS vs College Football Playoffs” and “expanding the field for the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament” for having a life of it's own, I thought I would share how I have built my knowledge of a domain when starting a new project.

It is helpful to learn about the domain of your project from two perspectives: The broader, industry perspective and the narrower organizational perspective. You can learn about the industry perspective from professional associations, industry related newsletters, or books about the industry and some of it's key players. For example, when I started working with a health insurance company last year, I subscribed to several health care industry related email newsletters, started receiving the Wall Street Journal Health update, and read Innovators Prescription. Gathering this information helps put a broad context around the project that

  • Helps the team make more informed decisions

  • Supports, or raises questions about, the direction in which the business owner wants to take the project.

  • Provides the project team a better understanding of what competitors are doing and what needs to be done to reach parity with others in the market place.

Most BA's focus on the second level of domain knowledge, the company level. However this focus can be misguided. If the BA truly is a SME, she may have a very narrow view of the domain based on her experience – the “this is the way we have always done it here” mentality. Conversely, BA's that are learning the domain for the first time may be tempted to learn the domain only with respect to that particular project and may miss out on a broader perspective of the entire company. My method for learning the domain at the company level is multifaceted. When talking with stakeholders about the specific project requirements, I make it a point to understand the broader corporate perspective, so I can understand why specific requirements are requirements. This is basic analysis, because it is a good way to make sure the requirements actually make sense in the grand scheme of things. I also gain as much information about the company's strategy, and listen and watch for clues that indicate whether the company acts according to it's stated intentions. (it's strategy).

Understanding the nuances of the domain undoubtedly help BA's be more effective in their analysis efforts, especially when looking for gaps in the analysis or requirements that may conflict with the overall business direction. But too much domain knowledge can impact the BA's ability to objectively analyze the problem and provide conditions for a successful solution. There is a delicate balance to having a good understanding of the domain without having so much experience that you are blind to alternatives and ideas inspired from other fields and industries. The approaches I described above have proven useful for me to gain a working understanding of the domain in which I am working, but I would be interested in hearing your experiences and favorite techniques.

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

Hi Kent

Great article. Totally agree.

I always emphasise that Business Analysts ought NEVER cast themselves in the role of business experts.

What they bring to the game is their analysis expertise and it is this that they use to analyse and model the business area in question, by extracting all of the relevant information from the real business experts.

Because they are not the business experts, they are allowed to ask 'naive' questions that a business 'expert' would never ask for fear of appearing foolish. In answering these questions the real experts are helped to see things anew and are able to define WHAT the business OUGHT to be doing, thus avoiding simply trying to mend what they currently have in place.

Every time BAs cast themselves in the role of business experts they arrive with a solution in mind. They are so certain of the solution (because they have "seen it all before") they hardly need to the analysis - and quite often don't.

They then foist on the business a totally ill fitting solution that was meant for some other business in some other place at some other time. The anticipated benefits of the project are never realised, the business is left poorer, the staff more stressed and the reputation of business analysis as a discipline tarnished yet further.

Again, great article.


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