I am the BA. I Speak for the Systems.

Posted on Fri 01 August 2014 in Blog

I have been a business analyst and project manager by name for about 13 years. Typically that means that I attempt to understand what the company is trying to do and then figure out how to do it quickly, cheaply and well. I've heard my colleagues lament from time to time that they feel they are serving the tools instead of the tools serving them.

Usually this indicates some sort of misalignment of purpose that can quickly lead to frustration and reduce adoption of new systems. Change requests start to crop up and a team is put to the task of customizing the bejeesus out of a system that was originally selected because it was the best of breed. The next thing you know everyone is wondering why we even chose to migrate away from the "old system".

The trees

When I started working in a technology group in the School of Education in 2000 we built innovative systems to test educational theories. While there I worked with some of the smartest people I ever met and we talked about some of the cutting edge tech at the time. It was fun, but I remember my bosses (teachers who were heading up the research into the application of technology in the classroom) setting some of us technologists straight when they thought we were going off the rails. "The rockstars here are the teachers, not these tools or technology." It was a simple message that I reapply daily to my work.

Today I work in a different environment. We are nowhere near the cutting edge of technology. This isn't research or a skunkworks. We need reliable, forward-thinking systems that support our mission of maximizing opportunities for anyone, anywhere to achieve their professional goals by participating in Cornell's online offerings and network. There is a balance to be struck here. We are in an industry that is undergoing an exciting upheaval. Education is getting democratized as new ideas are implemented by companies coming on the scene with their secret sauces.

Cornell is actively participating in the evolution of education with eCornell. Every day a new idea comes in as to how to improve our courses and certificate offerings. Online communities are envisioned, new platforms for delivery are dreamed of and new ways to promote the good work that we are doing are piled high in growing backlog of cool user stories. However, becoming completely subservient to short term needs must be balanced against the long term goal of continuing to meet their needs into future.

I tend to think that the Lorax wasn't really about saving trees for trees' sake. He had a realization that there was a bigger thing at risk. I like to think that mustached guardian had a system view of ecology. He had an insight that his contemporaries didn't about the real costs of customizing their world to make all the thneeds they wanted.

Systems and software = processes

I had a professor from college that strongly advocated against system customization. Coming from a long career as a guy who implemented large systems, his view was that when you buy "software" you are buying into a designed process. Configuration options in the systems allowed the software to meet slightly different ways of meeting objectives, but if you decide to customize the solution beyond that, you're sure to get in over your head real fast. His advice: Don't customize the tools to fit your process. Adopt the processes built into the system design. Avoid the long term technical debt incurred by customization and "building your own" and stay light on your feet. Don't innovate if you don't have to. Hitch yourself to a rising star and enjoy the ride.

How I add value

Truth be told, I have spent the bulk of my career as an analyst that worked on educational systems (learning management, content management and student information systems). Lately I have been working on CRM and marketing automation and learning a lot about how to DO marketing from the vendors of those systems. While I like to think I have had my own moments where I stuck out and made a contribution to the world with an innovation or two, I recognize that most of what I know I've learned by watching the leaders and speaking with their staff. I've picked up industry best practices and pass these along to colleagues.

I act as a liason between stakeholders who would like the "pie in the sky", the vendors that have "boots on the ground" and our in-house developers that make the magic happen. In my work I want our implementations informed by thought leaders with the technical enhancements that make sense for our business. I'm happy to point out gaps in systems and carefully craft short-term surgical augmentations that do not interfere with the system's native functionality so that we don't get mired in support headaches.

I'm highly protective of the systems and processes I invest my time in to learn and implement. Without an ongoing advocate, entropy takes it's toll. It's a house of cards that needs protection and maintence. New business needs need consideration before changes to system configuration occur. Sometimes, it isn't always obvious to stakeholders when the BA would be of value during conversations. I often end up inserting myself into conversations when I catch wind of a "new idea", just so I can help think it through and set some expectations.

I am the BA, I speak for the systems.