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3 Reasons Why We Need Business Analysts in ICT4D

By Guest Writer on November 10, 2014

business analyist

In a recent M&E Tech event, I was involved in a great discussion about how technology can be leveraged to augment, support, and prove program outcomes, with the understood challenge of how to prove its value as an investment to management teams and funders. We also discussed the desire for data driven organizational cultures, and the value of people playing the critical role of connecting management and program staff with systems staff.

These conversations are like déjà vu. I often tackled this theme as I grew my career as a Business Analyst in the private sector. I worked in many “flavors” of the analyst role for major international companies (T-Mobile USA, HP) and the world’s largest foundation (the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) supporting software and infrastructure projects as the role was maturing in the industry. As faith in the value of information systems increased, the value of the analyst role to be the bridge between technology and those technology supported became apparent.

Now, organizations like the International Institute of Business Analysis (IIBA) are standardizing and sharing best practices in Business Analysis the same way that the Project Management Institute (PMI) does for Project Management. But can International Development programs truly leverage this role?

1. Liaison and Translator

Have you ever traveled to a country where you speak just enough of the language to find your way around? You head to the market to pick up a nice gift for a dear friend, but get a little lost. You finally find it, pick a merchant, and begin to ask for what you want. The shopping and negotiation lasts a while, and somehow you leave the market with a bag full of random trinkets that don’t even fit in your luggage. Having someone there to help translate what you needed probably would have helped you get the right gift.

Like the parties engaged in the transaction in that market, the language of programs is distinct from the language of technology for development. Each party understands just enough about the other to get by, but it is the liaison and translator that is versed in both. That is the Business Analyst.

A project to implement an intervention and capture critical performance data is significantly more complex and involved than buying gifts in a foreign market. Too often technology solutions are created:

  • Without understanding how the information captured will later be used,
  • With a lack of understanding of the context they are designed to serve.

This leads to capturing too much data, the wrong data, or designing data capture methods that create so much overhead on the user it degrades data quality. To prove impact, however, it is critical that you walk away with the “right gift” of the right information.

Having a liaison and translator that understands the user and end beneficiary of the program, as well as all layers of the technology architecture, and speaks the two languages fluently, can drive meaningful data captured at the right place in the right time.

2. Big Picture and the Weeds

Often playing the role of “right hand” to the Project Manager, the Business Analyst is like a Swiss army knife, bringing out whichever tool is necessary at the time as they work across program and technology resources to ensure nothing falls through the cracks.

It is their job to assess the needs of all stakeholders, giving them insight into the big picture that serves the mission, and the details of work across typically siloed teams. The Business Analyst builds relationships that give them a great wealth of institutional knowledge.

Having the big picture, a Business Analyst can help organizations leverage technology investments more effectively and spend less to maintain them. They bring a cross-functional and re-usable lens to solution design. The Business Analyst can connect the dots between stakeholders from different programs, and solutions across different technology systems.

Jumping into the weeds, the Business Analyst provides critical documentation that is lacking in many of today’s projects, like requirements and solutions documentation, as well as training materials, process, and user guides.

3. Proven Value

The Business Analyst role requires a skillset that is adaptable and applicable to many contexts, but it functions best in a semi-structured context. Not all organizations have the capacity, or maturity, to bring in this resource. However, this liaison and translator, big-picture thinker and details person can provide a proven value.

Some organizations, like the Grameen Foundation, are finding success adding the role into initiative implementations. Viewed as part of a well-constructed project team, they partnered a Business Analyst with a Researcher and found that having a process-oriented resource teamed with the data collection and feedback resource gave both sides more context to adjust procedures, improve data collection, and ultimately improve the design of the new service.

With this type of organizational innovation, there are sure to be some critiques.

  • “We aren’t in business, we’re in social impact.” If the word “business” in the title doesn’t resonate, it can change. There’s still a lot of value in learning from the Business Analyst practices. (Social Impact Analyst, anyone?)
  • “Practices from the now mature field of Business Analysis aren’t relevant.” True, not all best practices will be relevant, and some will require adaptation to be successful, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t valuable.
  • Budget justification! Where does the money come from? The IT budget, or the program budget? Is the role project-based, or seen as an organizational added value? The answers are likely a case-by-case solution.

All of these are valid points — and I’m sure there are more. However, I’d argue that there is a valuable skill set out there that can help organize, understand, inform and validate impact for International Development projects and organizations.

Is this skill set on your projects already? Do you think it should be? Let me hear your thoughts!

Mary Cox works at the intersection of Business, Technology, and Global Social Impact.

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9 Comments to “3 Reasons Why We Need Business Analysts in ICT4D”

  1. Mikael Baker says:

    This is very interesting, and I hope that development organizations which use technology will increase their demand for Business Analysts (BA). As a BA that attempted to transition from private sector into international development using BA in 2012, I hit a wall and found very little demand for the BA skillset. What I found was that the vast majority of ICT-related positions were for mobile application developers (coders/programmers) and that BA was an afterthought or not even a consideration at many organizations.

    I am on assignment in Uganda until late 2015 and will make another attempt to leverage my BA skills in international development after my current assignment. Hopefully by then more development organizations will come to their senses and see the value-add of having BA skills on tap!

  2. Wayan Vota says:

    Are you a business analysis? Then think about applying to one of these Strategy Analyst positions at FHI 360 and guide the direction of a $670 million, 4,000 staff iNGO.


    Oh, and don’t forget to say I referred you 😉

    • Mary says:

      Thanks Wayan for passing on the opportunities. Mikael, it looks like there’s opportunities opening up!

  3. Herman Fung says:

    I absolutely agree on the value of good Business Analysts and how critical they are to the successful delivery of a project.

    In a lot of smaller projects, which I’ve been involved with, the Business Analysts often doubles up as the Project Manager, and vice versa.

    With the right level of due diligence and analysis, a project is much more likely to solve the right problem, in the right way.

  4. Alycia Janifer says:

    I’ve been working as a BA in the International Development field for a few years and I do think that our positive impact is beginning to be noticed. As more projects require the implementation of tech solutions, we can’t afford to have IT projects fail.

  5. Mary,

    Thanks for raising this perspective on development programmes. A process approach is central to our work in implementing management information systems. Business Analysts are hence a key part of our team.

    While we have nothing on the table at the moment, we will certainly have opportunities coming up in the future. I’d love to hear from anyone with experience working as a business analyst in the international development sector. If you’re happy for me to keep your CV on file please get in touch.

    When I have more time I hope to contribute more on this topic.


  6. Eric Couper says:

    On our team, business analysts play a critical role. With smaller projects, the line between Project Manager and BA does blur, but on larger projects we define the roles as a separate and assign them to two different people. I try to describe the distinction this way: BAs are designers, innovators, frontline folks that take all the ideas, tools, and stakeholders and bring them together. Our PMs receive a game plan from the BA, ensure the trains run on time, and update partners/client of project status. I think there is some tension with the terminology because in international development, the term “analyst” seems so much farther down the chain than “manager,” when in reality PM and BA are roles, not ranks. Both roles analyze somethings and manage others. To make the BA position a little clearer with some folks, we’ve starting using “Technology Advisor” which has its own issues, but resonates better than BA.