Prevent IT project failures with business analysts, project managers

Business analyst roles are re-emerging in 2010 as a way to avoid IT project failures. Learn how business analysts and project managers contribute to an IT dream team.

SearchCIO-Midmarket.com recently spoke with Chris Larsen, principal analyst at IT Evolution Inc. in Camden, N.J., to find out what a CIO can do to improve IT project success rates and, more specifically, how project managers and business analysts can work together to achieve this common goal.

Post recession, IT shops are even more focused on effectively serving the business unit -- a big part of which is improving IT's typically poor project success rates. In this interview, Larsen offers some insight into the differences between project managers and business analysts and explains why both skill sets are often necessary for successful projects.

What's the difference between an IT project manager and a business analyst?
Larsen: A successful project manager is involved with the planning and execution of an effort of fixed length and fixed objectives. This often includes communications management, resource management, schedule management and financial management.

Business analysts are focused on the content of the project, spending a lot of time researching, analyzing and documenting specific business requirements and then relaying the needs and expectations of the business back to IT. In IT, project managers are typically focused on the technical side, with minimal business interaction. Business analysts, on the other hand, are all about bridging the gap between business and IT -- putting business requirements into a technical context.

In your opinion, is the business analyst role and IT project manager role blending in the midmarket?
Larsen: The short answer is yes. At the midmarket level, organizations are smaller and people tend to wear multiple hats as it is -- so the project manager/business analyst overlap does occur in the same way that any of the other roles in a smaller company overlap.

What's interesting about these two roles, is that for some midsized companies they may have never existed before. They're not positions that companies typically recruit for. But in a down economy where every penny counts, increased project failures and growing numbers of unhappy customers drove CIOs to recognize the importance of nailing down business requirements to achieve project success. Failure wastes time, resources and money, and IT just cannot afford it. So even in smaller IT shops, if the titles don't exist, the roles are definitely emerging.

Can one person effectively take on both roles?
Larsen: In smaller organizations, someone in IT with technical and communication skills will often land the project management role. In a smaller organization, there's less of a culture requiring best practices and standardizations because it is a smaller operation. While this may work out initially, it can get very awkward as the organization grows. This person might be in an environment where they are unable to keep up with both sets of responsibilities and skills but may retain the role because they've been "grandfathered" in. In order for these people to be successful, they need to be coached and encouraged along the way.

CIOs want projects to succeed, but they also need to keep costs low, so of course, they are going to make some compromises. Just be aware that executing projects well is something that has to be learned. Gathering and managing requirements is the same. There are bodies of knowledge and best practices that apply to each of these individual positions. This doesn't mean that only a select few are equipped to do these roles well. But if you want to bring in someone to take on both, let them focus on one project at a time.

Is a CIO more likely to find an IT project manager with business analysis skills or a business analyst with project management skills?
Larsen: They really are separate professions so, whenever possible, having both is ideal.

But in my opinion, it seems that there are more project managers well-suited to do business analysis than there are business analysts able to manage projects. There is that dichotomy between analyzing and acting -- the project manager is engaged in taking action, and the business analyst is engaged in analysis -- and the ability to take action puts the project manager in a position to handle both.

The CIO focuses on the strategic alignment at a high level, but for the day-to-day [activities], the business analyst is really becoming the CIO's right arm.

Chris Larsen, principal analyst, IT Evolution Inc.

That being said, the CIO is putting more importance on staying aligned with the business strategy in an effort to improve project success rates. The business analyst is someone in IT who can effectively communicate back and forth with the business daily and fulfill this role at a tactical level. Yes, the CIO focuses on the strategic alignment at a high level, but for the day-to-day [activities], the business analyst is really becoming the CIO's right arm.

Overall, you want quality work done in both areas. If you want your projects to be managed well, let your project manager focus on project management -- analyzing requirements is a fair amount of work. If the project manager has time to analyze requirements, then by all means, allow them to do both -- but don't expect it.

How can a CIO or IT manager tell whether a failed IT project occurred due to poor project management or improper business analysis?
Larsen: Look at failed projects or those that didn't go according to plan in your organization … [and] the problem will usually fall into one of three categories: a schedule misalignment, a resource misalignment or a requirements misalignment.

The requirements misalignment is chiefly distinguished by the business customers saying, "this isn't what we wanted" or "thanks for this, but we need to change 20 different things." If this is the case, there was either too much separation between the business and IT, or the requirements were not gathered sufficiently, or else were not documented in enough detail. This is a business analyst problem.

If you experienced a schedule or resource problem, meaning the project was late, over budget or incomplete, it can typically be pinned on the project manager. These problems are usually the result of someone not planning enough up front or improperly managing the efforts moving forward.

There is a caveat here -- the project manager needs to understand the scope of the project in order to properly manage it. If the business analyst didn't fully understand the requirements and passed incomplete information on to the project manager, then it's actually more of a requirement problem. The business analyst and project manager should work closely together in the beginning to prevent this.

What did you think of this story? Email editor@searchcio-midmarket.com.

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