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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The United Nations of Business Intelligence

I find many aspects of my work very fulfilling and many ways I am proud of my job. However, one of the least pleasant is the industry-standard title ascribed to the role I typically play in a BI implementation: "Business Analyst." It's probably one of the most understated job titles of all time and worse, the ultimate cocktail party conversation non-starter. Who invented the term anyway? It's stupid and I'm tired of it.

Of course the natural response would be: "You may have a point but what else would you call it?" Indeed, how else would you name this role, which by its nature has no traditional "profession" of its own but instead straddles a kind of no-man's-land between professions -- that of clients (who need the assistance of technologists to achieve business objectives) and of technologists (who perform the work required by the client)? And how to come up with something sexy to boot?

Meeting with an old college friend years ago, I tried laboriously to explain the nature of my work in the glow of a second glass of Zinfandel (or was it a third?). My friend asked me an intriguing question: Did my professional endeavor in IT have any relationship to my undergraduate experience? At the time I was over ten years out of college and a bachelor's degree in Foreign Service (aka International Relations) -- and 9/11 was still raw in my mind, so I was bemoaning the fact that I chose to pursue opportunities in software development rather than diplomacy. But, perhaps thanks to that same glow from the wine, I took a look at my job from a different angle and saw something very interesting: The IT roles that I had performed often involved a certain degree of, shall we say, mediation. Thinking it through, I realized something more fundamental: while performing various IT roles, I often perceived an acute need for mediation between the "suits" and "geeks" and I found myself drawn into fulfilling that need, partly because I liked doing it but largely because my skills were well-suited to that role.

From that point on I began to see more clearly the importance of the mediator in successful IT endeavors. Over time I have also come to believe that this role has much in common with the practice of diplomacy -- particularly within the specific discipline of Business Intelligence, where interactions between clients and technologists become uniquely more intense than in a typical IT project.

What I'd like to do first is explain the parallels I see between diplomacy and the role of the classic IT Business Analyst. Then I will take the next logical step: to explore what lessons from traditional diplomacy we can apply to the practice of Business Intelligence in particular. Hopefully I'll shine a fresh light on this important role and perhaps even inspire somoene to devise a job title that's far more sexy than "Business Analyst."

Traditional Diplomacy and the Traditional Business Analyst

In traditional diplomacy, the diplomat mediates between what I'll call "physical" nations: the US and China, for instance. A BA does essentially the same thing - but between "metaphorical" nations: the client (aka "The Business") and the technologists (aka "IT" or "Tech"). Let's consider some hypothetical characteristics of physical nations and their parallel among metaphorical nations: [Please understand that my examples are sometimes oversimplified generalities intended purely to illustrate the point and not pass value judgements on any country or group of people]

Goals / interests / agendaUS: Increase industrial production; decrease cost of healthcare; decrease energy demand; promoting the global spread of democracy

China: Increase industrial production; increase citizen wealth; increase energy supply; promoting the harmony of Chinese society

Tech: Work with cutting-edge technology and phase out old technology; build resumes

Business: Increase [revenue / profit], decrease costs, build resumes

LanguageUS: English

China: Mandarin

Tech: SQL, Java, HTTP, SOA, "geek speak"

Business: Quarterly financial statements, Balance sheet accounting, "corporate speak"

Natural resourcesUS: Wheat, coal, consumers, Hollywood

China: Cheap and abundant labor, cash
Tech: CPUs, RAM, computational thinking, technical skills, hard work, creativity

Business: Money, market-oriented thinking, business skills, hard work, creativity
Cultural valuesUS: Individualism

China: Collectivism
Tech: Collaboration

Business: Competition
CurrencyUS: Dollar

China: Yuan
Tech: Game rooms, private office space, logo wear, money

Business: Titles, adminstrative assistants, corner offices, money
FashionUS: T-shirt & jeans, Little Black Dress

China: Mao suit, qipao
Tech: Logowear, boardshorts, Tevas

Business: Business casual, suits

Despite the oversimplifications, the parallels are compelling.

Given this common concept of a "nation," let's consider the professional challenge of the traditional diplomat:

How to foster a trusting and productive relationship between his employer's nation and other nations (at least, those that his employer considers important)...
So that his employer's nation can effectively apply its unique natural resources to pursue & fulfill its own agenda...
And the citizens of his employer's nation can be happy and prosperous.

In comparison, the challenge of the Business Analyst is basically the same but with notable differences:

How to foster a trusting and productive relationship between ALL nations...
So that ALL nations can effectively apply their unique natural resources to pursue & fulfill their agendas...
And the citizens of ALL nations can be happy and prosperous

The Business Analyst is in the unique position of being required to ensure that the interests of all nations are being satisfied. This mission is more akin to that of the United Nations Secretary General -- which is also not an easy job but I'm sure Ban Ki-Moon has an easier time at cocktail parties. And the chauffeur would be nice too.

In my experience this perspective has proven to be a useful way to understand and manage the dynamics of interactions between IT and "The Business." For my next post I will consider some specific tools and techniques of traditional diplomacy and how to apply them to a Business Intelligence practice.


Jason Gates said...

Excellent article - great comparison between foreign cultures. I couldn't agree more that mediation is an important skill in BI. You might be interested in my thoughts on using a De Bono "Thinking Hat" approach to make sure you think like a BI decision maker.