Saturday, October 3, 2015

Why every business analyst should be a subject matter expert.

This blog entry is targeted at practicing business analysts who believe that expertise in the business domain in which they are working is essential.
Recently on a social networking site I have seen much discussion on whether a business analyst can fill the role of “SME” (Subject Matter Expert). Almost everyone said “yes, of course, it’s part of the role…”. I definitely agree that a business analyst can be a subject matter expert: on business analysis. But nearly everyone participating in the discussion expressed a view that the business analyst can be a subject matter expert in the business area under study (the domain). I call someone in this role a subject matter expert proxy.
We need a definition here. From the Business Analysis Body of Knowledge:
“Business analysis is the set of tasks and techniques used to work as a liaison among stakeholders in order to understand the structure, policies, and operations of an organization, and to recommend solutions that enable the organization to achieve its goals.” (source

A business analyst does business analysis. A business analyst needs to be a subject matter expert in what is defined above.
Now someone who fills the role of a business analyst may also fill a separate role in the business, in which they are also a subject matter expert. But the roles cannot mix. You are either the business analyst or the subject matter expert. It is not acceptable for someone who is a business analyst to be a subject matter expert proxy, for two reasons:
  1. The real subject matter expert must be available. They have current knowledge of the domain, and are in a position to understand their needs. It is dangerous to use a proxy, because they can only think they know the domain. It’s not their core skill area. Expert is a strong word. And even more importantly:
  2. If the real subject matter expert is cut out of the project, then is it because they don’t have time (and if they don’t, what makes anyone think they will have time to implement the new system?) Is it because someone thinks they are not needed, and that IT knows best? And most important of all, if the real subject matter expert is not involved in the project they won’t feel any ownership, and when the going gets tough there is a high risk they will walk away and any project deliverables won’t be used.
Imagine you go to the ER with a serious wound. The nurse isn’t available quite yet. But along comes the hospital business analyst who works on the health management system and says “I am a subject matter expert in nursing; I’ll help”…

Based on my experience and opinion the real subject matter experts are the people who know best. Business analysts need to know how to elicit information from them. The Body of Knowledge may not be perfect, but it does make the definition of analysis very clear. By all means call yourself “SME”. But don’t kid everyone that this is business analysis.