The successful firm today is more diverse and focuses on skills beyond accounting to provide clients the services they need and want. While accounting has always been focused on transactions, compliance and reporting, firms are learning the importance of business analysts who are responsible for bridging the gap between IT and data to assess processes, determine requirements, and deliver data-driven recommendations and reports to leaders and decision-makers. Bridging the gap was certainly one of the key motivators at the American Institute of CPAs for creating the Certified IT Professional credential over a decade ago.
The CPA as a trusted business advisor is well-positioned to provide these services, provided they have the appropriate IT and soft skills. Business analysts need to know how to access, organize and report data trends that are important to management and leadership. This doesn’t necessarily require programming skills, but rather an understanding of how systems, products and tools work. Many analysts have a strong IT background, with less experience in business. Collaboration and team delivery results in higher-value services.
Some might call this a hybrid model, but I prefer to focus on the collaborative team with unique abilities. People who are able to focus on their unique abilities perform at higher levels and experience less burnout. They also tend to provide greater value.
Let’s review some of the major responsibilities of a business analyst.
- Change management. Business analytics is a consulting rather than an advisory role. By this, I mean consulting is responsible for influencing positive change, but doesn’t necessarily have the power to make the decision to change. This is where the data analysis, organization and reporting, and influencing skills converge. A consultant must have technical, interpersonal and consulting skills to bring about positive change.
- Requirements definition. Requirements are determined by the data and the details. This generally requires both tools and technical skills. Checklists and experience provide efficiency and effectiveness. The ability to approach the problem for an enterprise versus a departmental (silo) approach is desired.
- What do the systems need to do? Not only does the systems analyst need to know existing systems, but they must also know what is currently possible and will become possible in the near future. Systems are becoming more robust through integration and APIs. Machine learning and AI are improving accuracy and reliability. Thus, anticipation is a valuable skill.
- How do they do it? This is where workflow and Lean Six Sigma process improvement come into play. Do current processes add value and can they be automated for efficiency and effectiveness? Workflow and lean processes are essential. Processes can impact the effectiveness of technology, and technology can impact the efficiency of processes.
- From whom do you need input? Key stakeholders, including clients or customers, should be involved in the process to ensure that value is added and requirements are met. We often refer to this as “same page” decision-making.
- Prioritization of projects. Return on investment is just one of the many criteria evaluated during the prioritization process. In certain cases, projects must be sequential, while others can be conducted in a parallel fashion. Resource limitations often dictate the timeline. You can reduce the timeline with well-planned projects and leveraging your personnel into collaborative teams.
- Facilitation — consensus building. All organizations have politics, but part of the business analyst’s role is to create awareness and build consensus among stakeholders. This often involves departmental leaders, who are used to working in silos, coming together for the benefit of the entire organization. An experienced external facilitator typically has an advantage over internal resources.
- Influencing leadership and management. Organizational leadership and management often need an outside party to assist with the process. This normally significantly reduces the time, as well as educating the stakeholders.
- Dealing with legacy systems. Most organizations have legacy systems and users. Therefore, communication and education are paramount to success.
As you can see from the above responsibilities, the business analyst must possess a diverse skill set and be able to work well in a collaborative environment. Working in a team environment will expand and develop the skills more rapidly. Here is a quick listing of some of the most important skills:
- Oral and written communications;
- Interpersonal consulting skills;
- Facilitation skills;
- Analytical thinking and problem-solving;
- Detail-oriented and accurate;
- Organizational skills;
- Knowledge of business structure;
- Stakeholder analysis;
- Requirements engineering;
- Cost-benefit analysis;
- Process modeling; and,
- Understanding networks, databases and technology.
Business analysts generally rely on a toolset containing all of the MS Office products (Excel, PowerPoint, Word and Access), plus tools like SQL, Google Analytics, MS Power BI and Tableau. These tools help the analyst collect and sort data, create graphics, and write understandable reports for management. As data becomes more important to an organization, so does the business analyst. One of the biggest changes is the focus on data other than financial data as businesses evaluate their business capability model. Automation is impacting all areas of a business, not just financial reporting and product/service delivery. The customer experience, talent development, operations, compliance, marketing and sales are all being automated for businesses to compete and remain profitable and relevant.
Where do firms look for talent today? Many go beyond accounting graduates to those with degrees in technology and/or data analysis. There are also educational accelerators and training programs available. The business analyst role requires a mix of IT and business skills. Success is determined by the ability to understand not only the data, but also its impact on the business. Analysts’ salaries are comparable to accounting graduates, but are rapidly becoming more valuable in the marketplace. This is an area where CPAs seeking to move beyond compliance can gain education and experience to advance their careers. Hire or develop one or more data analysts to ensure continued success and remain relevant in your service offerings.