Gouge or Skew?

Gouge_or_Skew_Header“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”    — Robert Heinlein, Time Enough for Love

The quote above has come back to me several times over the past few weeks as I write the lecture notes for a class on business analysis that I will soon be teaching. This is Heinlein’s definition of the “competent man” as articulated by his character Lazarus Long. That name alone conjures competence and longevity to the fertile mind, don’t you think? Say it out loud: Lazarus Long. At any rate, the reason that this particular passage has come to the front of my mind is because as I prepare for this class, I have come to realize what a model of generalization business analysis really is.

The program director recruited me to teach the class about five months ago on the basis of my background both in business analysis and meeting facilitation. It was perhaps more the latter qualification that mattered because that is the focus of this class, the final one in the certificate series of three. In addition to my facilitation and group management knowhow, however, is the need to bring together the tools and techniques taught in the prior two classes into a final pretty package and tie it with a bow. Ignorance is bliss; I agreed to the gig.

Reality is a brutal teacher. Having been a reasonably competent practitioner of these skills for twenty years is one thing. Teaching about them is quite another. First, there is a professional framework that must be observed (IIBA or the International Institute of Business Analysis). Second, there is a variety of tools and techniques with which I need to be at least modestly conversant but have neither heard of much less used. Third, one picks up habits both good and bad along the way without giving them much thought. Given these impediments, the challenge of sitting down and crafting course content might be enough to dissuade one from teaching altogether if it were not for all the new knowledge.

But what really comes out of the process that harkens back to Heinlein is the variety of skills and tool sets available to the business analyst, along with the variety of different skills to master. There are modeling techniques for both business processes and systems. There are business architecture frameworks. The successful business analyst must be articulate both verbally and in writing, and must be both intensely logical and highly intuitive. He/she must be able not just to lead a meeting, but also to facilitate a dysfunctional group toward agreement. How much like the competent man this begins to sound.

But here is where the true rejection of specialization comes in. In the Heinlein passage there are several examples of stated opposites, for instance, “cooperate” and “act alone,” or “take orders” and “give orders.” The implication is that one must be prepared for most situations and be capable of both extremes. In other words, just because there is a plethora of modeling languages available does not mean that one necessarily needs to be expert in all of them. Rather, one needs to know enough about them to be able to choose the one that is appropriate for the situation. And even then, any of several might work so one needs to be able to choose the one that will work best for oneself. For instance, in twenty years of performing business analysis for a variety of organizations, I have never needed to use UML (Universal Modeling Language) or IDEF0 (never mind, it is an acronym within an acronym). I have found Business Process Model Notation (BPMN), Context Modeling, Fact Qualifiers, and Entity Relationship Diagramming to be a completely sufficient toolset. Had I ever worked for a defense contractor, such might not have been the case. By the way, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the terms and acronyms, don’t worry. I do not give tests.

A wood turning video I watched recently demonstrated the same truth in sharp relief. The craftsman filmed it as a training guide for wood turning beginners (such as myself) to learn how to hollow out the inside of a cup or bowl on the lathe. Rather than assert that “this is the tool” and “this is how to do it,” he acknowledged that there are many ways to go about it and many different tools that could accomplish the same end depending on individual skill level and comfort. Within the framework of key facts about the nature of a block of hardwood spinning at 1000rpm or more on a lathe, either a gouge or a skew chisel could work equally well in hollowing the vessel. An “outside in” or an “inside out” approach is equally acceptable as well. The secret is to practice with the tools that you do use until you are competent with them, gradually adding new instruments and techniques as you progress in ability and knowledge. The expert wood turner is competent with many techniques. Our discipline is no different.

There is yet another aspect of business analysis that resonates with the Heinlein quotation. This is the fallacy that the business analyst must be a business expert – that is, a specialist. I would expect a good business analyst to be experienced and knowledgeable in business, but not necessarily at the level of an MBA. On the contrary, I would expect an outstanding business analyst to be broadly educated and widely skilled because the role calls for active listening and profoundly acute pattern recognition. The tools and techniques help us, but they are no replacement for the analyst’s perceptions and experience. It is the same skill (or art) that comprehends an analog between a skew chisel and UML, that is able to perceive that the goose one man sees and the beaver another man sees are in reality the opposite ends of the same platypus. Add to that the ability to help each man adjust his point of reference sufficiently to recognize the fact and you have the competent business analyst. Rather than an expertise in one area, the role requires competence in many.

While I have taught many one-day classes over the years, they have all been on focused topics for individual clients. This is my first time teaching a full-length course in a University classroom which means that I am newer to it than even my wood turning. Ten classes of three hours in length translate to a tremendous amount of material to prepare and organize.   And while I have been reading and studying and writing for months, I have as yet to “turn out” a single product. That will come in a few weeks. In all events, I look forward to the new ideas and insights that will come from working closely with twenty other active minds for thirty hours (600 mind-hours!). I have no idea as to what shape might emerge from this virgin block of wood stock, but I do know that it will add additional dimension for any competent man. Stay tuned.

What qualities does your organization look for in a business analyst? Do your practitioners employ a range of tools and skills?


One thought on “Gouge or Skew?

  1. Anonymous says:

    Steven, I always enjoy reading your very insightful articles. As for the teaching, feel it before you say it. You will be great.

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