Is It Better to Be a BA Generalist or Specialist?

Today’s post is more of a question to get some discussion going around the question “Is it better to be a BA Generalist or Specialist?” Throughout my business analyst career I have seen BA’s of both varieties, and wanted to open up the discussion to hear what you think.

To help frame our discussion, here is a brief description of the two types of business analysts and some benefits and potential challenges that may be faced. This is just a starting point as I’m more interested in your thoughts on this topic than my own.

The BA Generalist

The business analyst generalist is the BA who doesn’t specialize or focus in a particular field or industry. They have business analyst skills that they can bring into any environment and learn the industry subject matter.

Some Benefits of a Strong BA Generalist

  • A strong BA Generalist has the skills and techniques to quickly and easily learn the industry.
  • “Natural” talents and abilities in relationship-building, facilitation, and analytical thinking are harder to train and therefore can be more valuable.
  • Develop a background in a variety of industries that may have exposed them to new or different processes, technologies and experiences.

Potential Challenges for a BA Generalist

  • Being able to quickly learn a business, its jargon, and its best practices can take more time that some projects will account for.
  • Solution analysis may take more time due to a lack of experience in industry-standard systems or best practices.
  • Does this make the BA a jack/jill-of-all-trades but a master of none?

The BA Specialist

The business analyst specialist focuses more within a particular industry or line of business. For example, this BA might focus in the manufacturing industry or even more specifically auto manufacturing.

Some Benefits of a Strong BA Specialist

  • The BA Specialist brings depth in their industry-specific knowledge that often takes years to achieve.
  • They already understand the lingo and landscape of the business, which often helps to quickly build trust.

Potential Challenges for a BA Specialist

  • Need to balance out on-going professional development needs in the area of business analysis, while also keeping industry knowledge fresh.
  • The BA Specialist may take for granted certain requirements based on prior experience rather than current client needs.
  • Does this limit the BA’s ability to move into other industries? Will they get pigeon-holed?

What are other benefits or challenges of being a generalist vs. a specialist? If you were a hiring manager, which one would you look for? Does your opinion change if this is for an internal position vs. a consultant position?

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18 Responses to Is It Better to Be a BA Generalist or Specialist?
  1. Tere
    December 8, 2010 | 8:27 am

    I’m a “specialist”, having worked in the health insurance industry for over 10 years. I recently switched employers and it was extremely helpful to me and to my project team that I already was familiar with the way the company was structured, how they operated, their jargon and their end customer’s web interfaces… because I had worked for one if their end customers.
    It was a lot harder to find a position in my niche market, but I think being a specialist is what landed me the employment offer the same day as my interview… especially in these difficult times.

    • Real World BA
      December 8, 2010 | 9:16 am

      Thank you for sharing your experience, Tere! If you don’t mind sharing with my readers, how did you end up focusing on health insurance? Did you come from the business side? Did you set out to focus here? Or did it sort of happen naturally based on your initial BA experiences?

      By the way, congratulations on your new job! 🙂

      • Tere
        December 8, 2010 | 10:47 am

        Right out of college I took a job on the business side of a work comp carrier. Then I moved to operations at a life insurance carrier and then development and operations in health insurance. From there I transitioned fully to IT and BA work. After years of doing the work I loved, I had been laid off and tried going back to work comp / property insurance. I was miserable and thankfully found myself back in the health insurance niche.
        Part of what I didn’t like was realizing I lost the jack of all trades “badge”, I just felt non-productive in the other environment. Plus their BAs were not project focused… and that didn’t fit me either.

        • Real World BA
          December 9, 2010 | 1:31 pm

          Thanks for sharing your experience, Tere! It’s great to see how a career sometimes takes on twists and turns, but by recognizing for yourself what you were ultimately looking for you could find a niche that was a good fit for you!

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  3. Dave
    December 8, 2010 | 10:02 am

    There are people that can display the traits of both and this results in … “SUPER BA”. Combine some of the benefits of both and eliminate some of the challenges for both. “SUPER BA” has deep industry-specific knowledge, understands the business, has talents and abilities in relationship-building, facilitation, and analytical thinking, and, lastly, by not taking certain requirements for granted and, instead, considering current client needs and future opportunities.

    • Real World BA
      December 9, 2010 | 1:04 pm

      I love the idea of the combined “Super” BA, Dave!

  4. Laura Brandenburg
    December 8, 2010 | 1:06 pm

    I think instead of an “either/or” this should be a “both/and.” Truly senior BAs can be a strong business analyst and able to put on their generalist hats when needed but also bring (or build) razor-sharp focus within an industry when needed.

    From an individual career perspective, there are obviously trade-offs. The biggest one I see is when you tie your career to an industry and that industry tanks (like financial services did a few years ago) you find your career tanks as well. As a generalist, you mind find your career path progresses a bit more slowly but is more steady and transferable.

    • Real World BA
      December 9, 2010 | 1:34 pm

      Great points, Laura! I love the flexibility that this perspective brings to the discussion. Similar to Dave’s comment above, your view of a truly senior BA being able to do both definitely supports that this is not an either/or decision.

  5. Kaspars
    December 8, 2010 | 2:13 pm

    On my mind, BA Generalist is strong in situations, when radical changes are necessary. For example, the information system has to be developed in the organization, which works without it. Or the existing system has to be replaced with new generation software. In this case the knowledge of various techniques is very helpful, because “nothing is like before”.

    On other hand, BA Specialist is strong in other cases. For example, important functional update of the existing system. BA Specialist knows not only “official” information, but also which sources are reliable and which should be additionally checked; he/she has informal contacts and can check the necessary information with colleagues.

    • Real World BA
      December 9, 2010 | 1:36 pm

      Great examples, Kaspars! Do you think that a single person could successfully fill both needs (in line with Dave and Laura’s comments above)? Or do you think that these would lean towards separate “types” of BAs?

      • Kaspars
        December 11, 2010 | 10:35 am

        Do you think that a single person could successfully fill both needs (in line with Dave and Laura’s comments above)?
        ===
        I think that, generally speaking, yes. Because everybody has strong and weak points, and can improve the weakest skills. And, not always is necessary to be perfect everywhere to successfully solve the task.

        From other side, there are situations, when Specialist can be much better than Generalist, and vice versa.

        For example, it is true, that it is important to listen to the client. But, there are cases, when client is new in the industry, and Specialist can not only listen him, but also to give good advices.

        • Real World BA
          December 12, 2010 | 7:20 pm

          Great points, Kaspars! Particularly that is it not necessary to be perfect everywhere to successfully solve the task. Such great opportunities to be learning new things while bringing our strengths to each project.

  6. Real World BA
    December 9, 2010 | 1:36 pm

    More great comments also on the Real World BA Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/RealWorldBA#!/RealWorldBA/posts/164731583568997

  7. David Wright
    December 10, 2010 | 11:16 pm

    Well, being a Generalist pays me more. As a consultant focused on requirements, I spend 1 to 2 weeks with a client on a project, starting with scope definition and finishing with completed functional and information requirements, usually with some non-functionals and business rules thrown in.

    Clients often say I learned their business very quickly; in fact, I do not learn their business, they tell me what is and I document it. By the time I start my next engagement, I have “forgotten” what I documented in the previous project.

    So, the key is requirements discovery and documentation techniques and skills, applicable across virtually any domain.

    Do I actually learn new things over time? Sure; every time I use an ATM reminds me of the ATM Switch software project I did. Other things fade, but all I have to do is look back at a previous project’s requirements document to get refreshed. You can only know so much, the rest you have to know where to look up.

    dww

    • Real World BA
      December 11, 2010 | 9:02 am

      Dave, thank you so much for sharing your experience! I guess this makes you a “specialized generalist” – focused on effectively getting those requirements defined.

      Even though you “forget” everything once you’re complete with your project, have you had multiple projects in the same industry where you also benefited from prior project knowledge?

      By the way – “You can only know so much, the rest you have to know where to look up.” – this is one of the reasons I love being a BA. Providing the place where others can get the information they need.

  8. David Wright
    December 11, 2010 | 1:13 pm

    “have you had multiple projects in the same industry where you also benefited from prior project knowledge?”

    I am hard-pressed to think of an example. Even in the same industry, there are many different projects and sub-domains. Before I was a consultant, I once worked at a life insurance company where it was several years before I worked on an insurance project; the work til then had been in investments admin, general ledger accounting, human resources, methodologies, even systems domains like charge-back.

    • Real World BA
      December 12, 2010 | 7:19 pm

      Thanks so much for sharing your experiences! You’ve had a lot of great-sounding opportunities!

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