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The T-Shape of You

Black letter T on a white door

by Henry Elisher

Business Analysis (BAPL) Consultant


Why you should cross your T’s first


Over the past decade there has been a plethora of research done which has emphasised the idea that for professionals to grow, thrive and excel in their respective environments they needed to possess both a deep disciplinary knowledge in their chosen areas of expertise and also have a keen ability to communicate across social, cultural and economic boundaries. The concept of soft skills, those interpersonal (people) skills that are generally understood by the populous as being the ability to communicate, are in fact far more reaching. They are an extensive range of qualities and attributes that encompass such things as attitude, creative thinking, work ethic, motivation, problem solving and conflict resolution, amongst a host of others. These are the key components that allow for the facilitationof interactions between people. Understanding that the majority of us work within a variety of business organisms, that have their own worlds of unique social interactions, it’s fundamental to our success as business analysts to both recognise, embrace, and develop this skill set, especially knowing that the key to our own success lies in the relationships that we build with our stakeholders.

Knowledge and teachable abilities are of course core to the capacity of what an individual brings to a role but what differentiates the performance of one employee over another is their ability to prioritise their focus, to work effectively in a heavily networked and matrixed environment and understand how the informal mechanisms of business work. It’s these unmapped and quite often undefined social concepts that, when grasped and utilised by an individual, will allow them to be identified as a person with the talent and capacity to lead, innovate and drive change. Utilising a quote from Aaron McEwan, Advisory Leader at CEB, he says;

Most of the good stuff in terms of performance happens in the white spaces between people, not at their desks’

It’s an idea that often gets lost in working environments that demand metric driven, quantifiable results but in reality should be obvious to us all in the sense it’s the harnessed expertise in a variety of areas allow us to get to viable solutions. Promoting the culture of ideas through dynamic interaction doesn’t occur whilst staring at a monitor.


The T-Shaped Business Analyst


These days with a greater number of people undertaking higher education, professional certification and various forms of additional study, the attainment of disciplinary knowledge no longer becomes the genuine differentiator that it once was. Not only is it not a real differentiator but the nature of ‘information attainment’ within educational institutions, that are often one dimensional in their own approach, tend to produce ‘I-shaped’ professionals. By ‘I-shaped’ what I am referring to is a type of professional that has deep, extensive technical knowledge in their area of expertise but lacks the broadness and well roundedness to be able to cross disciplines or industries within their knowledge capacity. Referring directly to fig 1 – The T-shaped professional, the ‘I’ component is represented by the two vertical pillars that state ‘deep in at least one discipline’and ‘deep in at least one system’.  From a business analyst perspective this can be identified as having the requisite knowledge in requirements elicitation, requirements analysis etc.


what is the T

Fig 1 – The T-shaped professional


As business analysts we can very much fall into the trap of being the classical, ‘I-shaped’ professional. We may very well be comfortable with our core set of skills and have a deep knowledge of the fundamental areas that the IIBA outline in the BABOK but what impact does that this sole focus have on ability in the environments where we ply our trade? Generally it is understood that without a broader, more expansive, interactive outlook, the professional can become knowledge and skill-set bound, essentially trapped, interpreting their workplace as largely a competitive environment, existing within their disciplinary silos and not extending beyond the comfort of the visible horizon.

By comparison, the defining characteristic of the ‘T-shaped’ business analyst, is demonstrated by the horizontal bar in figure 1. This component demonstrates the ability of the individual to collaborate across a variety of different disciplines, to be able to contribute to creative and innovate processes and to ‘tap in’to the unmapped social concepts that exist in organisations. It’s the utilisation of these type of soft skills that will allow the business analyst to share the expertise of their discipline and craft, whilst also having the capacity to translate this knowledge to those that do not fully comprehend the scope of work that a business analyst undertakes, because, along with being successful collaborators we also need to be our own ‘sales representatives’ and become advocates of our own expertise. It’s this promotion of awareness that can break down the power of ignorance and support our cause, but, the unlocking of this potential is only made viable through the development and utilisation of soft skills.

The idea of this readily transferable skill-set of course has special importance in the business analyst world as we should be ready to confidently step across sectors, from entertainment to utilities, from financial services to mining. It’s this agility and adroitness, supported by our set of soft skills that will identify us as unique but also as being the vital promoters in the creation of the new mobile, agile and educated workforce, a factor that’s critical for the global digital economy to prosper and in itself critical to the positioning of business analysts within this economy.

Business leaders have readily acknowledged the criticality of the far-reaching capacity of soft skills. Matt Tindale, the Managing Director of LinkedIn for Australia & New Zealand states that the ‘demand for collaboration, teamwork, EQ, critical thinking, problem solving and conflict resolution …are immensely important enterprise transferable skills’.This is a statement which should appear obvious as these elements really stand as the common base amongst a variety of disciplines and act as both the mechanism and vehicle to drive innovation from disparate, but equally as important knowledge bases.

So, whilst we can identify ‘I-shaped’ analysts and understand that their level of knowledge can obviously be utilised to get the job done, the question arises, at what expense? Muted levels of soft skills means that collaboration, teamwork, conflict resolution and the motivation to drive towards a common goal quite often comes to the ‘I-shaped” analyst with a deal of stress, strain on working relationships and with much less of the dynamic interactions that ‘T-shaped’ analysts develop in natural, organic ways. It’s the ability of the ‘T-shaped’ analyst to find compromises and help motivate others towards solutions that separate the good business analysts from those that are great. It will also be these subjective types of skills that will not only hold the ‘T-shaped’ analyst in good stead for a long, healthy career but will also bring the diversity and necessary degrees of challenges to create well rounded individuals.


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