Dan Smith, CIO of Atlanta, has a unit within his IT department dubbed Business Strategic Services that’s charged with analyzing business processes and applying technological solutions to them. One of Smith’s ongoing challenges, however, is finding people with the right mix of skills to fill the business process analyst positions.

“They have to be able to act in a collaborative fashion and talk to a lot of different people in a situation where they recognize they have very little authority,” he said. “It is very much like being a consultant,” added Smith, who earlier in his career worked as a manager at Deloitte & Touche.

Business analysts must adapt to working with multiple business units with very different needs, ranging from aviation to public safety to finance. That’s why it is even more challenging than in the private sector to fill these positions, he added. “I came here from Matria Healthcare, and although health care is complex, the different divisions were working in the same field. Here, we have requirements in each department that are vastly different, so the adaptability of analysts is crucial.”

Smith describes Michael Dogan, his deputy CIO in charge of Business Strategic Services, as an example of the type of employee he appreciates. “He can easily talk to a network engineer on his level one minute and the mayor on his level the next.”

The effort to identify and correct misalignment and miscommunication between IT organizations and business units is decades old, and yet the problem persists. Many CIOs say the missing link is staff members who understand and can translate business requirements into effective IT projects.

Business analyst is a difficult job to fill because it requires a fairly high level of business knowledge and communication skills, said Gregg Powers, a senior management consultant for IT consulting firm Ciber Inc. “It is a horrible liability to an IT organization to have a business analyst hidden away in a corner cubicle drawing up requirements in isolation or only occasionally asking questions,” he said. “Most business groups are desirous of IT interactions. Both sides can grow from the experience. As we build that communication bridge, the tech people understand business process flow and the business side can better understand how technology gets applied.”

Part of that communication bridge should be a well defined and representative governance structure that filters information up to the CIO, Powers said. “And CIOs need to be spending 50 to 60 percent of their time with business units and the rest on delegation and decision-making inside the walls of IT.”

Powers said CIOs might want to have business analysts physically reside in the business areas they serve. “There they will pick up on how the group works and sit in on meetings they would never have access to otherwise,” he explained. In consolidated IT organizations, it’s important that roles, such as business analyst, remain close to the organization they serve. “We recommend pushing those positions out rather than bringing them into a consolidated group,” Powers said.

West Virginia’s Consolidation

West Virginia’s technology leaders recognize that it’s particularly important that their staffing decisions address alignment issues in the wake of a broad IT consolidation being completed this year. In fact, the first goal mentioned in the Office of Technology’s most recent strategic plan is tightening partnerships and alignment with the business side of state government.

In the consolidation, some agencies lost all their IT expertise, said Kathy Moore, the state’s deputy CTO and director of Client Services Delivery. “Although we met with cabinet-level leadership regularly, we realized those meetings were not sufficient to meet their needs, so we created ‘relationship manager’ positions.”

By definition, the relationship managers serve customer agencies as a single point of contact for communications at the agency and cabinet levels. They understand the mission and goals of their customers, how infrastructure technology can best be used to advance these goals, and inform customers on changes and service availability at the

Office of Technology.

Six people spend about 40 percent of their time on it, Moore said. Their skill set is that of high-level IT team leaders with much experience converting agency needs into solutions. (Moore is one of the six relationship managers who shepherd agency projects through the newly created Project Management Office, which also has created several business analyst positions.)

Sue Ann Lipinski, acting information services director, said her department assigns project managers and business analysts to specific government agencies for extended periods of time. The project managers coordinate agency project steering committees and provide project oversight for a program or portfolio of agency activities. This helps better position the project managers to identify related projects within an agency so that priorities can be established and resources can be allocated according to customer objectives. Lipinski said the agency’s strategy for hiring project managers and business analysts is to find individuals with both business and technical backgrounds. These individuals must embrace a philosophy of “lifelong learning” and possess keen analytical, problem-solving and communication skills. “We are particularly interested in finding professionals with the ability to understand and translate business requirements into technical specifications and vice versa,” she said.

Project Management Skills Lacking

Public-sector agencies that have outsourced most IT functions often find the pared-down internal team lacking in project management skills. San Diego County signed a seven-year, $667 million contract with Northrop Grumman that took effect in January 2006. For its IT projects, the Northrop Grumman team appoints a project manager and the county appoints someone from the business department to co-manage these projects, said Harold Tuck, the county’s CIO.

“What we have found is that the Northrop Grumann person is trained and certified in project management, but the county folks do not have that discipline,” he said.

“On large enterprise projects, someone from our core group of 15 people will be involved and they have the necessary background,” he explained. “But we have 40 people who are departmental IT coordinators, and it is that group that needs some help. We are starting to talk about putting together our own training curriculum for them involving project management skills so they can focus on defining deliverables, tracking payment milestones, slippage, change orders and better establish project governance structure.”

Tuck’s core team also relies on feedback from these departmental IT coordinators to help assess how well the outsourcing arrangement is working. In October 2010, the county set up an internal enterprise project management office. “We are hoping that group can pass along lessons learned to these IT coordinators,” Tuck said.

No matter what your organizational structure is, if you identify the business analyst position as a weak point in your team, you may not be recruiting and training correctly, according to Seattle management consultant Jeff Angus, who often brings baseball analogies to his consulting advice. (In fact, he is the author of a book called Management by Baseball.)

“In baseball, you have to scout and invest in the right people, you have to continuously assess their strengths and weaknesses, ascertain which skills can be improved and which are going to stay as constraints, and then attack important limits with coaching, drills and other forms of conscious, premeditated refinement,” Angus said. So for these analyst positions, CIOs should hire only people who are predisposed to “get” business requirements. That makes the analysis and building out of technology requirements low overhead, because they understand the basic business rules already, Angus stressed.

Consider reinforcing the technologists who are good at this by promoting it, having successful employees set aside time to mentor others, he said, and pay people who are good at business and technology more than you pay someone who’s good at only one or the other.

Angus also suggests dedicating time for additional training. “Business requirements change; technology, of course, turns over, and that means each of the two tectonic plates is shaped differently, so the way they act on each other is mutating.”

Sometimes a strong executive sponsor can identify a weakness in IT alignment and do something about it, said Garth Carter, Ciber’s vice president for state and local government. He gave as an example Phillip Washington, general manager of the Denver Regional Transportation District (RTD). “As RTD began risk assessment for the implementation of a new ERP system, it did an organizational assessment of IT and concluded the existing IT team did not have enough people with business analyst skills,” Carter said. “Washington made it clear he expected people to get training, develop new skills and move in a new direction to accomplish a successful ERP implementation.”

Some employees left because they felt they weren’t a fit, but it forced the IT group to go through a transformation and skills development, Carter added. “In the public sector this is harder than in the private sector, as tenured employees are sometimes more resistant to change, but it is possible.”

Another executive sponsor who took an aggressive stance on IT/business alignment issues is Adam Jones, chief operating officer of the 1,100-employee Texas Education Agency in Austin. He has taken several steps to get customers more involved in the IT decision-making process, including naming himself the agency’s CIO in 2010.

“Not to put too fine a point on it, but to address the IT/business alignment issue, I made myself CIO,” Jones said.

Jones and CTO Rick Goldgar are implementing an agile software development methodology that puts IT project requirement analysts closer to customers. “We have hacked up projects into smaller pieces,” Jones explained. “The days of the huge $100 million IT projects are over. So we had to have IT learn to give up much of the decision-making to the people on the project from the line of business. Of course, IT is not afraid to point out processes that may not make sense. As my CTO Rick Goldgar says, ‘A bad business process that is automated just makes a bad process run faster.’”

The shift in how projects are handled has forced the job requirements for the analyst positions to be reconsidered. People from a traditional IT background can make good business analysts, Jones said. People from a testing background, for instance, can see where things are going wrong and make adjustments. But it’s becoming clear to Jones that the analysts don’t have to be technologists. “In the future, I think we’ll see more people switching teams and moving over to the IT side,” he said.

“The Millennial generation is very tech-savvy, and the work they are doing is really solving communication problems rather than programming,” Jones continued. “They don’t have to write a line of code. So I think we’re as likely to see liberal arts majors as computer science majors filling those positions in the future.”

How computer science and information systems courses are taught could also contribute to the problem. According to professor George Strouse, who teaches information systems at York College of Pennsylvania, university curricula in information systems needs to be refreshed to meet current needs. Too many universities are still teaching about system development life cycles for three- to five-year projects with the specs frozen in the beginning, he noted. “They should be teaching how to chop up those big projects and use rapid development prototyping,” Strouse said.

York College updated its information systems curriculum to include project management, business analysis, information security and Web development.

Strouse, who has written several articles about IT staffing for alignment, suggests that CIOs hire IT staffers who not only understand business and technology, but who also can cross-train functional area staff members who already have business knowledge to have more low-level IT skills. “Those functional-area staffers will be best at aligning information systems and functional areas, and recognizing when issues come up that must be addressed,” he said.

Strouse added that business skills training for current IT staff is another option, but most CIOs don’t have much budget for training.

Indeed, budget cuts can upset plans to work on alignment. Atlanta’s Smith said the economic climate has hampered the work of his Business Strategic Services group. Initially business process analysts were assigned to work with agencies to define business requirements, then another group would translate them into technical documentation, and then the project management office would execute.

“I took this job three years ago with 120 people in IT and was told I would have to lay off 50 people immediately,” Smith recalled. “In Business Strategic Services, that means people are forced to wear all three hats at once. Now some people are good at all three, but it is a stretch. If things begin to pick up for the city, I am hoping to start staffing to the original model.” ¨

David Raths, a writer based in Philadelphia, contributes frequently to Government Technology, Public CIO, Governing and Emergency Management magazines.

David Raths  |  contributing writer