How to Become a Business Analyst

In the first chapter of his book, The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith in 1776 described 18 steps involved in the manufacture of pins—from pouring molten metal into molds to bleaching the pins to attaching the heads.

Smith’s conclusion: If workers specialized in one specific task, each could produce 4,800 pins a day, compared to barely one pin per worker without the division of labor.

Today, we might call Smith a business analyst.

Business analytics is about turning information into insights. Effective analysts and leaders in this space are able to extract stories from data using a wide range of hard-science skills. Predictive modeling, artificial intelligence, quantitative analysis, data visualization, computer coding—they all belong in the analytical toolbox. Business analysts need to know how to translate data into plain language to spur executives and cross-disciplinary teams to capitalize on their findings.

This position may go by different names, among them business intelligence analyst, business process analyst, or management analyst. You may also be aware of jobs that include aspects of business analysis but lack the formal title.

There are a number of educational paths to becoming a business analyst. Some people opt to earn a bachelor’s in data analytics or an advanced business analyst degree. Others attend graduate courses, either in class or online, to earn a data analytics certificate.

Another way to grow your analytics knowledge is to become certified in a specific niche, such as forecasting and predictive analytics, or to take more credits and earn multiple badges. If you already have significant business analysis work experience (at least 7,500 hours), you may consider becoming a Certified Business Analysis Professional (CBAP) through the International Institute of Business Analysis. The designation could be especially helpful if you want to focus your career on business analysis but your previous positions—for example, financial analyst or software developer—don’t fully reflect your expertise in this field.

Whichever route you choose for your business analyst education, look for a rigorous program with expert faculty who can equip you with the technical know-how and the skills to apply your learning to real-world business challenges. Incorporating two in-person immersions hosted at the Harvard Business School, the Harvard Business Analytics Program is designed to prepare aspiring and established leaders across a range of industries to draw inference from statistics, test their hypotheses, and offer well-informed solutions. 

What Does a Business Analyst Do?

A business analyst is the bridge between the “backroom” technical operations and the executive suites. They work with software programmers, data engineers, and other analytics professionals to identify, analyze, and forecast business problems and propose solutions that are rooted in data.

But it’s important to note that data or business analytics isn’t about simply crunching numbers. It’s about leveraging sophisticated technologies and practices such as artificial intelligence and predictive modeling to understand companies’ operations and their customers better than they know themselves.

Business analyst responsibilities include process improvement, process design, strategic planning, or productivity or feasibility analysis.

Corporations in numerous industries—from Amazon to Boeing, from hotels to Silicon Valley startups—rely on business analysts to help wring maximum profits and work toward a competitive future.

Consider this example from the 2019 book Predicting Trends and Building Strategies for Consumer Engagement in Retail Environments1: Data analytics is how Walmart, with help from Google, projected that lowering the minimum order needed for free shipping from $50 to $35 could affect both its online sales and operational costs. It’s also how Walmart calibrates the optimal cash-back rate on the company’s own credit card to draw more customers to its site, Walmart.com.

Adam Smith’s observations from a pin factory almost 250 years ago are part of what we call big data, except that our 21st-century version of it is staggeringly complex.

Take hotels as an example. Instead of 18 manufacturing steps, the hospitality industry’s efforts to maximize bookings and minimize cancellations requires an algorithm that juggles weather forecasts, calendars of holidays and major events, inventory levels and a myriad of other variables2. That effort requires a sophisticated arsenal, from machine learning to data mining. Business analysts are critical players between those efforts and the teams that can actually act on the information. 

Business Analyst Job Outlook

The number of jobs for management analysts is expected to grow by 14 percent from 2018 to 2028, for a net gain of 118,300 hires, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). That’s almost three times as fast as the 5 percent increase in U.S. employment during the same period.

The demand is fueled by companies in a variety of sectors, from consulting to human resources. The BLS further notes that management analysts will be particularly sought out by health care employers, government agencies, and information technology firms.

At the same time, competition is high for business and management analyst positions. The strongest job candidates may be those who have graduate degrees or certification in analytics; are multilingual; or specialize in fields such as cybersecurity, sales, or public relations.

Business Analyst Salary

BLS data reveals that half of all U.S. management analysts earned more than $83,610 in 2018. That compares to a median salary of $38,640 for the U.S. workforce. Entry-level business analyst jobs usually require a bachelor’s degree.

Also, in 2018, the top 10 percent of management analysts had an annual salary of more than $152,760, while the bottom 10 percent earned less than $48,360. The scientific, technical, and professional services industry is one of the top-paying industries for management analysts. The median salary in 2018 for that sector was $89,370. Jobs in government, by contrast, paid about 12 percent less, with a median annual salary of $78,750.

Skills Needed to Become a Business Analyst

Standout business analysts are often persuasive communicators, what one Harvard Business Review article3 called “PhDs with personality.” That is, they know how to spin data into vision. They speak the language that executives, rank-and-file workers, suppliers, and customers can grasp.

And as data gets more complicated with time, the stories arguably need to get simpler. Otherwise, the insights born out of analytics won’t get turned into action. This makes the job of a business analyst or management analyst all the more important.

It’s useful for business analysts to have technical know-how in areas including coding or statistical analysis4, but they don’t necessarily need specialist-level skills. Rudimentary knowledge may be enough to identify business problems and assess potential solutions and support technical experts.

The ability to think critically can be key to the success of a business analyst. It also helps if a business analyst moves easily among cross-functional teams, possesses a good understanding of their organization’s disparate operations, and employs persuasive talents to inspire decision-makers5.

Finally, being an ace public speaker who can turn data visualization tools into smart and easy-to-understand presentations is a practical skill worth having.

References:

  1. Antonio, N., Almeida, A. D., & Nunes, L. (2019). Big Data in Hotel Revenue Management: Exploring Cancellation Drivers to Gain Insights Into Booking Cancellation Behavior. Cornell Hospitality Quarterly, 60(4), 298–319. doi: 10.1177/1938965519851466Return to footnote reference
  2. Davenport, T. H. (2006, January). Competing on Analytics. Harvard Business Review.Return to footnote reference
  3. Berinato, S. (2019). Data Science and the Art of Persuasion. Harvard Business Review.Return to footnote reference