Should Business Analysts fear Artificial Intelligence?

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a trendy subject these days. Major companies are setting up AI labs everywhere to accelerate research and identify new growth opportunities in their industries. New jobs are being created to support this growing field, and schools from around the world are launching new programs to train the next generation of workers.

While it all seems positive, artificial intelligence often means job automation. As a consequence, many active workers need to shift their career (if they’re lucky enough) or just lose their job. Moreover, many traditional (and non-traditional) professions are being challenged by the AI train.

But what about Business Analysis? Are BAs at risk of losing their job to Artificial Intelligence in a near future? What could we do to ensure our relevance going into the 21st century? Let the AI vs BA face-off begin!

But first, what exactly is Artificial Intelligence?

Artificial Intelligence is a broad term describing how computers are programmed to complete intellectual tasks that could be performed by humans. It might be surprising, but first AI research started back in the 1950s. Progress really kicked off in the 1980s, and the last few years brought us to where we are today.

You have probably heard many terms related to Artificial Intelligence. According to IBM (and my non-expert research & understanding of the subject), AI evolved in 3 major phases:

  1. Foundational AI (1950-1980) with clustering algorithms (the first attempt to unsupervised system learning), decision trees & rules-based systems (which led to the first expert systems);
  2. Machine Learning (1980-2010), with neural networks (multilayer algorithms integrating a feedback mechanism to learn from errors) and deep learning (a family of algorithms based on complex algorithms and unsupervised learning);
  3. Cognitive Learning (2010-today), aiming to simulate human thought using machine learning technologies and other cognitive science disciplines.

AI is behind many things in your life, from your favorite loyalty program to your Google searches or the multiple apps you have on your smartphone. No matter how useful it can be, one of the major drawbacks of AI is that it usually stays a black box, i.e. we can get results based on various inputs, but we don’t know how AI succeeded in finding the answer.

If you want to get more information on AI concepts, this guide from IBM will give you a very complete overview of the subject (because I’m not a domain expert!)

Now that we know a little bit more about Artificial Intelligence, let’s look at its impacts on Business Analysis.

Is Artificial Intelligence a real threat to Business Analysts?

Business Analysis, like many highly skilled white-collar professions, is essentially based on gathering and interpreting information using very specific skills and a quite standardized workflow. A recent Harvard Business Review article describes it like this:

  1. Gathering the data from different sources
  2. Analyzing the data to create useful information
  3. Interpreting the new information
  4. Recommend action plans
  5. Implement the plans

Best performers in this process reach a high level of performance thanks to these capabilities: (a) they can execute routine tasks to gather and analyze data quickly & accurately; (b) they have a lot of experience to determine the best action plans; and (c) they have extensive knowledge to understand & help stakeholders implement these plans.

The HBR article states that the first two capabilities are the most at risk of being executed by Artificial Intelligence since AI has trouble to replicate capabilities related to human interactions (understanding & motivating individuals). Jobs that focus only on these two capabilities are therefore more at risk than the ones that also rely on the last one.

Similarly, a recent analysis reached the same conclusion. Automation (brought in part by Artificial Intelligence research) make many jobs at risk, and according to this study, almost 47% of jobs in the USA are susceptible to be computerized.

On the other side, the same research indicates that the risk of automation for Computer Systems Analysts (the closest job to Business Analysis included in the study) is less than 1%.

In the end, it seems like Business Analysts don’t have to fear Artificial Intelligence after all. While our work process relies on automatable capabilities, our strong competencies in supporting our stakeholders in the implementation phase make our job safer.  

What are the strengths of Business Analysts against Artificial Intelligence

AI can’t replicate human relationships skills to a level where humans will be comfortable to interact with computers. Therefore, if we want Business Analysis to stay relevant against Artificial Intelligence, we will need to focus on our soft skills & emotional intelligence. This is probably the case: a recent Harvard article confirmed that our job actually became less digital in the last 15 years.

Why did this happen? The BABoK gives us a great starting point to identify the skills behind this situation: the Underlying Competencies.

Analytical Thinking & Problem Solving and Communication Skills

At first sight, these competencies might seem prone to automation as they rely on our capacity to gather and analyze information (which AI could do). However, some of the competencies in this category help us to be better than AI, especially when it comes to how humans interact with computers.

For example, system thinking allows us to understand human interactions with systems better, as well as to identify political issues in these interactions. Visual thinking helps us to adapt our communication following our audience reactions. Another example would be creative thinking, which gives us the capability to generate new ideas & approaches to solve problems & to identify opportunities.

Moreover, our capability to convey information to our audience based on its characteristics & feelings (using verbal, non-verbal, written & listening skills)

Behavioural Competencies and Business Knowledge

In this category, competencies such as Ethics & Adaptability help us to stay one step ahead of AI. By focusing on managing our stakeholders’ interests and feelings when performing Business Analysis tasks and implementing new solutions, these competencies differentiate us from AI.

Organizational knowledge also allows us to navigate through informal relationships and organizational politics with a lower risk of a faux-pas.

Interaction Skills

This category encompasses the most obvious skills that separate us apart from AI. A good example is our facilitation, negotiation & conflict resolution skills, which help us to deal with conflicts between stakeholders and to manage different opinions and motivations in the decision process. Leadership & influence skills also support us in these activities.

Our teaching skills are also an advantage against Artificial Intelligence, as we are able to better understand our stakeholders’ motivations & needs in learning, and we can better catch non-verbal cues when something has (or hasn’t) been understood.

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How can we embrace Artificial Intelligence to become better BAs?

Since Business Analysis seems to be able to stay relevant in this new Artificial Intelligence era, the next question is how we can use AI to do a better job as a Business Analyst.

Indeed, AI could help us perform some of our more traditional tasks (such as eliciting & managing requirements) in a better/faster/easier way, allowing us to focus more on soft skills & emotional intelligence. In the end, it will ensure that BAs stay relevant in the organizational ecosystem and that they maximize their value in the eyes of the stakeholders.

I’ll go deeper on this subject in an upcoming post. In the meantime, my latest ebook will help you identify how you can use your current Business Analysis deliverables to provide your stakeholders with a better customer service (and maybe save you from AI domination!).

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By Eric Provost

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Eric Provost

Making sense out of chaos as a BA & UX specialist

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