High-Tech Anthropology? A New-Fangled Name for a Tried and True Technique: Observation

Observation(In my continuing coverage of BABOK® techniques, I plan to comment on all of the general and task-specific techniques. This week’s entry is about observation, a likely source of CBAP® (Certified Business Analysis Professional) exam questions and also a valuable requirements elicitation technique.)

I attended an IIBA Professional Development Day in the Twin Cities recently, and a panelist mentioned what he thought was a cool, new concept. He was describing what an agile development team did on a successful project, and called what they did “high-tech anthropology.” My ears perked up when I heard the term, and thought they were onto something new and inventive.

Before starting development, the team in question decided it should go out to the field to watch subject matter experts (SMEs) actually doing their job. By observing workers in their work environment, the team discovered a major flaw in the assumption of the project sponsor about the proposed technology. They prevented the wasting of substantial project funds by doing observation. The consulting company doing the work dubbed this approach “high-tech anthropology.”

Well, not to be cranky…but, this is simply the packaging of a tried and true technique with a new name. The consultant’s “exciting new approach” was actually the long-standing technique we call observation. I hate it when someone tries to “invent” something new by renaming a standard method. OK, enough ranting. You can call me the “BA Curmudgeon” if you want.

Observation is a common elicitation technique that is used to watch people in their natural work environment. It’s useful to uncover requirements and as an adjunct to other elicitation methods. I first learned the value and power of this technique in my first job as an analyst back in the 1970s (I was in high school – just kidding). While analyzing the various departments in a bank for process improvements, we routinely observed each department in action. We’d follow personal bankers, tellers, mail room staff, etc. around their jobs. Heck, I was even a teller for a week – a scary thought, but actually doing the job of an SME gave me far better insights than just watching or talking to one. (If you want to get fancy, real anthropologists call doing an SME’s job “participant observation.”)

It is also valuable when stakeholders are unwilling or unable to articulate their work or their processes. A business analyst may need to do observation to conduct basic discovery work when more routine methods prove fruitless. For example, observing personal bankers opening new accounts on the job revealed some of the exceptions they face, but couldn’t articulate in an interview.

For the CBAP exam, it’s useful to know that the BABOK mentions two types:

  • Passive / invisible – BA observes the SME doing job or following a process, but does not ask questions.
  • Active / visible – BA observes the current process and takes notes, and may dialog with the worker (and even perform the process).

To summarize, observation gives us realistic and practical insight into business processes as they are actually performed. It can help elicit informal details and actual practices that may not be captured in more formal sessions. This method isn’t practical for new processes, or for those with lots of thought processes. It can be time-consuming and disruptive to “observes.” Like any technique, observation can’t uncover all needed exceptions and critical situations. But, with all its advantages, there’s a reason why this technique has stood the test of time. And, why people are tempted to repackage it as something new.

For Additional Learning:

Check out our CBAP Certification Prep Course.

To familiarize yourself with the actual CBAP Exam, try our CBAP Online Study Exam.

You may also find our our article: Foolproof Guide to Passing the CBAP (pdf) valuable. (You must be a Watermark Learning Member to access this article.  Membership is free and allows you to access valuable skill-development tools, such as articles, webinars, eNewsletters and special discounts.)

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