A Rose By Any Other Name… Product Manager or Business Analyst ….?

So does title really matter? I find myself asking this question more and more lately as I come across people in technology organisations with titles and roles that, on the face of it, look similar but in reality are quite different.

Although I don’t think there is too much merit in getting hung up on titles, I do think it is important that anyone performing a specific role knows what they are supposed to be doing and clearly understands their responsibilities. Difficulties arise when you have a title that can be applied to a very broad discipline.

For example, I sometimes come across people in established technology companies with the title Business Analyst – they sit somewhere between engineering and marketing but their role descriptions can be quite vague. This really got me thinking about whether title really matters and if it does then what are the key differences between the roles of Product Manager and Business Analyst?

For many companies they only begin to adopt a product management discipline at a certain stage in their evolution – often they apply many of the principles of product management without formally recognising that they are doing it and often they don’t recruit a specific resource to manage the function – someone just evolves into the role. In some cases however, it may seem like a natural next step to hire someone with business analysis experience to manage the process.

The role of Product Management covers a breadth of functional activities in the organisation, encompassing product strategy, sales support, commercial ROI, pricing & licensing, support for release management, go-to-market strategy and so on. However, you may see titles like Product Manager, Project Manager, Programme Manager, Product Marketer and Business Analyst being applied to those who are carrying out these functional activities. The roles and responsibilities for each of these titles will often vary from company to company.

In reality I don’t think it is the title that matters so much as the function or role that we perform and the responsibilities associated with that role. It is important for all of us to understand the requirements of the job that we undertake – otherwise the title is meaningless. It is not enough to assume that if we have been given the title of Product Manager or Business Analyst that there is a clear definition of what this means for the organisation for whom we work. Having been a practitioner of product management in a large organisation myself and now helping organisations of various sizes apply the discipline, I know that the responsibilities of the Product Manager will vary depending on the stage of growth of the company.

So what if we take the role of Product Manager and Business Analyst as an example – is their a difference?

The International Institute of Business Analysis defines business analysis as:

…the set of tasks and techniques used to work as a liaison among stakeholders in order to understand the structure, policies, and operations of an organization, and to recommend solutions to enable the organization to achieve its goals.

They go on to say …

Business analysis involves analyzing the business and understanding:

  • Why the organization exists
  • How an organization works
  • What are its goals and objectives
  • How it accomplishes those objectives
  • How it needs to change to better accomplish objectives or to meet new challenges

So if we were to substitute the word “organisation” above for “customer” or “market” then perhaps in reality there is not much difference between a Product Manager and a Business Analyst? – but in my view there are key differences:

  • Product Managers focus on understanding an external customer or market in great detail. They analyse the jobs the customer does, what problems or needs they have and what their goals and objectives are? Their aim is to find many customers with the same problems or needs – they seek out and define a market in which to position a product or solution. In this way they can develop a scalable business model.
  • Business Analysts are focussed more on the business needs of a specific organisation – typically the one that they work for or are contracted to. Their focus is more internal than external and they seek to find processes or technology solutions that will meet the business objectives of that individual organisation.

The IIBA identify many job titles for business analysis practitioners including business analyst, business systems analyst, systems analyst, requirements engineer, process analyst, product manager, product owner, enterprise analyst, business architect, management consultant, business intelligence analyst, data scientist, and more.

So, it may help to view the Product Manager and Business Analyst as practitioners of business analysis who adopt similar tactics in doing their jobs (stakeholder interviews, requirements capture and specification, user stories, etc.). Both are effectively conduits between the stakeholders from whom requirements are captured and the teams who will deliver on those requirements. Although they may adopt similar practices, at the end of the day they perform different roles – one more focused on “internal” organisational process and one on “external” customer or market needs.

Having said all of this, each of you may have your own view as to what a Product Manager or Business Analyst does. In reality, as long as the people who are performing the function know what they are supposed to be doing and are delivering against core objectives for the business then titles shouldn’t really matter.

Perhaps this is where the problem lies. In my consultative experience, I am finding that confusion around titles leads to confusion around roles and responsibilities.

Whether you are performing the role of Product Manager, Business Analyst or any other role for that matter, make sure that you get the right help in defining the role for your organisation and articulate clearly what the title means in your business. Don’t assume that everyone working in the organisation has the same view – you need to clarify.

After all, if unclear product requirements lead to poor products then … unclear job specifications will surely lead to poor employees.

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