Zara and Marie-France are business analysts who – through their strong shared interest and belief in communities for fun, engaged, peer-to-peer learning and development – together founded the Cambridge Business Analysis Community.
Marie-France Mardi and Zara Sheldrake talk with James Neethling about how knowledge shared is bridge building the business analysis community together.
Congratulations! The Cambridge Business Analysis Community has recently celebrated its 1st Anniversary. What were the aims when starting out, and how has the vision evolved?
Thank you. It was great to celebrate our first year and reflect on what we’ve achieved together. Our vision was set at the start as:
“Build a network of Business Analysts (from the Cambridge area) to provide a platform for people to meet, learn, develop their skills and knowledge, share information, and help grow the profile of Business Analysis as a function.”
We still believe in that vision, though we’ve focused much more on the meeting, learning and developing skills than we have on the promotion of the profession so far. We are planning to work with the community to revisit our vision now we’re a year in.
Where did you look to for inspiration when deciding how to build the CBAC? Did you start with any particular engagement model in mind, or has it emerged organically?
We were aware of various successful groups locally, so asked a bit of advice from them and then approached a local business peer learning network to find out if a business analysis peer group existed. We found there wasn’t one, so we used our own social networks to reach out and seek interest.
There wasn’t a specific engagement model in mind and the community has grown organically and through word of mouth, which has been really positive for us.
We used the community themselves for inspiration – our first meetup was used to elicit the requirements, running a ‘what would you like’ workshop, including a futurespective to take a stab at what would make us successful. Later we prioritised the ideas generated and set to work on delivering them.
How has local industry and the professional community responded to this opportunity to collaborate? What interest and growth have you experienced?
We keep growing! At our initial events we had 15-20 people, then new people turned up and we saw people return after a few sessions. Our LinkedIn group went from 40 to 50 to 60 and to 86 members today. So far over 100 people have registered to attend our events, from 32 organisations.
The local industry has been supportive in promoting the events internally to their staff, and also assisting with venues for the meetings. It’s clear that people are seeing value in a free, volunteer-run community as a learning tool.
What can people expect to gain by attending a CBAC session? What are the varieties of topics and events that are typically held, e.g. talks, workshops, training, meet-ups?
We’re always guided by the vision, and asking our members what they want to get from the community.
We deliver practical skills training (e.g. we ran a session on models for business analysts where 4 of us shared our favourite models, and got people some practice), we get speakers from the field and give rundowns of events we attend like the Business Analysis Conference in London.
The community broadens horizons to other trends in the industry. We also have ‘lessons learnt’ sessions discussing successes and what didn’t work so well,. For example we ran a session on story mapping, then followed up with a discussion online to talk through our attempts at the technique.
Very importantly, we always make time for networking at our events. We’ve found that business analysts can often be isolated and at the intersection of conflicting stakeholders and the community, so something really positive we can offer is a sympathetic ear (or 40!) from shared experiences.
What shared industry realisations are attendees discovering through their involvement in the community? Which common themes are people are discussing?
Very early on, there was a shared realisation that we are not alone in the challenges we all face at work. People enjoy sharing those challenges and having a cathartic discussion about them.
We often discuss the different backgrounds our members have come from before becoming business analysts. It’s pretty common to move into the role from roles such as Test Engineer, Product Owner or Product Manager, but we’re also now seeing people taking business qualifications at university and coming in straight from those.
Another frequent theme for a while has been Agile. We often discuss our role in it, as well as how to implement the methodology at our places of business.
How are you approaching the need to continually attract interesting topics and speakers on a regular basis?
Essentially we’ve not had to yet. We organically grew and built the programme from that first session and consequent discussions. We have been lucky to meet and know great speakers who’ve offered to speak for us. We’ve also now started to be approached by externals wanting to run a session for the community rather than us seeking them out, which is fantastic.
In what way is momentum maintained within the community outside of the organised sessions? Are there any supporting channels that keep members engaged?
This is actually our biggest challenge. We use the LinkedIn Group for that purpose; posting messages, questions and suggestions to start conversations with people. However, not everyone uses LinkedIn or checks it often so we also promote events via email (which generally gets a great response rate). We see some conversations have carried on post event via email.
The community have started exploring the opportunities for a different community forum to host the conversations, and any recommendations are gratefully received as this will be a big project for us to take on!
Looking back on your first year, what has worked well and what would you do differently, if you could do it again?
It’s been a brilliant year.
We feel very lucky to have met a fantastic bunch of enthusiastic people.
There’s not yet a need to be organised more formally (such as affiliating to professional organisations). What we’re doing seems to work for us and for the group so far.
We have been thinking of setting ourselves up with things such as a central email group, we recently got a logo, and now set planning meetings regularly. These planning meetings, with a small core group of motivated members, have been very positive. We probably should have begun to form that earlier and delegate more of the day-to-day tasks. It can be a lot of work to run a successful community.
Beyond passionate people, what is your advice and encouragement for anyone who is attempting to mature a fledgling group into a sustainable community?
Ask people what they want, try something, get feedback and adapt if need be.
Involve people in the process so they feel they have a say, and feel more ownership. Invite opinions and ask people to volunteer to host or help. We’re not experts here, but we always try to check that what we are doing is meeting the needs of the community, and act on that feedback. That seems to work for us.
Given the journey that you have been on with developing the CBAC, what plans have you got to build on your successes?
We have planned our sessions for the rest of the year now, and have more ideas for sessions than time to do them in! We want to run a survey with people to check back on what they have found useful / not useful, adapt our vision if needed, and we’re looking at finding something more collaborative and conversational for the online part of the community. We want to be sure we’re supporting members who cannot attend the events as well as those we see in person.
‘Bridge Building The Business Analysis Community’ with Marie-France Mardi and Zara Sheldrake was first published in the Inter-View Report 2017.