How Being a World Traveler Teaches the Observation Technique

There’s nothing quite like traveling to another part of the world and immersing yourself in a culture that is so unique, so very different from our own, that it leaves you in awe. Stepping into an environment so drastically different than the one you’re used to can awaken you to so many wonderful new experiences – culinary adventures, jaw-dropping sights, captivating aromas, exciting events, and great people! But you may also find yourself surrounded by unfamiliar languages, customs and traditions, and practices. (yes, this is relatable to our profession – stick with me here!)

I’ve heard from other Business Analysts, and know this from personal experience, that we often find ourselves employing our professional skills in our personal lives – even during our vacations! One technique that I find I use – particularly when immersed in another culture – is the observation technique. 

In this article, we’ll examine how being a world traveler and immersing yourself in other cultures and unknown places can help teach you or further hone your skills in the observation technique.

What is the Observation Technique? 

The observation technique involves a Business Analyst observing a specific person or group of people to effectively decipher and analyze a specific process or role within an organization. 

In my course ‘Identify and Define the Problem with Business Analysis’ I focus on skills and techniques that are utilized to identify problems and opportunities for an organization, and the observation technique is one of them!

Set Yourself Up For Success

woman traveller in a busy street in a foreign countryBefore planning out how to execute your observations, the goals and objectives must be clearly mapped out. You should also have a full understanding of:

  • The data that needs to be collected
  • Who will be observed
  • How the observation will be completed
  • When and where observation must take place
  • How the data will be collected
  • What the data will be used for

Observation Method: Passive or Active

The Business Analyst must also determine whether to conduct the observation passively/covertly, or actively/overtly. 

Passive/Covert Observation

When conducting observation passively, the BA will not interrupt the employees or process(es) that they are observing. This allows any processes and work being observed to follow its natural flow and to be analyzed uninterrupted. Any questions that need to be answered will be asked after the observation session is complete. 

Active/Overt Observation

When conducting observation overtly, the BA may slow the process or employee(s) they are observing to ask questions. In this type of observation, interrupting the workflow allows the Business Analyst to quickly understand the reasoning for a specific step in the process or an activity completed by an employee. 

Advantages & Obstacles in the Observation Technique 

Every technique has its advantages and challenges – including the observation technique! Being aware of both can help you determine if this is the right method to include for information gathering for your project. Let’s identify a few here:

Advantages

    • Uncovering Additional Information. The Business Analyst can extract certain information that would not necessarily be disclosed in other techniques (such as interviews). Factors that could affect a process or physical environment (atmosphere noise, physical layout, equipment, traffic levels, etc). 
    • Gathering Data From Natural Environment. Because the BA is observing the space and/or individuals in their natural environment, the observations gathered can be quite reliable. While going about our day-to-day tasks, it can be a challenge to hide the natural flow of a process or routine. So while honesty in responses can be difficult to discern in other techniques (questionnaires and interviews, for example), it can be more obvious in the observation technique when respondents are not being truthful or are hiding things. 
    • Relatively Inexpensive. When the only expenses are one or two BA’s and the tools they require for observation, the cost to run such a technique is relatively low. 

Obstacles

    • boats in a riverCapturing Exceptions. Because the observation technique involves watching processes occur and people work, it can require multiple sessions to catch exceptions to the rule in processes and workflow or to catch a specific situation or scenario in action. 
    • Potential For Bias. Business Analysts are only human, and humans can carry bias around with them. However, clearly mapping out your main project goal and identifying any bias you hold can help you recognize if you find yourself swaying from impartiality. 
    • Interrupting Natural Flow. It’s possible that, when they know they’re being observed, employees will act differently than they would on a daily basis. This can interrupt the natural flow of what you’re trying to observe, be it a specific process, a team collaborating, or a human-driven system. 

Full Circle

When we’re immersed in a culture that we’re unfamiliar with, we’re forced to observe. We must watch people and events to understand what is going on around us and analyze locations to know where we are. 

When visiting India for the first time, I watched people. As I watched, I realized that although they were doing tasks differently than how I would, they had different needs, different goals, and different obstacles. My way wouldn’t work for them, so I had to let go of my perspective and learn to see through theirs.

That lesson stuck with me. I use that mindset when I’m observing a problem or a task being done. I have to let go of “my way” and instead try to see things the way that other people would. I have to understand their challenges and their goals. I see how they do a task differently and try to understand the reasoning behind it. That’s what observation is all about.

The next time you’re traveling, you might just find your BA skills creeping into your personal life. But I have to admit, it can make the experience all the more enjoyable. 

– Written by Jeremy Aschenbrenner, The BA Guide

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