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SQEP: bringing a powerful concept from the nuclear industry into IT business analysis

Imagine a world where every IT project we work on is steered by the most capable hands. Where success is not just hoped for, but designed in through proven competence. In our world of business analysis, experience isn’t just about what you know, it’s about applying that knowledge effectively. In this article, I want to talk about how we can bring this vision to life.

A friend of mine designs nuclear submarines. Pretty cool, eh! One thing he mentioned to me is that there is a legal requirement from the Office for Nuclear Regulation which states:

It is essential that all personnel whose activities have the potential to impact on nuclear safety are suitably qualified and experienced (SQEP) to carry out their jobs.

Office for Nuclear Regulation

SQEP – Suitably Qualified and Experienced Person.

Nuclear engineers will then review a task and can say “I’m not SQEP’d for that.”

Note the balance between theory (qualified) and practice (experienced). To be successful as IT business analysts, we need both. In business analysis, many of the theoretical frameworks and techniques came from practice first anyway, and then just got written down and tidied up, so even the theory is mostly quite practical for us.

SQEP is a simple but very powerful concept, and one I think we need to explore more within IT if we are to keep delivering business benefits in an increasingly complex world.

What does it mean to be Suitably Qualified and Experienced when it comes to Business Analysis?

In today’s era, we are lucky as business analysts. The profession is now well-established. 

We can be suitably qualified: qualifications and training pathways are now well-established.

We have a professional body in the British Computer Society (BCS) that fully recognises the value of business analysis, and has comprehensive training and certifications pathways for us, plus a range of excellent books. We are not considered a poor relation to software developers, we are considered equals. 

Outside of the BCS, we also have the International Institute of Business Analysis™, which publishes the Business Analysis Body of Knowledge (BABOK®) and offers membership and other support.

Being suitably experienced is harder. Gaining high-quality experience is much less formalised within business analysis, and we need to get better as an industry at helping business analysts with that. Mentoring, buddying, giving business analysts early in their career a safe and structured way to practice and hone their skills… it’s patchy, and it needs more work. An important topic, but one that needs a fuller treatment than I can cover here, so we’ll set that aside for another time.

What are the advantages to business analysts and our projects of being SQEP?

Qualifications and experience aren’t a silver bullet, but they’re certainly two strong lines of defence against making mistakes that could be avoided. Two of the biggest benefits of being SQEP, for a business analyst, include:

Risk mitigation: We are better able to identify potential risks early, and create strategies to mitigate them, because we have both theoretical and practical knowledge of what has gone right and wrong in the past.

Decision making: We are more likely to make informed, accurate decisions to guide our projects when we have a strong grasp of the theory and the practice.

You tend to find that the people who are really good at picking up risks and problems early are usually very experienced, so those benefits tend to come more from experience than from qualifications alone. I’m told it’s the same in nuclear submarine engineering.

But there are also the benefits of:

Competency: We can effectively understand and address complex business needs.

Improved project outcomes: We have the tools and techniques, and the ability to apply them and tailor them.

Stakeholder confidence: People can have more confidence in our techniques, processes, and outcomes when they see that we are professionals who are verified as competent and capable.

Professional development: To remain SQEP’d in a fast-moving industry like IT, we need continuous learning and professional development to keep current with industry standards, new technologies, and best practices.

Understanding your own SQEP status as a business analyst: signs you might not be SQEP’d for a task

When faced with a new task, one of our first instincts as a business analyst (at least it is for me!) is to create a Terms of Reference (TOR), probably using something like BOSCARD. Although it’s a great technique, a TOR doesn’t consider SQEP status: we define the work, but we don’t explicitly evaluate whether we or our team are equipped with the skills and experience to carry it out well.

Of course, being suitably qualified and experienced depends very much on the task: some things we could be perfectly suited for, and others we are going to need reinforcements!

So what are the signs you might not be suitably qualified or experienced for a task? Some apply at the very start of a project, and some become apparent once you start the work.

Working on unfamiliar tasks: This is easy to identify if you think about it (which many people don’t). Do you have a gut feeling of unease? Do you feel like you’ve been thrown in at the deep end. Do you want to send up the Bat Signal for help? We all take on new challenges, especially in IT where no two situations are really the same; it’s essential for growth, but needs support and preparation.

Not using formal methodologies: If you’re using ad hoc methods and self-created methods, rather than established frameworks, it could be a sign of a blind spot: perhaps you aren’t aware of a body of knowledge that could guide you into doing a better job.

Negative feedback from stakeholders: If you are getting adverse comments and complaints from users, customers, internal stakeholders, this could be a sign that you aren’t SQEP’d for the task. Everyone makes the odd mistake, and some stakeholders are just difficult for their own reasons (often political or due to their own lack of SQEP status), but if it’s becoming more than just a one-off occurrence then step back and consider whether you have suitable qualifications and experience for what you’re being asked to do. You might need extra help, review, oversight, mentoring, guidance, or feedback from other colleagues.

Working with specialist industry standards that need an SME: Specialist areas like data compliance, cybersecurity, or legal requirements in certain industries, are always red-flag danger zones for business analysts, because we are unlikely to have detailed specialist knowledge in those areas, and we are highly likely to need to refer to SMEs (Subject Matter Experts). 

How do we address our own blind spots as business analysts?

Blind spots are difficult to detect when it comes to personal development; it’s Donald Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns, where you don’t even know what the things are that you don’t know! 

How can we detect our blind spots?

Discussion with others: Even the best of us can benefit from reviewing our work with other suitably qualified and experienced business analysts and other IT professionals: getting thoughts from those in other specialisms like project management can be very valuable. Reviews with very experienced colleagues, and also younger and more junior colleagues can reveal very different thoughts, views, and approaches, especially because younger colleagues are likely to have done their qualifications more recently, so might know more recent theory or at least have it come to mind more readily.

Formal reviews and walkthroughs: Anything formal is terrifying to many people these days, lest they be accused of not being agile, a fate worse than death! But actually, going beyond an informal conversation and going through a more rigorous review process with others can really help to bring in their knowledge and experience in a practical way.

Review with AI: These days, we can give ChatGPT or Claude (or any of the other AI models) an anonymised overview of our work, and ask it for the types of formal frameworks and techniques that could help us. This is a fairly new resource, but it can be very valuable, so we must make use of it.

Keep using the books for new projects: When you get a new project, or a new task, go back to the books to look for relevant techniques. It’s not enough to have the qualifications and the theoretical knowledge, you need to consistently apply it.

Continuous Professional Development (CPD): You don’t need to be taking qualifications all the time, but every 2 or 3 years it’s worth choosing a skill or a qualification and committing to it. It keeps the tools and techniques fresher in your head. Keep an eye on the latest industry publications to make sure you’re keeping up to date. The list of latest BCS publications is especially worth looking at, and many are linked to qualifications that you can take to formalise and show your knowledge.

Performance reviews: I didn’t like being on the receiving end of performance reviews, to the extent that I became a contractor so I never had to sit through one again! But I think I had a bad experience due to an inexperienced manager. But if performance reviews are structured to become more of a supportive conversation, and they are carried out by someone who understands the actual business analysis work that we do, they can be useful. Annual or semi-annual reviews aren’t good enough on their own, because they rarely come at the right time to intervene and improve the work, but at least they give an opportunity for you to flag concerns and ask for support.

Formal training plans: As a contractor I put together my own training plans, so I can stay current. But if you’re an employee, hopefully your company has a training budget for you, which to my surprise a lot of people don’t even use! If they’re offering it, take it! Many managers don’t really know what training is available, so you need to be proactive and go to your manager with suggestions. As a starting point, look at the BCS International Diploma in Business Analysis as a great starting point. They also do the BCS Advanced International Diploma in Business Analysis if you’ve been in the role for at least five years.

Identifying and improving the SQEP status of your team

Business analysts almost always work as part of a team of people with differing job titles and skills. You might be SQEP’d for the task, but if your team members aren’t then you need to realise this quickly, and then get people to take steps to rectify it, perhaps bringing in outside skills or expertise, even if only temporarily.

Here are some things you can do to help ensure your team is suitably qualified and experienced to help you deliver the business benefits your work is aiming for:

SQEP assessment in sprint planning: In sprint planning meetings or other work review meetings, it’s worth asking whether the team feels it has the skills and experience needed to do the work. 

SQEP assessment as part of sprint retrospectives: Routinely ask questions in retrospectives regarding SQEP: does the team feel we have the qualifications, training, and experience that we need in order to carry out this work? Are there any pieces of work where we don’t think we have the right skills? Is this work new to all of us, or is there someone in the team with specific direct experience? If there’s little experience, is there anyone else within the company we can ask for some support or guidance?

A no-blame culture of considering and supporting SQEP: It’s important that the team feels culturally able to call out areas where they don’t have the qualifications or experience needed to deliver the work well. People will just sit in silence and not reveal their concerns and weaknesses if they know they are going to be castigated rather than supported, so managers need to respond sympathetically and supportively when issues are identified.

SQEP assessments as part of project boards: In environments where formal project boards take place, such as under the PRINCE2 project management methodology, a review of upcoming work and whether the team feels (and actually is) SQEP’d for it can be very useful. Better to address issues up-front before making a bodge-job of the work!

SQEP assessment in early project stages: Business cases, project briefs, project initiation documents, should all at least give a passing regard to the skills, qualifications, and experience of the team that will be needed to deliver the work. This rarely seems to happen. At least if gaps can be identified they can be plugged earlier, especially if this requires a budget.

The missing ingredient in SQEP: Attitude Alignment and Mindset

Someone can be suitably qualified and experienced, but can still be reckless, lazy, sloppy, or complacent! 

We have to recognise that SQEP is a vital starting point, but it is not the end point.

There are also projects that we just don’t want to work on, sometimes for good reasons: I have turned down projects where I thought the company was disrespecting its customers by doing the work; there are industries such as gambling where I would not work; and I am not particularly keen on projects which are particularly “politically difficult” or where there are major stakeholders who actively don’t want the deliverables we are creating! 

We might therefore argue that a more rounded approach would be SQEAP: a Suitably Qualified, Experienced, and Attitudinally-Aligned Person. But that’s a bit of a mouthful!

Should IT practitioners be licenced or regulated? No, but we can still learn from industries which are!

In industries like medicine and law, practitioners have to be qualified, licenced, and regulated in order to carry out their work, but in IT of course we don’t that. (Interestingly, it seems that some specialisms like cybersecurity might be moving more in that direction, at least to the point where there are de facto standard essential qualifications, even if there is no formal regulation.)

There are downsides to formal regulation and registration of professionals though: it can stifle creativity, slow things down, create red tape, hinder the adoption of new technologies and techniques, and create groupthink and committees of wise elders who cannot be ignored or disobeyed even when they are wrong. None of this sounds ideal for IT.

However, in IT we can still learn from what other industries do, and we should. The nuclear industry is a great example because their outputs have to work properly — and so do ours!

Conclusion: business analysis and IT needs a professional rigorous, and disciplined approach to SQEP

As Stephen R. Covey said in The Seven Habits of Highy Effective People: begin with the end in mind. For us as business analysts, that end is the competent delivery of business benefits to satisfy our stakeholders.

In order for us to deliver those benefits, we need to be suitably qualified and experienced, and so do our teams. IT has had its Wild West era, but those days are gone now. We need professionalism.

Companies must to do more to formally understand and improve not only the qualifications of their IT staff (which is quite straightforward with training paths and the high quality certifications we have today), but also the experience of their staff and the cross-pollination of experience between teams (this is a lot harder to manage).

As individuals, we need to check our SQEP status for the work we are doing, and fill the gaps. Then we can be confident we are well-placed to meet the challenges that our daily work throws at us!

About the author

Ian Howlett has formally been a business analyst for 12 years, and was previously a software developer, with 24 years in the IT industry. He has a Computer Science degree, and an MBA with distinction from the University of Oxford. He has worked for some of the largest companies in the UK, for large US-owned companies, and for smaller companies too, in sectors including aviation, telecommunications, healthcare, media, and insurance. Outside of work he has a private pilot’s licence, plays the piano, and enjoys F1 motor racing, snooker, and reading.

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