Business Analyst vs. Data Analyst: Analyzing These Commonly Confused Careers
If you take the job titles by their face value, you could guess that “business analyst” means someone who analyzes businesses and “data analyst” means someone who analyzes data. But wouldn’t a data analyst still be part of a business? Wouldn’t a business analyst still use data?
So what differentiates these careers? What do these professionals do? If you’re wondering about the role of a business analyst versus a data analyst for how it might work into your own future—you’re looking in an optimistic direction.
“It’s no secret that the amount of data in the world is growing exponentially, and this greatly applies to the data that companies work with,” says Artem Melnikov, senior business analyst at MightyCall. Melnikov says companies today understand that decisions should be made on various kinds of data to supplement a manager’s subjective point of view and experience.
“This leads to decision-making known as data-driven and data-informed,” Melnikov explains. And in the hope that data-based decisions will lead to smarter, more efficient and more lucrative choices, companies across all industries are taking note.
It’s safe to say that both business analysts and data analysts will have a relationship with data into the foreseeable future. But learning a bit more about what these two job titles represent and how they compare can help you understand the way companies navigate the new data capabilities of today.
If you are interested in finding your career somewhere in this arena, more details can help you choose a path forward. We combined research with expert advice to flesh out these commonly confused careers.
Business analyst vs. data analyst: Differentiating the job descriptions
Business analysts conduct studies and evaluations, design systems and procedures, conduct work simplification and measurement studies to assist a business in operating more efficiently and effectively, according to the Department of Labor.1 Their goal is to analyze aspects of a company, often using data sets, to find vital information and suggest improvements, fix problems and move the company’s operations forward.
As you can probably imagine—that general goal can take on a myriad of tasks depending on the company. “I work for a creative agency so my role as a business analyst is extremely unique,” says Holland Martini, director of data strategy at Grey Group. “My data sets include typical metrics such as sales, spend and media activity, but get partnered with more eccentric data points such as fashion trends, cultural biases, food habits, etc. …”
Jeff Neal, business analyst for The Critter Depot, has unique tasks and challenges based on his company as well. “We ship live insects across the country, so I’m always churning through data, to determine the probability of ‘transit survival’.” Neal’s business analysis often involves finding patterns in what might cause insects to perish during transit, to come up with options on how to avoid or mitigate those scenarios.
While your employer or client’s specific needs could be all across the charts, business analysts usually need to rely on lots of critical thinking to draw meaningful conclusions from the data they have and help the business make choices.
Martini explains that the importance of business analytics is rising. “Even architects and fashion designers are no longer willing to make decisions based solely on gut reaction to trends,” Martini says. “Everyone wants a smart proof point that substantiates their idea, and this has drastically expanded the market.”
Data analysts tend to lean a little closer to tech and mathematics. “In the purest sense, data analysis is a quantitative discipline—hard numbers and statistics flow into conclusions,” says Micah Melling, director of data science at Spring Venture Group.
Melling explains that data analysts must first define the purpose of the analysis they are performing, being mindful of the bigger picture. Then, they gather the data they believe relevant, which requires technical skill sets. “We are often tasked with cleaning the data and placing it into a usable format as well,” Melling says. “After this point, we can dive into applying statistical models and developing visualizations.”
“At the end of the day, my role is clarity—a concise summary of key learnings backed by data,” Melling says. In this phase of the role, business analysis and data analysis basically cross over. Both career avenues are culling information to help their businesses thrive.
What skills are needed to be a business analyst vs. data analyst?
We combed through job postings from the last year to show you the most in-demand skills for each of these job titles to help you compare and contrast their attributes.
Business analyst skills:2
- Business analysis
- Business process
- Project management
- SQL (structured query language)
- Communication skills
Data analyst skills:2
- Data analysis
- Data quality
- Data management
You can see that top skills for data analysts in the last year included more systems and software familiarity, while top skills for business analysts lean toward business awareness. But our experts say these roles really do cross over frequently—even to the point of becoming indistinguishable for many professionals.
After all, many business analysts will need to learn more than one or two technical skills to make their work happen. And data analysts often need to understand the businesses they serve and the purpose of the data they are finding. “Both the business analyst and data analyst roles are pretty similar—to crunch numbers and discover patterns and relationships,” Neal says. “The titles are often used interchangeably.”
How do you choose between becoming a business analyst versus a data analyst?
If you are looking at the possibility of a career as a business analyst or data analyst—you might be making decisions early on in your education that would better complement one or the other. The vast majority of both business analyst and data analyst job postings asked for applicants with a bachelor’s degree.2
So how can you choose which career to pursue? “While the roles often overlap, the advice I would give is to decide how creative you want to be with your insights,” Martini says. “A business analyst is responsible for taking data and making insightful and creative actions to drive business, which often mixes the arts and sciences.”
“A strictly data analyst is responsible for finding unique ways to solve a problem,” Martini says. “Both are fun!”
Jason Morphett, technical director of Purple Toolz, points out that many business analysts will have roles centered on finance, and many data analysts will have programming-heavy jobs. “I would advise anyone trying to decide between business and data analytics to consider where their interests lie,” Morphett says. “In all cases, be one step ahead of the game and get familiar with data science.”
If you see yourself craving creative opportunity and out-of-the-box thinking, maybe business analysis will offer more flexibility with that. And if you crave the hard-and-fast parameters of finding information in the most unbiased way possible, Melling says data analysis can offer that.
“At times, data analysts need to focus solely on the technical side and temporarily throw out interpretability. Intellectual honesty is paramount. This mindset allows you to dig into a challenging problem and find a solution free of constraints.”
Choosing a side—for now
“The appetite for data analysis know-how will only increase,” Melling says. “In particular, versatility of skills will be in demand. Being able to move from technical practitioner to storyteller represents a comparatively rare skills set.”
As data analysts supplement their skills with business acumen, and business analysts branch into deeper technical ability—these two titles might very well merge into one career. While the blurred lines between these job titles might be a little frustrating for those who like black-and-white answers, the good news is that there are multiple viable paths into these roles.
For instance, a Business Management program that incorporates data analysis fundamentals can give you a broader understanding of business operations. On the flip side, a Data Analytics program that dives deep into the technical skills used for advanced data analysis paired with business experience could be an effective combo as well.
No matter your initial leanings for how to get there, you’ll want to learn more about the role of a data analyst before making a decision. Our article “What Does a Data Analyst Do? Exploring the Day-to-Day of This Tech Career” can help shed some light.
1Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, [accessed July, 2019] www.bls.gov/oes/. Information represents national, averaged data for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. Employment conditions in your area may vary.
2Burning-Glass.com (analysis of 85,690 data analyst job postings and 192,308 business analyst job postings, Jul. 01, 2018 - Jun. 30, 2019).
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