May 6, 2019

Understanding Your Data Needs: Should Your Company Hire a Business Analyst or a Data Analyst?


In the digital age, companies are scrambling to make the most of the treasure trove of big data at their fingertips. However, it’s not always clear what skills a company’s employees need in order to make that happen, especially if the hiring managers and recruiters in charge of talent acquisition don’t have data analytical skills themselves and can’t clearly define the need.

As a Harvard Business Review article puts it, “We find that senior executives often don’t have a clear sense of what’s needed from the analysis and, therefore, don’t ask questions that lead to helpful answers.”

If the requirements of the role aren’t clearly defined, recruiters must essentially guess what skills are needed and how to find the best candidates with those skills. It is all too easy to guess wrong.

Business Analysts vs. Data Analysts

Recruiting better data talent starts with understand exactly what different kinds of data professionals do. Toward that end, it may be helpful for recruiters and hiring managers to familiarize themselves with two common types of data professionals: business analysts and data analysts.

A business analyst fixes things and often uses technology to do it. They are tasked with improving business processes like productivity, output, and distribution efficiency. Their key responsibilities include interpreting trends in sales and purchasing and making predictions about future consumer behavior. They work closely with other departments within the organization to tackle major initiatives, which may include:

– Establishing the objectives and scopes of business and IT systems
– Identifying multifaceted organizational problems and devising data-driven solutions
– Conducting statistical analyses, surveys, training workshops, and tests
– Recommending changes to processes, personnel, or product offerings to make internal departments more efficient
– Inventing new systems or altering existing ones
– Making specific IT recommendations and supporting implementation
– Acting as a liaison between management and technical developers

Business analysts come from various backgrounds, including business administration, finance, management, or IT. They apply their specific expertise to solve business problems from a big-picture perspective. In an interview with, business analyst Chris Hunter named “the ability to think outside the box” and “the ability to conduct quality research” as key traits of successful business analysts.

“Overall, the ability to analyze — understanding, extracting, and piecing together data necessary for your solution — will make or break any business analyst,” Hunter noted.

On the other hand, a data analyst collects, processes, and performs statistical analyses of data. They discover how data can be used to answer questions and solve problems. Their key responsibilities may include:

– Working with IT teams, management, and/or data scientists to determine organizational goals
– Mining data from primary and secondary sources
– Cleaning and pruning data to discard irrelevant information
– Analyzing and interpreting results using standard statistical tools and techniques
– Pinpointing trends, correlations, and patterns in complicated data sets
– Identifying new opportunities for process improvement
– Providing concise data reports and clear data visualizations for management
– Designing, creating, and maintaining relational databases and data systems
– Triaging code problems and data-related issues

When asked data analyst Al Melchior what kind of person is best suited for a data analyst role, he emphasized the importance of curiosity and creativity. Melchior also noted it is “important to have a strong grounding in statistical methods, but even more critical is having the desire to find better explanations for whatever phenomena you are studying.”

“Being able to convey your findings — whether it’s to an audience of readers or a small team of executives making business decisions — is also a key to success,” he added.

Business analysts and data analysts alike can help organizations make use of data to improve business processes and their bottom lines. Armed with the above knowledge, recruiters and hiring managers should have an easier time identifying which kind of talent they need and which kinds of candidates have the right skills for the role.

Colleen O’Day is a contributing writer for

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Colleen O'Day is a digital PR manager and supports community outreach for 2U Inc.'s social work, mental health, and speech pathology programs. Find her on Twitter: @ColleenMODay.