My old colleague John Parkinson had a nice column over on CIO Insights today - "How to Manage Application Enhancements". There's some good general purpose advice about how to manage application enhancement but on the second page John touches on some areas where decision technologies, especially business rules, can really help. John says:
"First, recognize that a lot of these requests are for things that users could do for themselves if they had the right tools, a little training and support and a "clean" information environment. Changes to reports, even changes to web pages and transaction screens can often be handled by the requestor, if the information management environment is robust, the platform architecture is solid and the right tools are deployed."
Absolutely right. When it comes to applications business users don't want to wait in a long queue for their day to day changes in particular. One of the right tools for this is the use of a business rules management system to manage application logic. The use of a business rules approach makes the logic more accessible to the business users and allows them to change it independently of the rest of the application for many kinds of changes. Examples include changes to marketing program logic, retention offers, pricing, bundling etc. Be warned, however, that business users don't want to change code, they want to change their business so IT will as John says need to make some invests in a suitable platform.
"IT departments don't seem to want to take this route very often (at least I have seen a great deal of resistance to it) because the necessary cleanup efforts almost always require medium or large changes to be made, and there's no budget for such efforts (or willingness to admit that they are needed)."
My experience also. However, many customers find that the investment in a business rules platform pays for itself very quickly - a bank in the UK for instance felt it recouped its investment in just 6 months through savings in maintenance costs and improved decisions while the DMV here in California reckoned to save 13,000 hours of maintenance work a year(I presented on this at a recent conference too). Getting IT to buy into this approach can be hard but mostly, once they see how many of the annoying updates are being done by the users and how much more time they have to focus on meaty projects, they come to like it. As John says:
"But the productivity gain from an effective self-service strategy is significant, and the improvement in customer satisfaction equally worthwhile. In addition, doing some things themselves soon teaches users to assess the real value of everything they ask for."
So if you have a business users don't want to change code how do you tell where to apply business rules. Well John has this to say:
"Secondly, many small changes cluster around specific sections of application code, so an investment in improving these code sections to aid understanding pays big dividends. Application understanding is the largest single engineering task associated with making a small change to an installed application. Over time, the engineering effort can be reduced by up to half."
And I would agree. This is the kind of application logic that can be effectively replaced by a business rules approach to net a great return. Rather than just understanding and cleaning up this code, you can replace it with a decision engine that can be maintained by the business. In an era where agility matters more and more, this could be the difference between growth and failure.