Business Rules Need Rules, Too!

We’ve spent the past few columns discussing the need for business rules when undertaking a strategic business process management (BPM) solution. In general, BPM solutions tend to focus on such areas as capturing workflows, routing transactions (i.e. work) from one step to the next, creating interfaces for people to interact with those transactions, integrating with back-end systems, and monitoring and reporting on business processes. BPM systems excel in integrating and moving work through a business process, but not necessarily in managing the actual decisions that occur at the individual steps. That’s where the idea of business rules comes in, and where there’s a place for business rules capabilities—either as part of the BPM solution, or as an add-on.

In the previous columns we talked about how business rules capabilities in a BPM solution can help organize and manage important business logic and decision points within the process. And going a step further, having a centralized and managed way to consolidate the business logic linked to a business process, is an excellent application for business rules.

For example, consider a new policy application process for an insurance company. An application for insurance is filed, gets entered into a business process via an agent, and starts moving through a predefined workflow/business process. BPM systems are great at doing that kind of work. But when something about the claim kicks it out of the automated flow—say it needs to be re-priced, or there needs to be a decision about what jurisdiction it’s in—into the hands of a insurance processor sitting at a desk, it’s a human who’s going to make the eventual decision on what happens next. One of the keys then, is how to enable that person to make the appropriate decision, or enable the process to make the decision for the person.

While all companies require some level of human involvement in their processes, it’s becoming more and more important to automate that assistance wherever possible. Enabling people to make decisions is good, but it also opens organizations up to potential problems with quality, and inconsistencies. That’s where business rules capabilities come in.

Business rules can be used to automate manual decision-making tasks, or simply to help people make faster, better decisions. For example, it is possible to define complex business rules that, given certain criteria, automatically trigger the sale of a stock. Alternatively, it’s possible to define similar rules that, instead of automating a sale, alert a broker to the event, suggesting that the stock be sold. In both cases, the rules are essentially the same - the difference is in the enforcement level. It’s often helpful to start using business rules in a guidance mode. Once you achieve comfort around the quality of the rules, it’s natural to evolve into a fully automated mode. In both cases, business rules provide consistency of behavior to help support ongoing process improvement.

In the last column, we mentioned one vendor providing a solution to this type of problem, Corticon Technologies, with its Corticon Decision Management Platform. Corticon has been selected by a number of BPM vendors as an embedded or pre-integrated feature of their platforms, and serves as a good example of how business rules can benefit BPM technologies. The solution gives business analysts full control over the management of decision-making logic, including: rule definition, rule modeling, rule analysis, understanding interrelationships, and rule testing (against actual business scenarios).

Business analysts start by defining sets of rules that capture the logic of individual decision-making activities. What’s important in this step is not only to make sure that the rule set addresses every possible scenario, but that it addresses every possible scenario uniquely, so that you don’t end up with conflicting rules for a specific situation. Once defined, the rules can be deployed (without programming) as standards-based XML or Java services.

Once defined, the business rules can be deployed into the process flow as a rules service, transforming what might have been manual, human-based decisions into a process step that’s guided by rules defined (and managed—that’s the critical part!) by the appropriate business analyst. In the case of Corticon, the rules are managed within a spreadsheet-like environment, making it possible for business analysts to manage the rules, and most importantly, to understand the impact of change.

One thing that’s important when trying to create (and deploy) this type of rules-based solution is to enable the business analyst to work easily with the rules, not only to create, modify, and delete them, but to also ensure their integrity. While I believe that Corticon has a good approach to enabling business rules in conjunction with BPM, they (like all vendors) still have some work to. The single-spreadsheet approach to rules within the Corticon system provides some unique capabilities in terms of being able to ensure the consistency of rules, and provide logical checks on how rules relate to (or supersede) one another, which can be particularly important in complex environments. But Corticon currently lacks a method for distributing management or ownership of some portion of those rules within a spreadsheet—instead of being able to distribute the control and management of select rules, a business analyst must have access to the entire spreadsheet. For complex or distributed business processes, being able to assign management of the business rules in a more granular fashion will be an important capability, and I would expect to see Corticon address this need in the future.

In the meantime, a good business rule system geared toward business analysts is better than none and certainly better than complex ones oriented toward consultants and IT developers.

In the past, many business rules system have been too complex and sophisticated for business users to easily manage the rules, and as a result, business rules systems have been relegated to large companies with sufficiently sophisticated IT staffs or consulting dollars to effectively deploy them. But for business rules to succeed today with BPM, the rules capabilities must be delivered in such a way that business analysts and power users can use them. If not, the rules capabilities will once again become the province of the IT department.

About the Author

David Kelly - With twenty years at the cutting edge of enterprise infrastructure, David A. Kelly is ebizQ's Community Manager for Optimizing Business/IT Management. This category includes IT governance, SOA governance,and compliance, risk management, ITIL, business service management,registries and more.

As Community Manager, David will blog and podcast to keep the ebizQ community fully informed on all the important news and breakthroughs relevant to enterprise governance. David will also be responsible for publishing press releases, taking briefings, and overseeing vendor submitted feature articles to run on ebizQ. In addition, each week, David will compile the week's most important news and views in a newsletter emailed out to ebizQ's ever-growing Governance community. David Kelly is ideally suited to be ebizQ's Governing the Infrastructure Community Manager as he has been involved with application development, project management, and product development for over twenty years. As a technology and business analyst, David has been researching, writing and speaking on governance-related topics for over a decade.

David is an expert in Web services, application development, and enterprise infrastructures. As the former Senior VP of Analyst Services at Hurwitz Group, he has extensive experience in translating the implications of new application development, deployment, and management technologies into practical recommendations for enterprise customers. He's written articles for Computerworld, Software Magazine, the New York Times, and other publications, and spoken at conferences such as Comdex, Software Development, and Internet World. With expertise ranging from application development to enterprise management to integration/B2B services to IP networking and VPNs, Kelly can help companies profit from the diversity of a changing technology landscape.

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About ebizQ

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