Software complexity, integration drive business rules automation adoption

Business rules automation, once the pipe dream of artificial intelligence pioneers, has become a mainstream technology for business-side decision-making, according to John Rymer, a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research. Business rules technology adoption is growing because it removes some of the complexity out of interpreting policies in multiple-application systems.

In this interview, Rymer points to trends that are driving the business need for business rules technology and discusses new areas where it's being put to use, including decision management and event processing as well as dynamic case management.

ebizQ: What has been the primary driver for adoption of business rules automation and management?

John Rymer: First, it's the number of applications. Companies have sometimes hundreds of applications. Embedded in those applications are rules. They tend to be written in code, either in Java or in another programming language.

Code is hard to maintain, period. As you have more and more applications, every time there's a need to change a business rule or check to see that it was applied correctly or try to diagnose why a transaction went wrong, you'd basically have to go to dive into this code and figure out what does it actually do, and is it consistent, and is it accurate.

So a lot of people got into business rules management because they wanted to externalize the logic. Financial services and trading applications were the first adopters, because there were so many trading applications. Now adoption has spread because of lots of regulatory requirements. So the thrust was: "Let's pull the rules out of these applications, so that we can manage them better and manage them across applications."

With business rules, rather than code rules 10 times, you just have 10 applications call on a rules engine that provides a service.

ebizQ: What's the role of business rules automation and management in change management?

Rymer: The speed of software change is just unprecedented. Policy is usually what changes the most in applications, and policy gets translated into rules.

Think about all the new regulations, having to implement the Patriot Act in trading apps or having to implement [requirements of the] Sarbanes-Oxley [Act]. Then there are credit companies, like Visa and MasterCard, which change their regulations every six months. They have had to go in and make all these changes to code. They would just get finished implementing the new regulations and new ones would come out. It was ridiculous. They just couldn't keep up. No wonder, then, that there was a big push to externalize the logic so that it could be changed more readily and faster.

ebizQ: So the number of and frequent changes in applications have pushed business rules automation and management to the fore. Are there other drivers?

Rymer: The last driver is complex problems. The kinds of logic that people are trying to automate these days is just beyond what is productive to do in a programming language.

One of the cases that we would see routinely was in government departments and agencies. For example, in a state welfare office, citizens come in looking to get their benefits or learn about them. The state employees would have to navigate through multiple programs and multiple systems to figure out what the citizen is entitled to. There are all sorts of contradictions they have to get through and all kinds of interrelationships between these programs.

It's not surprising that there's a big thrust to automate away some of that complexity in eligibility systems. With rules automation in this type of case management, you end up with less fraud. Even better, the people who are trying to help citizens can actually help them much more readily.

ebizQ: What's the adoption and usage scenario for business rules automation and management today?

Rymer: About five years ago, you would only see large firms using business rules automation. Now firms in all kinds of industries, not just financial services and telcos, are using business rules technology—firms of various sizes and [levels of] technical sophistication, too. Business rules automation has become a mainstream technology. That's a big change.

The other big change that's happened is business experts are now using the tools and managing and creating rules. That's as it should be, because they're the experts. We eliminated the need to translate through a programmer. Vendor innovation has really broken through to put tools in the hands of business managers. Delegating rule maintenance and, in some cases, rule creation to business experts is a reality. I was very skeptical about this, but it's happening. That's a big change. And again, it's the kind of thing that will fan out in the market over the next few years. I think we'll see more and more of it.

ebizQ: Are you seeing business experts using business rules automation in BPM scenarios more, too?

Rymer: That's a direction the technology is taking, fanning out, particularly in decision management and event processing.

Decision management is not just managing rules, which are an expression of logic, but defining and managing decisions, and managing decisions as assets, the way today we manage data as an asset or we manage applications as an asset. We're managing decisions and trying to automate all of the steps that go into defining a decision and then executing it using an environment. And rules are always at the heart of that--always. They're the execution mechanism.

ebizQ: Along with being used more in decision management, is business rules automation being used more often in case management?

Rymer: Yes. When you're trying to automate case management, typically what you're trying to do is [deal with] the cases as kind of living documents, if you will. They're more than documents. They're kind of containers. And you're getting flows of information. You're getting records of activities. You're taking actions on cases.

Ultimately, in a way, case management is an integration problem. You're trying to represent all these activities and information and all this knowledge in a case container. But the more important thing is to understand what it means.

Case management is a big problem that a lot of companies have. So there's always been sort of a submarket, a market for case management solutions. I think what's going on is just that there's way more integration from way more sources, many of which one person doesn't control, that are now going into cases and have now become part of individual cases. As a result, the decision-making about when to do what with a case is getting more complicated. Deciding when to do what and then implementing the actions on the case is just becoming more complicated. So that's why we're seeing a new emphasis on it these days.

ebizQ: Could you give an example of a situation in which business rules automation can improve case management processes?

Rymer: Think again about social-services offices. Look at the number of cases that each individual is trying to manage. Of course, people are trying to automate so case workers can know about the arrival of a new piece of information and whether that new piece of information indicates a critical situation or that a follow-up should happen now.

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About the Author

Based near San Francisco, Jan Stafford is the executive editor for ebizQ as well as the Business Application & Architecture Media Group at ebizQ's parent company, TechTarget. Reach her at jstafford[at]

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