Business rules management: Tools, techniques for success

In past years, a business rules approach to programming—while controversial in wider circles—found footing with rules-oriented organizations such as insurance companies. Today, a growing number of organizations across industries are looking to implement business rules management (BRM).

BPM professionals, technology leaders and business executives are learning that BRM can facilitate agility, improve decision making, reduce costs and bolster business processes. As John Rymer, a Forrester Research vice president and principal analyst, puts it: “Business rules management is an under-appreciated set of products, an under-appreciated approach. It’s growing, thank goodness, because people can get some real value out of it."

But experts also caution that without the right strategy behind them, BRM technologies can turn into more of a headache than a help.

Although choosing the right BRM technology is certainly critical, that alone won't guarantee success. To truly harness the power of rules—and avoid common pitfalls—organizations need to focus on strategy, business-IT collaboration and the overall architecture.

BRM aims to automate decision and policy logic while enabling fast, easy changes to rules. By separating rules from code and storing logic where it is visible and easily modified, BRM tools allow business users to edit rules themselves, freeing up IT resources. The ability to change rules quickly and easily is, of course, critical for survival in an increasingly fast-changing economic climate.

Current BRM technologies range from basic business rules engines and BPM tools to complete business rules systems, also called business rules platforms. James Taylor, CEO of Decision Management Solutions, says the most common technology is a business rules system, designed specifically to manage decision-making logic.

Various BPM products and enterprise applications have some ability to deal with business rules, often by way of a user interface. However, experts say BPM suites fall short as one-stop solutions for both business rules and business process management.

“When [BPM products] say ‘business rules,’ they’re talking about just very simple environments for running scripts,” says Rymer, who coauthored several Forrester reports on business rules in 2011. “There’s no business rules management, no authoring tools, none of that. You can just write simple programs using scripting language.”

One Forrester report, entitled "Market Overview: Business Rules Platforms 2011," advises customers looking for business rules management to forgo BPM suites with built-in business rules platforms. Instead, the report recommends investing in a product focused solely on business rules.

Similarly, business rules engines, when used alone, lack a wholesale approach to rules management. “If the main draw of these tools that people use for business rules documentation is the business rules engine, people have discovered they can build that themselves,” says Kathy Long, a longtime BPM consultant who recently joined Shell Oil as BPM lead for its Exploration & Production's North America Onshore Division. “People don't need the tool just for the rules engine. What they need it for is how that rules engine works with a workflow tool."

The most popular business rules systems overcome this hurdle by providing a holistic approach to rules management, combining:

--A business rules engine with authoring tools for writing code using a business approach,

--Repositories to manage and change rules easily, and

--Management capabilities to enable control of the server where rules are living and executing from.

Today's business rules systems are ever more decision-oriented, able to both manage decision logic and build predictive analytic models, Taylor says. Another Forrester report, "The Future of Business Rules Platforms," points to a trend toward including event and decision management in BRM technologies. The report observes that customers are increasingly seeking to employ business rules to automate decision life cycles—and vendors are responding.

To many, this may come as no surprise. "The reason you buy a business rules management system or an equivalent technology—rather than simply using the business rules capability that’s in your business process tool or in your CRM system—is because you want to manage decisions," Taylor says. "It's hard to overstate how important it is to understand what those decisions are and what it means to make those decisions."

In some cases, determining which rules and decisions need to be managed is the biggest barrier to success.

Largely due to the ubiquity of rules, organizations struggle to identify which business rules are the decision-making logic behind critical business decisions. Without that knowledge, it's tough to formulate a focused strategy for where to use the business rules environment and how to measure success. The result: Organizations are left with ineffective rules that are challenging to maintain.

To avoid that pitfall, Kathy Long suggests a thorough top-down approach to business rules management. She points to her work on a current BPM project, where she is investing time in high-level process work to ensure solid BRM down the line. "We are starting at the top," says Long, who is also founder of Innovative Process Consulting. "When we have our processes redesigned and we're ready to go into more detail, that's when we'll start looking at the tools out there."

Establishing a collective view of processes and rules helps to determine which rules are most critical to the business—and, in turn, helps to align the organization's BRM strategy with business goals. A major roadblock for some companies, says Long, is that management is unwilling to take the time to do it right.

Even with the right BRM technology and a solid strategy, organizations often fall victim to organizational challenges. Business rules require input from both business and IT workers, calling for inter-departmental communication and collaboration.

Many organizations adopt BRM expressly to enable business workers to write or maintain rules. While a business rules system may help to shift that responsibility from programmer to businessperson, the key to success lies in culture change.

"As an organization, you have to really think about these organizational change aspects of the project and make sure that part of what you invest in is exercises that will build trust and collaboration between the two groups," says Taylor. "You have to make it an explicit objective of the project." It's crucial to ensure that job responsibilities are clearly identified and well-organized from the start.

Along the same lines, workers—especially business workers—need training and allotted time to learn the ropes of new BRM tools and technologies. To develop skills to get the best out of a business rules system, for example, organizations can offer continuing education on the best ways to express and manage rules in that particular environment.

The transition from writing code to writing business rules has been controversial among many IT organizations, where programmers are often more comfortable using programming language such as Java or C Sharp. Implementing BRM technologies to work successfully with preexisting applications—and preexisting thought processes—has also proved challenging for some businesses. The root of both problems is an unwillingness to break from tradition.

"It's a different metaphor, a different way of thinking about logic," Taylor says. "If [the business rules system] gets used as if it’s a programming language, people will write the rules the same way they wrote code, and they'll end up with rotten business rules. To be successful, you can’t just use it the way you’ve used other tools."

In addition to embracing a different way of writing rules, organizations need to align their preexisting applications and software to work smoothly with newly adopted BRM tools. This can be an obstacle, especially when separate tools are used for, say, performing analysis of customer habits. "Sometimes decisions come after an analysis that you're doing…on a person that’s on your website at that moment," explains Rymer. "The rules engine is how you determine what to offer them, but the analysis is done via something else, using other software. Integrating these pieces together can be a real challenge."

The solution goes back to having a top-down strategy. By paying attention to architecture—both business and data—before jumping into BRM, organizations can get a firm handle on integration points with other systems.

Good BRM is future-oriented: If everything is done right, it ensures that future changes to rules are easy to make. In many ways, this is a departure from how businesses have traditionally dealt with rules, with a focus on short-term projects and current problems. With an incremental approach, BRM allows for successful management of rules over time.

Kathy Long worries that this major benefit of BRM is sometimes overlooked. "If you do this right once, then the maintenance of it is almost nothing," she points out. "You just change the content but you don't have to change the structure of how people access the rules."

And when it comes to fast-paced business change, that sort of agility can give companies a powerful advantage over competitors. "Business change is so fast and so endemic," says Rymer. "Business rules really give you a shot at keeping up with it."

READER FEEDBACK: Does your organization use BRM? If so, how have you avoided or overcome the barriers described in this article? Let ebizQ's editors know. Contact Site Editor Anne Stuart at

About the Author

Stephanie Mann is the former assistant editor for ebizQ and its sister TechTarget site, SearchSOA. Before joining TechTarget, Stephanie was a contributing reporter and proofreader for a Boston-area weekly newspaper and an editorial intern at a Cambridge, Mass.-based publishing company. She has also worked for several nonprofits and as a freelance editor.

More by Stephanie Mann, Assistant Site Editor, ebizQ