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Editor’s Note: In this Q & A, ebizQ’s Peter Schooff speaks with business-rules specialist Ronald G. Ross on the benefits and challenges of combining business rules and BPM. Ross is co-author, with Gladys S.W. Lam, of Building Business Solutions: Business Analysis with Business Rules (Business Rule Solutions, 2011). He is also co-founder and principal of Business Rule Solutions LLC and executive editor of BRCommunity.com and its flagship publication, Business Rules Journal. This Q & A, excerpted from a more in-depth podcast, has been edited for length, clarity and editorial style.

ebizQ: To start, what’s the current state of business rules management?
Ross: It’s quite exciting. A lot of people are recognizing business rules as one of the best opportunities their companies have for things like improving service, customizing their products, achieving business agility, and, in many cases reducing what has become a crushing burden of maintenance. For IT professionals, I think they increasingly see business rule management systems as something very desirable in their skill sets, so it’s taken root in the professional community over the last, especially, three to five years.

But I think what excites us the most is the opportunity to put the business back in charge of really how the business operates and what business policies and business practices are followed in day-to-day activity. And, of course, there's often been a big gap between what the business wants and what IT provides. This is a way to bridge that gap and put the business people in control.

Now I'm always very careful to point out that business rules are no silver bullet. But we have looked at enough cases, we've heard a lot at conferences, we publish cases--so the successes are proven. There’s really, at this point, no reason for any organization to hold back from business rules. They should be really looking at it hard as a way to improve and to complement what they're doing in business processes.

ebizQ: How can business rules management complement BPM?
Ross: Essentially, the main benefit is that by expressing and managing business rules separately from the business processes, from business process models, you can make those models dramatically simpler. [For example,] one of our clients in the pharmaceutical industry, for example, was able to reduce a 28-page business-process model to just four pages. We've seen that result time and time again; we've heard many people talking about it. It’s just a case in which the knowledge of how to do it needs to be more broadly disseminated.

The benefits in doing that come in a whole variety of ways. But chief among them: You get better communication with business people if the business process models are that much simpler. You get a much clearer understanding of what the core business transformers are, which is essential to good business process modeling. And it also gives you a framework, a very innovative means to develop highly customized, highly specialized interactions with customers and suppliers and parties on the outside.

So in short, we like to say treating business rules as a first-class citizen—that’s the way the Business Rule Manifesto puts it--is really key to achieving business agility.

ebizQ: What are the challenges involved in integrating business rules into BPM?
Ross: First, I like to be careful about using the word “integration” or “integrating” when you talk about business rules and BPM. More to the point, the first step you need to take is actually segregating the business rules so they're not embedded in the flow of the business process model or buried in the documentation of task and so on. Really, business rules need to be treated as a distinct thing from the business processes.

But, to clarify: Obviously, these things do have to come back together in operation or in execution. What we like to say is that coming back together, which you might think of as integration or reintegration, should only happen as late as possible. In classical terms, that would be called “late binding.” So we're really thinking about late binding as the way to go with respect to the most effective way to integrate business rules and BPM.

Now looking at the question more broadly in terms of challenges: Ironically, the first thing that tends to be hard for people who don't have a lot of background in the area is just simply understanding the difference between a business process model and the business rules. It's not something that IT, or IT methodologies, or requirements methodologies typically have encouraged them to do or to think about. You’d really be surprised how many people have trouble seeing it at first.

Why is that? Again, traditional IT methodologies have never singled out business rules as “a first-class citizen,” so we're very used to thinking in procedural terms rather than declarative terms. Business rules should always be expressed declaratively rather than procedurally.

Another reason is that a lot of professionals intuitively understand what business rules are about. That’s a good thing. There’s nothing wrong with that. But based on all the improvements in understanding and the advances in business rules, especially in the last 15 years or so, the people need to take the next step in refining that understanding. It’s critical to go out and do the reading and do the training to get into the proper mindset for business rules.

Another thing that's really helped, and will continue to help, is the relatively new focus in the last three or four years on operational business decisions and decision analysis. If you can capture and encode that decision logic in the form of decision rules and decision tables, then you can offload it from the processes, which is yet another way to simplify the process models. What you get in the bargain then is some true business agility: You’re not hard coding those rules into the task or into the processes.

ebizQ: What types of businesses are you seeing that have taken this next step of integrating BPM and business rules?
Ross: Historically, I'd have to say that the businesses who have done the most to try to exploit business rules are those industries where the product is more abstract in nature, rather than tangible. We’re talking about [industries such as] insurance and insurance policies, or financial services and financial products, rather than widgets or automobiles. If you think about industries like insurers and financial products, their entire products are, essentially, all definitions and rules. That's a very good way to think about it.

Close behind them are healthcare and government. Government, in particular, is heavy on policy and sometimes not as quite as heavy on process. For example, think about taxation. What is taxation except definitions and rules? It’s a natural fit in those kind of cases. Another area where we've seen a lot of activity, especially recently, is on the Internet. If a retailer goes online, it’s almost sure that they're going to want to organize and run their Web-based business based on rules. There's really no other way to scale it, to tailor it, to customize it to the degree that they desire without a rule-based approach.

Now having said that, I have to tell you that we've had clients over the last 12 to 15 years in almost any industry you can think. So I’d say that business rules apply to just about anywhere that BPM does.

Editor’s Note: To hear more of Ross’s thoughts on business rules and BPM—including his detailed predictions for what’s coming next—listen to the full podcast.

READER FEEDBACK: Have you used business rules to enhance your BPM initiatives? If so, ebizQ editors would like to hear about your experience. Contact Site Editor Anne Stuart at editor@ebizq.net.



About the Author

Peter Schooff is a former contributing editor for ebizQ, where he also managed the ebizQ Forum for several years. Previously, Peter managed the database operations for a major cigar company, served as writer/editor of an early Internet entertainment site and developed a computer accounting system for several retail stores. Peter can be reached at pschooff@techtarget.com.

More by Peter Schooff

About ebizQ

ebizQ is the insider’s guide to next-generation business process management. We offer a growing collection of independent editorial articles on BPM trends, issues, challenges and solutions, all targeted to business and IT BPM professionals.

We cover BPM standards, governance, technology and continuous process improvement, as well as process discovery, modeling, simulation and optimization, among many other areas. We follow case management, decision management, business rules management, operational intelligence, complex event processing and other related topics. We closely track important trends such as the rise of social BPM, mobile BPM and BPM in the cloud. We also explore BPM’s use in functional areas, such as supply chain and customer management, and in key verticals, such as financial services, health care, insurance and government.

ebizQ's other BPM-oriented content includes podcasts, webcasts, webinars, white papers, a variety of expert blogs, a lively online forum and much more.

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