05 October 2012

Business Rules – An Introduction

    "Business rules" seems to be a recurring theme these days – developers, DBAs, architects, business analysts, IT and non-IT professionals talk about the necessity to enforce them in data and semantic models, information systems, processes, departments or whole organizations. They seem to affect the important layers of an organization. In fact the same business rule can affect multiple levels either directly, or indirectly through the hierarchical or networked structure of causality it belongs to. When considered all the business rules, the overall picture can become very complex. The fact that there are multiple levels of interconnected layers, with applications and implications at macro or micro level, makes the complexity to fight back because in order to solve business-specific problems often you have to go at least one level above the level where the problems were defined, or to simplify the problems to a level of detail that allows to tackled.

    The Business Rules Group defines a business rule as "a statement that defines or constrains some aspect of the business" [1], definition which seems to be closer to the vocabulary of IT people. Ronald G. Ross, in his book Principles of the Business Rule Approach, defines it as "a directive intended to influence or guide business behavior" [2], definition closer to the vocabulary of HR people. In fact the two definitions are kind of similar, highlighting the constrictor or guiding role of business rules. They raise also an important question – can everything that is catalogued as constraint or guidelines considered as a business rule? In theory yes, practically there are constraints and guidelines that have different impact on the business, so depending on context they need to be considered or not. What to consider is itself an art, which adds up to the art of problem solving.

    Besides identification, neither the definition nor management of business rules seems easy tasks. R.G. Ross considers that business rules need to be written and made explicit, expressed in plain language, independent of procedures and workflows, built on facts, motivated by identifiable and important business factors, accessible to authorized parties, specific, single sourced, managed, specified by those people who have relevant knowledge, and they should guide or influence behavior in desired ways [2]. This summarizes the various aspects that need to be considered when defining and managing business rules. Many organization seems to be challenged by this, and it can be challenging when lacks business management maturity.

    Many business rules exist already in functional and technical specifications written for the various software products built on request, in documentation of purchases software, in processes, procedures, standards, internal defined and external enforced policies, in the daily activities and knowledge exchanged or hold by workers. Sure, the formulations existing in such resources need to be enhanced and aggregated in order to be brought at the status of business rule. And here comes the difficulty, as iterative work needs to be performed in order to bring them to the level indicated by R.G Ross. For sure Ross’ specifications are idealistic, though they offer a “framework” for defining business rules. In what concerns their management, there is a lot to be done within an organization, as this aspect needs to be integrated with other activities and strategies existing in an organization.

    Often, when an important initiative, better said project, starts within an organization, then is felt in particular the lack of up-front defined and understood business rules. Such events trigger the identification and elicitation of business rules; they are addressed in documentation and remain buried in there. It is also true that it’s difficult to build a business case for further processing of business rules. An argument could be the costs associated from decisional mistakes taken by not knowing the existing rules, though that’s something difficult to quantify and make visible in an organization. In the end, most probably an organization will recognize the value of business rules when it reached a certain level of maturity.

[1] Business Rules Group (2000) Defining Business Rules - What Are They Really? [Online] Available from: http://businessrulesgroup.org/first_paper/BRG-whatisBR_3ed.pdf
[2] Ronald G. Ross (2003) Principles of the Business Rule Approach. Addison Wesley. ISBN: 0-201-78893-4.

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