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Consistency is critical in a business rules management system

As much as business rules management can help an organization streamline operations, a general misunderstanding of business rules is hurting efforts. Steve Weissman explains why.

How can you ensure that your efforts to improve business rules management actually take hold and improve your processes? Steve Weissman explores how employing a business rules management system can help when implemented properly.

If your organization is typical, you begin every year with a renewed commitment to work better, smarter or cheaper. Many times, this means seeking to apply business rules in as automated a fashion as possible -- and in many of these instances, it means ending the year with the vague sense of disappointment as your workflow ends up not improving by very much.

There are many reasons these best of intentions foundered on the rocks of reality. From the rules perspective, the most common cause is a general lack of understanding of just what business rules are. This inevitably leads to unrealistic expectations about what electronically managing and applying them can do, and disenchantment with the entire exercise.

Five inconvenient truths

Avoiding confusion around business rules requires comprehending a few important but oft-overlooked truths:

  1. Business rules are not goals or benchmarks for success. They are simply rules.
  2. Business rules are not business processes. However, they are a significant part of determining how efficiently a process is executed.
  3. Business rules are not new and have existed long before computers did.
  4. Business rules govern processes so business goals can be achieved. They are instruction sets, nothing more.
  5. Business rules management systems are not a technology. Rather, they are the practice of creating and automatically applying rules to processes.

These clarifications are important because swinging-and-missing on them can immediately divert you from achieving either of business rules management's twin goals: to enable rapid process execution and to achieve consistency across the enterprise.

The first of these is at the center of most workflow and business process management (BPM) initiatives, where most organizations focus their energies. The second, however, is the most crucial -- especially for larger organizations in which different departments can make contradictory decisions regarding the same issues. Because of its broad scope, pursuing this goal can be very tough to see through to success. Many organizations do not even recognize it as an issue in the first place and, even if they do, still may not decide to attempt it at all.

Two ways inconsistent rules are costly

Avoiding confusion around business rules requires comprehending a few important but oft-overlooked truths.
Steve WeissmanThe Holly Group

We've all been on the receiving end of conflicting answers when it comes to seeking purchase credit or preferred pricing on cable TV service or the like. As frustrating as this can be for us as customers, it can be anathema to companies. Just imagine how much money gets given away because the decision criteria either are not identical from one service rep to another or are being ignored altogether. This can result in both customer churn and employee turnover, neither of which is good for business. The latter, especially, can complicate the rules equation by wreaking havoc on lines of decision authority.

A business rules management system can mitigate these circumstances by regulating the variability out of certain decisions, but only if it is approached with consistency in mind right from the get-go. Otherwise, you may have uniformity within individual process silos, but not across the company.

Four major tricks of the trade

As you might imagine, there are many ways to skin this breed of process cat, and the necessary details must reflect the particulars of a specific organization. However, there are several broad tricks of the trade that we use as effective "soup starters."

  1. Manage your business rules in a centralized repository that all your processes reference. This way each rule can be updated in one place as necessary, and every process can leverage the latest version as a matter of course.
  2. Express your rules in something close to plain language. This is typically accomplished using IF/THEN/ELSE statements, and the idea is to enable designated people from around organization to create new rules or modify existing ones without having to learn any specialized code.
  3. Develop and track process metrics. You should be doing this anyway, but it's especially useful to gauge the impact of changes made to business rules. Similarly, it can be enormously helpful to create models or run simulations to test the potential impacts before they affect actual operations.
  4. Maintain the "big picture." You'll almost certainly discover areas that are not covered by rules, and sometimes this isn't a bad thing. Tightly governing the flow of each component of a complex process sounds like a good idea, but if that micro control ends up slowing the process down, it may not be worth it.

This last point brings us back to where we started, as it illustrates one way rules are misunderstood and can lead to unrealistic expectations. Simply having rules isn't the answer; instead, organizations need to implement rules that are well considered and applied consistently across the enterprise. That's when disenchantment can turn into delight.

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