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Using a business rules engine to streamline decision-making

Get to know some of the details behind a business rules engine, particularly the automated approach it takes to handling critical, rules-based decisions.

Consider a common business scenario: A company onboards a new client, and subsequently assigns it to a dedicated customer service representative. To address that client's particular needs, the company uses predetermined criteria to evaluate its unique profile and route it to the representative best suited to the task.

An organization might make hundreds of these types of rules-based decisions as part of everyday business. While human workers can execute such decisions, the increasing volume and complexity of data-based decisions make it prudent to find software that can eliminate the risk typically associated with a reliance on manual processes. This is where employing a business rules engine (BRE) may provide organizations a much-needed support system for rules-based decision management.

How does a BRE work?

Business rules engines are software-based tools that automate decision-making in situations where there are specific rules, such as government regulations or organizational security policies.

A BRE operates via a relatively straightforward input/output mechanism: It gets notified of the need for a decision via sets of input data, evaluates that data against pre-programmed rules, and then delivers the information it derives in the form of a decision.

"You provide them with an input, and they provide you with an output, with the process being logic based on the rules that have been specified," said Cole Cioran, who leads the application development and portfolio management practice at Info-Tech Research Group. "A rule is just a decision about how you're going to respond to a certain input."

BREs rely on data-transfer models to carry out these decision-making processes. Some of the specific models used by BREs include:

Benefits of BREs

BREs provide several benefits, notably the ability to make decisions faster, provide a system that enforces compliance with necessary business rules and streamline the process for updating those rules. Whether an organization realizes it or not, the shift away from manual decision management can provide a huge operational advantage. A BRE can even help clean up the back end of applications with rules-based logic embedded in its code.

"A lot of organizations underestimate the efficiencies they can gain by taking the decisions out of the hands of people or even the code of systems," said Michael zur Muehlen, an associate professor of information systems at Stevens Institute of Technology and an expert on business project management.

To start, organizations frequently struggle to identify and track all the times and processes that involve complex, rules-based decisions. As a result, business executives and department managers may have trouble ensuring that both employees and applications follow rules consistently, and that any changes to the rules are announced clearly and applied in every single circumstance.

Furthermore, BREs give organizations a consolidated view of their rules and decision-making history. This provides a centralized point to manage all software-related business rules in general, rather than managing rules through each individual application. This consolidation allows enterprise executives to quickly change and update rules as needed, making them more responsive to changing conditions.

"If you have a rule uniquely configured in all your different systems, and then there's a rule change, you have to go find all of them to change them," Cioran explained. "A BRE allows you to quickly manage that change … and that makes you more agile."

BREs and business rules management systems

Organizations often integrate BREs with an existing business rules management system (BRMS) to define, deploy and execute business rules and decision logic. A BRMS typically acts as an enterprise-level management platform for organizational policies, equipped with faculties such as:

  • high-level rule authoring tools;
  • a graphics-based user interface;
  • a rules repository with version control and rollback capabilities;
  • rule-testing and simulation functions; and
  • logs and records of decisions made over time.

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