Is the cholesterol of enterprise business rules clogging your business arteries?

Learn how a business rules management system (BRMS) can help

Many business initiatives fail today not because they weren't implemented correctly but because they weren't implemented fast enough. The sluggishness in the IT response time to business can be attributed to many factors. One of them is the sheer complexity and volume of enterprise business rules. Managing complex enterprise business rules is a collaborative team effort between business and IT.

In this article, you'll learn how to use Business Rules Management Systems (BRMS), such as WebSphere® ILOG BRMS, strategically to develop leaner, manageable IT systems that promote agility and improve time to market.

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Prashant P. Atgur (prasha@sg.ibm.com), BPM Solution Architect, IBM

Prashant Atgur photoPrashant P. Atgur has over 12 years of experience in architecting and implementing technology solutions involving SOA, BPM and BRMS. He is a Certified Enterprise Architect and has lead many initiatives including IT transformation, application rationalization and enterprise architecture. He has worked closely with business leaders and executive IT teams in shaping IT strategy for the enterprise. Prashant can be reached via email prasha@sg.ibm.com.



Ernese Norelus (ernese@sg.ibm.com), Consulting IT Specialist, IBM

Ernese Norelus photoErnese Norelus is an IBM Certified Consulting IT Specialist and WebSphere Services Practice Leader with the IBM ASEAN Software Services team in Singapore. In this role, he consults with clients to help define IT solutions to complex business problems. He has more than 13 years of IT experience. You can contact Ernese at ernese@sg.ibm.com.



17 August 2011

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Introduction

Business demands agility and speed to market. Today's ever more complex IT systems and associated business policies form a central piece of any IT system. Changes in business policies are driven by market conditions. These changes have to be absorbed and presented to the end user in the fastest possible way by the underlying IT systems.

Traditional IT systems and related processes have fostered the culture of the "IT Black Box" to the business, as illustrated in Figure 1. In our view, that culture is inappropriate and ineffective in dealing with today's challenges and is, therefore, doomed. Part of the problem is that tools in the past have been very compartmentalized and isolated. IT used development and deployment tools (like Eclipse, JBuilder, NetBeans), but business teams had no reason to use them. Instead, business teams used a set of tools that were not in the purview of IT.

Figure 1. IT Black Box
IT Black Box

In this article, we'll look at a Business Rules Management System (BRMS), which is a platform to collaboratively manage enterprise business rules thoughout their life cycle. A BRMS has set of tools and a governing process that fosters a team culture between business and IT. It busts the myth and culture of the IT Black Box and improves business and IT alignment.

The dynamics of business and its environment are more demanding than ever before. The criticality of early mover advantage is so high that winner takes all, and there is nothing left for second winner. Corporate and IT systems agility is not a luxury, but a necessity. The ability for companies to respond swiftly to moving market dynamics in many cases depends upon how quickly IT can respond to a trigger.

Imagine a man diagnosed with very high cholesterol. His physician advises him to immediately follow a strict diet and exercise plan to avoid the risk of heart-related diseases. This person then strategizes about how he can implement the recommended changes in his lifestyle. Assuming he is disciplined and religiously follows the recommended plan, within a few months he should see considerable improvements in his health condition, lowering his risk of potential heart disease. How quick was his strategy implementation once he decided what needed to be done? Now imagine that there was a delay of a few months between his strategy formation and his actual implementation of the strategy. His risk of heart disease would likely increase significantly during that time.

Applying that analogy to corporations today, we see that many organizations are in a high risk zone in terms of risky customer accounts, burgeoning IT budgets, high defect ratios, and more. In many cases, they know what needs to be done, but due to the time it takes for the organization's machinery to respond to the change, they may not be able to achieve the desired results. Organizations relying heavily on IT usually consider IT one of the bottlenecks in this machine. It is that slow-moving part that causes delay in bringing an organization's health back on track.

The issue is deeper than is often realized. IT teams seem to work harder and harder, but their responsive to business deteriorates day by day. The business initiatives that demand quick response times and are geared towards gaining competitive advantage lose steam when execution is delayed.

In this article, we'll examine some of the key factors that can slow down the IT response time to business. We'll also explore in depth the contribution of enterprise business rules in improving the issues of IT as a bottleneck. Finally we'll demonstrate how a BRMS, such as WebSphere ILOG JRules, can be strategically used to improve IT agility, speed to market and fulfill the needs of today's businesses.

This article will be useful to business teams that sit in between customers and IT, including business analysts, IT management and senior management, solutions and technology architects, evangelists, early adopters of new technologies.


What are enterprise business rules?

Enterprise business rules describe the operations, definitions and constraints that apply to an enterprise. They can contain if-then decisions, constraints, complex processes, and policies, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Enterprise business rules
Enterprise business rules

As depicted above, enterprise business rules comprise:

  1. A set of business policies, which are the logic by which business operates. These policies are typically depicted in if-then-else policy statements.
  2. Constraints or mandates that must be adhered to while doing business.
  3. Complex processes and process flows that dictate the order in which things must be done to achieve the desired business outcome.

Let's take a look at each of these business rule components in detail.

If-then decisions

A business rule is a high-level statement that describes, constrains, or controls some aspect of your business. These high level statements must be then formalized into if-then statements to make them precise and clear.

The process of capturing rules consists of formalizing the vocabulary required to express the policy as a conceptual object model and representing the logic of the business policy as if-then statements.

For example, these rules might be as simple as the calculation of BMI (Body Mass Index) and FFM (Fat Free Mass); the BMI is a simple index of weight-for-height that is commonly used to classify underweight, overweight and obesity in adults.

When the vocabulary has been created, the above business policy about BMI and FFM can be implemented with the following business rule in JRules, as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3. Sample rule
Sample rule

Complex processing

Complex processes are essentially the hard rules to conceptualize. In today's market, conditions demand that companies be more responsive and efficient in managing complex processes across organizational boundaries because of their multiple systems. Business decisions focus and organize business rules, effectively applying them to concrete business problems. Understanding the business decisions being made ensures the right business intelligence is collected and analyzed.

Constraints

A constraint is a restriction on the degree of freedom you have in providing a solution. Constraints are documented in a similar manner to business rules and technical requirements. Many business rules can actually be thought of as constraints, and in fact constraints can apply to either technical or business issues. A business rule defines or constrains one aspect of your business that is intended to assert business structure or influence the behavior of your business. Constraints specify limits or requirements that are often part of condition statements.

Business policies

Business policies are sets of rules and guidelines developed by an organization to govern its actions. They define the limits within which decisions must be made. They are the central source and reference for all the significant issues affecting organizational success and the decisions affecting organization in long-run.


A business rules example: term life insurance

Let's consider the case of business rules related to term life insurance. As shown in Figure 4, this case can be grouped according to business function into "enterprise business rule islands." These enterprise business rule islands interact with other islands as part of the process. For example, rules related to policy premium calculation need to interact with risk profiling rules because higher risk may mean higher premiums, and risk profiling rules need access to a customer's health profile and score to correctly assess risk.

Figure 4. Term life insurance rules
Term life insurance rules

Traditional non-BRMS implementation of business rules

In a traditional non-BRMS IT environment business rules are housed in various IT systems applications that are managed and maintained by IT departments. This is in line with "IT black box" culture.

Figure 5. Traditional implementation of business rules
Traditional implementation of business rules

This approach has the following problems

  • Business logic is entangled with technical code

    The business logic and related policies are typically implemented using Java™, C++, or similar languages. This buries the business logic is buried inside the layers of technical code, where it can only be understood by the developer and IT community.

    Another very serious problem with this approach is that each time there is a change related to technology, such as a technical version upgrade or other non-business-related change, the business side of the application is likely to be impacted.

  • Lack of visibility to the business

    Implementation of business logic in technical languages makes it very difficult for business people to understand. For example, if a business analyst wants to know the current state of term insurance eligibility rules, he or she has to either call IT or rely on documentation (which is likely out of date) to get that information.

  • Longer IT cycle to implement even small changes

    This is the net effect of the above two limitations. Folks on the business side feel limited in their ability to influence and effect the rapid changes they need. Since the business logic is buried inside the code, even a smallest change, such as changing the maximum permitted age for insurance, requires a full-cycle IT change, which is often a lengthy process. This is what we call the cholesterol in the business--the slower moving parts of the machine that cause the business to clog. Things that are needed by business in weeks or days can take months to implement. These delays blunt the impact of business feature, costing both revenue and market share to the organizations.

In the next section, you'll learn how you can solve these problems using BRMS.


Managing enterprise rules with BRMS

Business rules management systems (BRMS) provide a different approach to the problem. The business rules of an enterprise are treated as assets that are managed throughout their life cycle. This approach adopts the following strategies, which are fundamentally different from the traditional approach.

  • Separation of the business rules from the technical code into a centralized rules repository

    Business Rules are externalized from the code and kept in a centralized rules repository. This repository is accessible not only to IT but also to business users.

    Figure 6. Centralized business rules repository
    Centralized business rules repository

    This repository provides a consistent view of all business rules to all the stakeholders.

  • Business teams are empowered to author changes in the repository

    Business users have access to the central business rules repository. They are jointly responsible with IT to manage the rules. Business users are empowered to make rapid cycle changes to business rules, which can then be tested and rolled out to customer systems more quickly.

    Two powerful tools provided to business users by WebSphere ILOG JRules are:

    • Rule Team Server: Rule Team Server (RTS) provides a browser-based interface to the central rules repository. Business users can use RTS to view, create, and modify business rules and related artifacts.
    • Rule Solutions for Office: Rule Solutions for Office (RSO) is a powerful plug-in that enables business users to edit business rules in Microsoft® Office® documents such as Word or Excel, and publish the changes to the rules repository.
  • Business rules are readable by business users

    Unlike the traditional approach where the business rules implemented in code that is cryptic and unreadable to the business community, the rules in the central BRMS repository are written in common language in tables, flows, and simple statements. This enables business users to easily read, understand and change the business rules.

  • Business rules governance provided by BRMS

    Processes and policies are the actionable heart of any governance model. These are the activities that are followed, applied and enforced to govern and mange BRMS. Governance does the following at different levels:

    • Defines the processes on the operations performed at that level.
    • Ensures these processes work properly and are maintained.
    • Provides ways of auditing and reporting on the decisions and rule execution trail that helps to analyze the impact of policies and decisions on business.

    Figure 7 depicts the hierarchy of governance. At the highest level, you have corporate governance, which defines at a broad level all regulatory and policy compliance. Below that is business governance, which comprises laws and rules for doing a good ethical business. Project governance is defined at a more granular level and may include individual project-specific items that require governance. Rule governance involves the auditing and verification of business rules that are implemented.

    Figure 7. Business rules governance steps
    Business rules governance steps

    Figure 8 shows the different phases in a rule development life cycle including rule governance.

    Figure 8. Rule governance life cycle
    Rule governance life cycle

Key benefits of managing rules with BRMS

Most business organizations are under intense pressure to deal with accelerated business cycles. An organization's success depends upon its ability to responding quickly to today's complex, ever-changing markets and regulatory climate. As you've seen, the more the more business logic is externalized and centralized, the easier it becomes to manage. The visibility into rules provided to business users empowers them to make rapid changes without the slow-down inherent in IT cycles. The net effect of this is increased business agility, which enables businesses to respond quickly to market dynamics and provide enhancements to customers when they are needed the most, which helps businesses thrive and stay ahead of the game.

Figure 9 shows how the three key aspects of BRMS, externalization, visibility and centralization, coupled with rule governance promote business agility.

Figure 9. Rule governance and agility
Rule governance and agility

A side-by-side comparison of BRMS vs. traditional rules implementations

We have discussed some key benefits of using BRMS, but if you've been in IT for long time, you know how to separate the hype from reality. The skeptical side of your brain may be saying "Hmmm. This all sounds too good to be true. This is all abstract and not concrete. Show me the real deal." Fair enough! In this section, we'll look at some sample business rules and show you how they look when implemented in traditional languages such as Java, and compare that to the BRMS implementation.

Sample rules are chosen from our term insurance example.

In Figure 10 and 11, you can see a simple age-related rule implementation.

Figure 10. Java implementation example 1
Java implementation example 1
Figure 11. BRMS implementation example 1
BRMS implementation example 1

In Figure 12 and 13, you can see a more complicated rule implementation involving age, risk, and insurance amount.

Figure 12. Java implementation example 2
Java implementation example 2
Figure 13. BRMS implementation example 2
BRMS implementation example 2

As you can see from the above examples, the BRMS implementations are much simpler and more easily understood by business users.

Now let's take a look at a decision table implementation. Below is traditional implementation of a health risk profile scoring rule using a cryptic file. As you can see the file is not readable, which makes maintenance quite difficult.

Figure 14. Flat file implementation example
Flat file implementation example

In BRMS, the flat file above can be converted into a decision table that looks like Figure 15. As you can see, this table is much easier to understood, read, and update by business users.

Figure 15. Health profile scoring rules in decision table
Health profile scoring rules in decision table

You can see from these examples how BRMS promotes visibility, simplicity and agility in the business world.


Conclusion

In this article, you've have seen how the traditional implementation of business rules slows down business and increases the division between IT and business. You've seen how managing enterprise business rules using BRMS promotes collaboration between IT and business, and empowers business users to view, understand and modify the business rules. This approach enables the rapid release of business rule changes to customers, helping organizations increase their business agility.

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