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Four Big Questions: Why Aren’t We Acting Like We’re in a Knowledge Economy?!

Ask yourself …

Why should every business define its own business vocabulary even though almost everybody operates in some larger community of practice? 

Why should every business invent its own business rules even though perhaps only 20% of its business rules directly impact competitive advantage? 

Why should regulatory bodies issue regulations without adequate definitions and provably correct (anomaly-free) business rules? 

Why should contracts, agreements, and deals be signed with terms of agreement and definitions already spelled out, only to have IT implement them essentially from the ground-up? 

What’s the knowledge economy? According to Wikipedia:

“Various observers describe today’s global economy as one in transition to a ‘knowledge economy,’ as an extension of an ‘information society.’  The transition requires that the rules and practices that determined success in the industrial economy need rewriting in an interconnected, globalized economy where knowledge resources such as know-how and expertise are as critical as other economic resources.”

Catch that part about rules?! ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ from Building Business Solutions: Business Analysis with Business Rules, by Ronald G. Ross with Gladys S.W. Lam, An IIBA® Sponsored Handbook, Business Rule Solutions, LLC, 2011, 304 pp,http://www.brsolutions.com/bbs    

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Ronald G. Ross

Ronald G. Ross

Ron Ross, Principal and Co-Founder of Business Rules Solutions, LLC, is internationally acknowledged as the “father of business rules.” Recognizing early on the importance of independently managed business rules for business operations and architecture, he has pioneered innovative techniques and standards since the mid-1980s. He wrote the industry’s first book on business rules in 1994.

Comments (5)

  • Julian Sammy


    These are good questions, but they imply a problem space that may be too small to contain useful answers. Adding human social communications behaviour to the mix gives us another dimension of possibilities. This makes it possible to consider approaches to resolve or address these concerns and make progress against the problems.

    In other words, the short answer to the first three questions is ‘Because humans.’ With slightly less tongue in cheek, here are some ideas to consider.

    Vocabulary, or “Why Can’t We Just Get Along?”

    Social groups often use vocabulary to distinguish those who are in-group from the out-group (or ‘other’). An organization has a culture because it is made of humans, and humans are motivated to belong in some social context. Disney is a vivid example: employees are ‘cast members’.

    Reinvention, or “We’re Better.”

    Ignorance, lack of capability, and ‘not-invented-here’ syndrome may be part of the cause. Not knowing about rules and not having the skillsets to define them has lead to the messy state of affairs that is so common today. Even if the organization is able to define rules, the desire to differentiate can provoke people to do much more work than necessary.

    It is also possible that the standard rules are not available to organizations in a cost-effective or easy to integrate way. I suspect that SAAS / Cloud based organizational components are helping to encode and embed standard rules and processes, where software patterns have failed to do so.

    Regulatory Ambiguity, or “Would you like to come up and see my etchings?”

    Steven Pinker said the quote above, and that

    “…the vagueness of language, far from being a bug or an imperfection, actually might be a feature of language, one that we use to our advantage in social interactions.” (http://www.ted.com/talks/steven_pinker_on_language_and_thought.html)

    Regulations that have some ambiguity are regulations that can be approved by a diverse set of politicians and bureaucrats. When the regulation has undesirable consequences – as all regulations, laws, and rules tend to have – there is plausible deniability for the decision makers, and flexibility for those being regulated. Even simple rules have this problem; ‘do not kill humans’ falls apart with exceptions with even a casual glance.

    If this interpretation of the nature of human language is correct, it is not possible, even in principle, to create anomaly-free rules. We can do a lot better than we’re doing today – but perfection is impossible.

    On the fourth question, of starting from scratch, could you expand on what other options there might be? I could imagine that some aspects of a contract could be fed into a rules engine and executed. Or is it just that the rules are there in the contract but the people who have to encode the rules for operational use don’t make use of the contract as a resource?

    “Because People”

    I’m reminded of a phrase I have heard echoed through many roles in many industries: “This job would be so easy if it weren’t for the damn [humans]!” (Substitute the stakeholder of your choice – customers, users, managers, vendors, programmers, and so on.)

    Organizations don’t behave rationally because they are not rational. Organizations are often more rational than the humans that they are made of. (For a treatise on human irrationality, try “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. He calls the rational creatures favored by economists ‘econs’. Like Vulcans, they are works of fiction.) That is a huge part of the value of rules: they constrain irrational humans to act in rational ways.

    Rules don’t make us rational but they can force us to act as if we are.

    • Ronald G. Ross

      Ronald G. Ross


      Julian, You make some great points. Just a couple of quick replies …

      * Natural Language. Conversational speech … and GovernmentSpeak … are indeed intentionally/structurally ambiguous. But what’s the alternative to structured natural language with carefully defined vocabulary? We do need to “talk” to people displaced in location, time and role.

      Today we hand over specifications to IT professionals to be translated and encoded in mysterious implementation languages. Do you think they’re in a great position to remove ambiguities correctly? (No.) In a day and age when IBM Watson can win at Jeopardy, we can and should be doing a better job at having machines help us disambiguate and implement correctly. It *will* happen … the question is simply when. There is simply no substitute, no better alternative, to human language.

      * Contracts. Lawyers are well trained to define terms and write clearly. Best possible target for Watson-like approaches.

      * Rules. Getting people to act rationally is a fool’s game. Rules are like what Winston Churchill said about democracy (paraphrasing): “A terrible system. It’s only advantage is that it’s far better than any alternative.”. The goal is simply to free up people’s time and brain cycles to be more creative. And yes, people can be very creative.

    • Ronald G. Ross

      Ronald G. Ross


      Julian, Let me throw another linguistics expert at you: from How Languages Work, by David Crystal, The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc., 2005, p. 465. (Substitute ‘automated rulebook for “reference book’.)

      “When someone consults a reference book … [in which] information is stored for future use, it is impossible to predict who is likely to use it … There is no ‘dialogue’ element in the communication …”

      “The information has to be as self-contained as possible, for it is impossible to predict the demands which may one day be made on it …”

      “Accordingly, [the] language … is very different from that used in everyday conversation … it displays a much greater degree of organization, impersonality, and explicitness.”

      • Julian Sammy


        Note: This response posted at the end of a long day with many hours of driving and child care. If it’s incoherent, well, that’ll teach me to blog-while-parenting.

        Let’s start from the bottom up.

        It has been many years since I read Wittgenstien, who also had a lot to say about the interpretation of language, and Hofstadter, who delved deep into what can be encoded and interpreted – meant – at all. Crystal is not wrong to say the information must be self contained, and that persistent information must be significantly more explicit than the fluid interactivity of conversation. Crystal (at least in these quotes) doesn’t go nearly far enough, however, and one of the statements is wrong: it is quite possible to predict many aspects of the demands that may be placed on information.

        At the most basic level, all encoded information (and all information is encoded) presumes some context. Mathematics is called ‘the universal language’ because the context is built into the structure of the universe itself: for example, there are few circumstances to be found where the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter isn’t just about 3.14159, and there’s a reason the Fibonacci Sequence is profligate.

        Stepping up a few levels from pure math and physics, business rules (and other human-readable information) always depend on a wide range of assumptions about the context. Many of these have to do with assuming that humans will be reading the information. This means the rules will ultimately affect human behaviours, and that humans who are likely to encounter the rules are overwhelmingly likely to interpret the rules the same way. (A succinct discussion of the philosophical point is found in “Darmok” (Star Trek: The Next Generation season 5 episode 2) where the idea of a universal translator is called into question.)

        This informs the idea that we ‘need to “talk” to people displaced in location, time and role.’ Certainly we do – but we can bet that it will be people that will be “hearing” what we had to “say”. (The quotes-of-metaphor are going away now.) It is also likely that our talk will require more expertise and interpretation over time, and that some of our talk will ultimately be lost (consider the Rosetta Stone). Old English is not comprehensible today without extensive training – nor is Shakespeare, for that matter, and he invented (what seems like) half our modern language.

        This all supports the hypothesis that rules (and other languages built for persistence) must be significantly more formal and structured than the language we use in daily life. Most of us call these formal languages “mysterious implementation languages” and we entrust experts to translate the congealing ooze of informal conversation into the faceted crystal precision we need to run our automatons. Some of these people are coders. Some are business analysts. Some are rules specialists.

        Are these experts are in a position to remove these ambiguities correctly? I ask you: who else is in a position to remove these ambiguities at all? Clarification to an incorrect state can at least be measured and shown to not match reality. The people who “should” produce unambiguous rules often can’t or won’t – and they may be making a good, advantageous choice when they avoid clarity in favour of plausible deniability.

        Like you, I think rules are a critical component to the success of businesses; we need to find ways to force our species to behave rationally no matter our nature.

        • Ronald G. Ross

          Ronald G. Ross


          Julian, Small correction … don’t know if it changes your point. Crystal said “it is **impossible** to predict the demands which may one day be made on it.”

          For the record, I am fundamentally against “mysterious implementation languages” (for business rules). They empower a priesthood (of coders) who sometimes have little understanding of the business than the average person in the street. Why is that advantageous to business analysts?! Why is it advantage for business people?! Why is that advantageous for the business? Why is that advantageous for anyone except the coders and service providers and software vendors who support them?

          We should simply not ‘code’ things until the business ambiguities have been wrung out of them. That doesn’t mean rules can’t be overridden when expedient … that’s a matter of organizational choice.

          Let’s put the soft skills of business analysts aside. We both know they are indispensable. The fundamental hard skill that business analysts should cultivate — the one absolutely certain to guarantee them a job virtually forever — is reduction of ambiguity. … Reduction of ambiguity *before* things are coded.

          P.S. Working on the SBVR standardization effort all these years, alongside world-class linguists, software engineers and logicians (I do not count myself as a peer) has truly been an eye-opener about what is possible. Mark my words, it’s coming. Maybe not next year or the year after. But it’s coming.

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