Enabling Operational Excellence
Enabling Operational Excellence
Enabling Operational Excellence
Enabling Operational Excellence

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Rules, Business Rules, and Big Data: What’s It All About?

It’s time to come to grips with what is meant by “rule” in the context of big data. There’s much confusion out there. In a recent keynote, Rick van der Lans stated, “… big data leads to more and more interesting insights, and from there to more and more rules.” What does he mean? The funny thing is you can also call ‘insights’ rules … and some people do(!). Not me! Read on. An Example One of Rick’s examples of rules born from big data:

If 2 calls disconnect within 10 minutes, then offer a product discount.

What’s the insight and what’s the rule? Does the statement represent both? Does it express a business rule? The syntax of the statement is in if-then form. Doesn’t that imply a business rule?! No! According to the standards SBVR and the Business Motivation Model (BMM), business rules must be:
  • Declarative. The statement above is not declarative because it includes the command “offer”.
  • Practicable. The statement above is not practicable – not ready to roll out into prime-time business operations – because it’s ambiguous. More on that momentarily.
My analysis …
  • “2 calls disconnect within 10 minutes” … That part of the statement suggests an insight: Calls on hold for 10 minutes or more are likely to disconnect.
  • “offer a product discount” … That part of the statement suggests a remedy, a way to recover from a bad situation.
The motivation behind the statement might be:

We can assume people are getting frustrated at the 10 minute mark or before. If we offer a product discount, they’ll be mollified and more likely to hold on or to purchase.

What should we call the statement? It does give guidance and it does clearly have a role in strategy. However, neither the insight nor the remedy is practicable. Here are some unanswered questions that could produce ambiguity.

The insight part: Does the 10 minutes refer the wait period on each individual call? Or to any time interval during which calls are waiting?

The remedy part: How much discount? On which product(s)?

So according to the standards the statement represents a business policy, not a business rule. A corresponding business rule might be:

A caller must be offered a 15% discount off list price on any product in stock if the caller has been on hold for more than 10 minutes.

This version removes the ambiguities. It clarifies that we’re referring to:
  • The wait period on an individual call.
  • A 15% discount off list price.
  • Any product in stock.
Only WonkNerds Beyond This point “Rule” has several meanings – one reason I try to avoid the word as much as possible. Compare the following definitions for “rule”. (All definitions from Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary.)

2a(1): a statement of a fact or relationship generally found to hold good : a usually valid generalization

Let’s call this meaning rule1. It roughly corresponds to insight … i.e., “as a rule we find that …”. It’s experiential – based on evidence.

1f: one of a set of usually official regulations by which an activity is governed

Let’s call this meaning rule2. It roughly corresponds to the underlying sense of business rule … i.e., “It’s necessary or obligated that you must …”. It’s deliberate, based on policy. Job one in analysis of big data is to identify interesting relationships (rule1) and then deliberately formulate business rules (rule2) to produce outcomes desirable for your company. In other words, starting from rule1 you want to move expeditiously to rule2. Logicians have been on top of this distinction for a long, long. Only they speak in terms of implications, not rules. There are two kinds of implications – material and logical. Let’s repeat the discussion above using these terms. Don’t overlook the word strictly in the second definition. material implication (rule1)

2b(1) : a logical relationship of the form symbolically rendered *if p then q* in which p and q are propositions and in which p is false or q is true or both

logical implication (rule2)

2b(2) : a logical relationship of the form symbolically rendered *if p then strictly q* in which q is deducible from p

Let me repeat myself on job one in analysis of big data using implication:

Job one in analysis of big data is to identify material implications (rule1) and then deliberately formulate logical implications (rule2) to produce outcomes desirable for the company. In other words, starting from material implications (rule1) you want to move expeditiously to logical implications (rule2).

I use “business rule” only for a statement of the rule2 variety, and only if that statement is both declarative and practicable. A statement has to prove itself to be a business rule – it’s only a pretender if it fails to meet the standards.

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A Quick 5-Item List of What Are Not Business Rules!

1.       Assigning values to variables. 2.       Asserting mandatory GUI fields. 3.       Specifying which data can be viewed by which users. 4.       Expressing which documents are to be routed to which queues. 5.       Orchestrating tasks assignments in an execution environment. Depending on your implementation preferences, specifications for such things might (or might not) appear rule-ish. But … business rules are what you need to run the business, not what you use to set-up systems (even if rule-ish). Such specifications might be representations of business rules, their surrogates, but they are not business rules per se. Business rules are communicated of, by and for people. Big difference! P.S. For examples see RuleSpeak 3.0 (free download): http://www.brsolutions.com/b_ipspeakprimers.php

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Eight Principles for the Point of Knowledge – Where Business Rules Happen

We are already living in a knowledge economy – let’s start acting like it! It’s know-how (business rules) that makes your company smart. Let’s get to the point of that knowledge.  
  1. All know-how expressed in business terms – no ITSpeak.
  2. All know-how presented/applied selectively in exactly-as-needed fashion.
  3. All know-how presented/applied in ‘just-in-time’ fashion.
  4. All interactions gauged to the knowledge level of the role and the person.
  5. All workers enabled to ‘play up’ to level of ablest workers.
  6. All decisions made 100% consistently – no exceptions (except intentionally).
  7. All applications of business rules traceable and transparent.
  8. All know-how managed directly – by business people and business analysts.
~~~~~~~~ Adapted from: Business Rule Concepts: Getting to the Point of Knowledge (4th ed.), 2013.  http://www.brsolutions.com/b_concepts.php

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Classifying Business Rules: I Go By What the Standards Say

      In classifying ‘rules’ I go by the standards … Business Motivation Model (BMM): business policies vs. business rules
  • Business rules are always practicable – workers can apply them directly.
  • Business policies are not – they must be interpreted first.
SBVR: definitional rules (necessities) vs. behavioral rules (obligations) vs. advices (possibilities or permissions).
  • Definitional rules (including decision rules) are about shaping knowledge (and cannot be violated).
  • Behavioral rules are about shaping conduct (and can be violated).
  • Advices are non-rules; they provide practicable guidance but do not remove any degree of freedom.
I would add only these observations: 
  • The kinds of rules you see in decision tables are generally definitional. Since they represent only a subset of all definitional rules I call them ‘decision rules’ for convenience.
  • Condition-Action or Event-Condition-Action (ECA) rules are not business rules at all. They are representations of business rules (for a class of implementation platforms).
  • My smart phone can tell me in spoken English where the nearest gas station is. It’s only a matter of time before machines start ‘reading’ regulations, contracts, agreements, business policies, etc. to help people formulate (through dialog) practicable (and implementable) business rules. Can you imagine the productivity benefits?!
  • Decision tables are great. Everybody should use them. But they are a lot harder to design well than you might think.
  • The DMN standard can move things along significantly … if it is good, and it isn’t overhyped (which it already has been in certain quarters). I’m looking forward to it impatiently. But standardization (in equal parts a political process and a technical process) do take some time!

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The DMN definition of ‘decision’ … Sorry, I don’t think so(!)

A person close to the DMN (Decision Model Notation) standard recently wrote:

In DMN a decision is deliberately defined very broadly … 

“a decision is the act of determining an output value (the chosen option), from a number of input values, using decision logic defining how the output is determined from the inputs”.

Decisions in DMN can be automatic, they can be used for detection, the logic they use can concern the violation of constraints; I see no problem with any of this.

My Response
  • A motorist goes thundering down the motorway, well over the speed limit. A radar gun detects it. What “decision” was made? Would a business person ever say the radar gun “decided” the motorist was speeding? … “Determined” maybe; “decided” no.
  • A company has the (behavioral) business rule:

 A customer that has placed an order must have an assigned agent.

An agent servicing customers who have placed orders retires and moves to Florida (this last part irrelevant). What “decision” is it that says, hey, now have some unrepresented customers and somebody ought to do something about it ASAP?? What “decided” there are now violations?? … “Detection yes”, “decision” no. 

P.S. That definition of decision seems a bit circular. To know what a “decision” is I need to know what “decision logic” means. But since “decision logic” says “decision”, seems like I need to know what “decision” means. Hmmm.

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Business Rule Analysis: Practitioner MasterClass Series

Location: Online Seminar Overview Do your business processes always produce correct and consistent results? If not the problem probably lies with your business rules and decision logic. Business Analysts need the right techniques to fix these problems – process models, use cases, data models and other requirement techniques just aren’t right for the job. This hands-on series will equip you with proven techniques for success. More info: http://www.attainingedge.com/online-training-business-rule-analysis-masterclass.php Register for full series!

Session 1. The why, what and who of business rules

Next Session: October 1, 2013 @ 10:30am – 12:00noon (ET)

  • Why business rules
  • What benefits you can achieve
  • What business rules are, and are not
  • Business rules vs. business processes
  • Kinds of business rules: definitional vs. behavioral
  • How the business should react to violations
  • Business rules and decisions
  • What skills you need to capture business rules effectively
  • What you need to know
Register Session!

Session 2. Eight steps to find and capture business rules

Next Session:October 1, 2013 @ 3:30pm – 5:00pm (ET)

  • Capturing business rules from people’s heads
  • Capturing business rules from great big documents
  • Using facilitated sessions
  • Step-by-step approach
  • What about reverse-engineering business rules from code
  • Do’s and don’ts
Register Session!

Session 3. Eight steps to express clear business rules

Next Session: October 2, 2013 @ 10:30am – 12:00noon (ET)

  • Business policies vs. practicable guidance vs. automated rules
  • The role of business vocabulary
  • Step-by-step approach
  • Clarity and completeness
  • Eliminating ambiguity
  • Addressing exceptions
  • Guidelines
  • What to avoid and why
Register Session!

Session 4. How to analyze and communicate business rules

Next Session: October 2, 2013 @ 3:30pm – 5:00pm (ET)

  • Basic principles for rule analysis
  • Rule quality
  • Handling conflicts
  • Developing business reactions to violations
  • Simplification – When, why and for whom
  • How to validate business rules with business people and SMEs
  • Verification – Examples
Register Session!

Session 5. Eight steps to set-up decision tables

Next Session: October 3, 2013 @ 10:30am – 12:00noon (ET)

  • When to use decision tables
  • How to set up decision tables
  • Decision tables and business process models
  • What your decision tables should not do
  • Decision tables and business vocabulary
  • Best practices
  • Alternative formats
  • Completeness, subsumption and conflicts
Register Session!

Session 6. Ten steps to start or refine your business rules projects

Next Session: October 3, 2013 @ 3:30pm – 5:00pm (ET)

  • Business rules and requirements
  • Properties of business rules
  • Traceability of business rules
  • Retaining corporate memory
  • Managing the life cycle of business rules
  • Business rule management – examples
  • Business rules and rule engines – implementation examples
  • How to get started
Register Session!

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Calling everything a decision? That does no more good than calling everything ‘thing’!

A decision management tool vendor recently wrote:

“The relation between business rules and decisions is I think pretty well agreed by all – it’s just that some focus on 1 or the other, and some both – any “disagreement” is more on the value in the different approaches.”

I respectfully disagree (strongly).  There are fundamental differences between decision rules and behavioral rules including these: 1. Behavioral rules are usually one of a kind. They don’t fit in decision tables. Some might appear in decision models if you are concerned about such things as integrity (will the DMN standard be?), but the large majority don’t. 2. Decisions are generally single point of determination for any given real-world case. Most behavioral rules are multi point of determination, meaning they could be violated under quite different circumstances. 3. The detection of violations of behavioral rules should be automatic and event-based. There’s no “decision” involved in the detection … it should be automatic. (This is where the current generation of rule engines … mostly based on 1980s expert-system thinking … fall woefully short. It’s also probably one reason they haven’t become more mainstream in industry mindshare.) 4. Behavioral rules generally have a different source than decision rules … laws, regulations, contracts, agreements, deals, certifications, warranties … and business policies. Decision rules sometimes arise from those sources, but if so, have limited coverage. Decision rules in contrast often arise from the heads of knowledge workers and inspection of big data and event streams. (Behavioral rules do too, but likewise don’t begin to cover everything.) So the issue is by no means simply a “matter of approach”. Spinning it that way might be useful for vendors, but it won’t be helpful to business analysts. We need to think soberly about the true range of business rules and the fundamental distinctions that exist. If not people will end up very frustrated on the other side of the DMN hype cycle. We can do better than that, and for the sake of the DMN standard, we should. P.S. For discussion and examples of the fundamental distinction between behavioral rules and decision rules see Appendix 3 in the DecisionSpeak Primer … available for free download on http://www.brsolutions.com/b_ipspeakprimers.php.  By the way, DecisionSpeak and its companion TableSpeak are *quite* concerned about integrity in decision models.

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Will Decision Models Supplant Business Rules?

The answer is no, but read on. RuleSpeak 3.0 featuring tabulation was just recently released. See http://www.brsolutions.com/b_ipspeakprimers.php (free download). RuleSpeak is structured natural language for expressing business rules in the clearest way possible, yet very precisely. I know some people argue that decision models will supplant the need to express any and all individual business rules. Pardon me, but that’s either highly uninformed or not-so-innocently misleading. Having said that, do I think there’s much to be gained from decision analysis and a revival of decision tables (a very old technique)? Absolutely. We’ve been busy fine-tuning methods for a good number of years. I’m glad we waited. The results speak for themselves. See the new DecisionSpeak and TableSpeak (free downloads) on that same webpage. All 3 ‘Speaks’ are highly complementary … as of course they should be! You need all these tools to be successful with business rules. By the way, all 3 ‘Speaks’ are business-oriented and tool-independent … as they should be(!).

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Open Letter re: Decision Models

written in response to Jacob Feldman: http://www.brsolutions.com/2013/05/07/response-to-decisionspeak-tablespeak-annnouncement/ Jacob, Thanks! And I agree with you about the ‘executable’ part. Our emphasis is on business-friendly, business-driven models. I believe DecisionSpeak and TableSpeak move things forward significantly in that regard. There’s no reason why decision models have to be oriented to IT development. If they are robust, they will nonetheless be executable. I would sound a note of caution. Decision models are no silver bullet. There are issues of semantics (vocabulary) and integrity (restrictions) to be addressed. And they don’t cover even the majority of all business rules – especially behavioral rules. If you throw everything you (should) know about business rules out the window when you use decision models, you will be in for a very rude awaking. I’m glad we did not rush to the market. We’ve taken our time to do our homework with respect to theory (which has been out there for a great many years) and to hone our approach in real-life consulting work. I think the results speak for themselves!

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Looking to Find Out What Decision Analysis is About? Make Business Processes & Business Architectures Smart? Design Business-Friendly Decision Tables? Write Business-Friendly Business Rules? >>> Free downloads …

As part of the April announcement of the new 4th edition of my book Business Rule Concepts: Getting to the Point of Knowledge, I’m pleased to make available some additional complementary (and complimentary!) downloads: Decision Analysis – A Primer: How to Use DecisionSpeak and Question Charts (Q-Charts) – 49pp http://www.brsolutions.com/IPSpeakPrimers (free) Decision Tables – A Primer: How to Use TableSpeak – 121pp http://www.brsolutions.com/IPSpeakPrimers (free) Tabulation of Lists in Rulespeak®: A Primer Using “The Following” Clause – 16pp http://www.brsolutions.com/IPSpeakPrimers (free) We’ve comprehensively written-up state-of-the-art experience and insight in these important areas. I hope you will make the most of them! P.S. Do have a look at other items of interest: http://goo.gl/WPV7O  

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