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

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Point-of-Knowledge Architecture: True Business Agility, Incremental Development, In-Line Training, and Real-Time Compliance

Excerpted from Business Rule Concepts: Getting to the Point of Knowledge (4th ed, 2013), by Ronald G. Ross, 162 pp, http://www.brsolutions.com/b_concepts.php Let me use an example to sketch the workings of business rules in smart architecture based on points of knowledge[1].  Refer to the Figure to visualize how the system works.

Aside: I have been using this same slide since 1994(!).

Suppose you have a process or procedure that can be performed to take a customer order.
  • An order is received.  Some kind of event occurs in the system.  It doesn’t really matter too much what kind of event this is; let’s just say the system becomes aware of the new order.
  • The event is a flash point — one or more business rules pertain to it.  One is:  A customer that has placed an order must have an assigned agent.
  • We want real-time compliance with business policy, so this business rule is evaluated immediately for the order.  Again, it doesn’t much matter what component in the system does this evaluation; let’s just say some component, service, or platform can do it.
  • Suppose the customer placing the order does not have an assigned agent.  The system should detect a fault, a violation of the business rule.  In other words, the system should become aware that the business rule is not satisfied by this new state of affairs.
  • The system should respond immediately to the fault.  In lieu of any smarter response, at the very least it should respond with an appropriate message to someone, perhaps to the order-taker (assuming that worker is authorized and capable).
What exactly should the error message say? Obviously, the message can include all sorts of ‘help’.  But the most important thing it should say is what kind of fault has occurred from the business perspective.  So it could start off by literally saying, “A customer that has placed an order must have an assigned agent.”  We say the business rule statement is an error message (or better, a guidance message). That’s a system putting on a smart face, a knowledge-friendly face, at the very point of knowledge.  But it’s a two-way street.  By flashing business rules in real-time, you have an environment perfectly suited to rapidly identifying opportunities to evolve and improve business practices.  The know-how gets meaningful mindshare.  That’s a ticket to continuous improvement and true business agility.

Smarter and Smarter Responses

Is it enough for the system simply to return a guidance message and stop there?  Can’t it do more?  Of course. For the order-taking scenario, a friendly system would immediately offer the user a means to correct the fault (again assuming the user is authorized and capable).  Specifically, the system should offer the user another procedure, pulled up instantaneously, to assign an appropriate agent.  If successful, the user could then move on with processing the order. This smart approach knits procedures together just-in-time based on the flash points of business rules.  It dynamically supports highly-variable patterns of work, always giving pinpoint responses to business events (not system events).  In short, it’s exactly the right approach for process models any time that applying know-how is key — which these days, is just about always! The Business Rules Manifesto (http://www.businessrulesgroup.org/brmanifesto.htm) says this:  “Rules define the boundary between acceptable and unacceptable business activity.”  If you want dynamic processes, you must know exactly where that boundary lies, and how to respond to breaches (at flash points) in real time. Is that as smart as processes can get?  Not yet.  Over time, the business rules for assigning appropriate agents might become well enough understood to be captured and made available to the system.  Then when a fault occurs, the system can evaluate the business rules to assign an agent automatically.  At that point, all this decision-making gets tucked very neatly under the covers.  Even if the business rules you can capture are sufficient for only routine assignments, you’re still way ahead in the game. Smart architecture based on business rules is unsurpassed for incremental design, where improvement:
  • Focuses on real business know-how, not just better GUIs or dialogs.
  • Continues vigorously after deployment, not just during development.
  • Occurs at a natural business pace, not constrained to software release cycles.
The Manifesto says it this way:  “An effective system can be based on a small number of rules.  Additional, more discriminating rules can be subsequently added, so that over time the system becomes smarter.”  That’s exactly what you need for knowledge retention, as well as to move pragmatically toward the knowledge economy.  Business rules give you true agility.

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Are Business Rules Good for Incremental Design? You Bet!

You can find definitions and discussion of all terms in blue on Business Rules Community: http://www.brcommunity.com/BBSGlossary.pdf 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, October, 2011, 304 pp, http://www.brsolutions.com/bbs ~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Discussion …  First a definition to make sure we’re on the same page …

incremental design:  developing a system through repeated cycles (iteratively) and in smaller portions at a time (incrementally)

Business rules are unsurpassed for step-by-step enhancement of deployed know-how in business capabilities over time (incremental design).  The Business Rules Manifesto[1] puts it this way:  “An effective system can be based on a small number of rules.  Additional, more discriminating rules can be subsequently added, so that over time the system becomes smarter.”  That’s exactly what you need for know-how retention and to move pragmatically toward the know-how economy Support for incremental design with business rules is quite straightforward.  For example, a decision task might start off manual (performed by humans).  As time and resources permit, decision rules for handling the simplest cases can be captured and encoded, removing these cases from the manual workload.  Perhaps you start supporting a modest 20% of all cases.  The only required changes to the system to support additional cases are to specify:

(1) What new cases are covered (by providing appropriate selection criteria). 

(2) What new outcome(s) are needed (if any) for the new cases covered. 

(3) What new (encoded) decision rules should be used for the new cases. 

At a subsequent time, you ramp up to 50% of all cases, then perhaps 80%.  You may never get to 100% – nobody is talking about taking humans completely out of the loop for every operational business decision(!).  The net result is simply applying human resources where best suited, the really hard cases.

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Breaking the Rules: Breach Questions

What should happen when a business rule is broken[1]? As discussed in this post, Business Analysts should answer three questions:
    1. How strictly should the business rule be enforced?
    2. What message is appropriate?
    3. What response is needed?
Developing a friendly, secure business solution requires overt answers to these questions for at least a subset of business rules. (As explained later, defaults can be assumed for the others.) It should also be possible to easily change or evolve the answers (including defaults) after deployment of the business rules, thus permitting the business capability to become incrementally smarter. The goal is context-dependent, pinpoint reaction to breaches in real-time.  Addressing breaches intelligently is key to creating friendly, agile, secure business solutions, ones that can evolve rapidly in day-to-day operation. Breach Question 1.  Enforcement Level How strictly should a behavioral rule[2] be enforced? Example …

Business Rule:  A service representative must not be assigned to good customers in more than 3 states or provinces.

Ask:  How strictly should this business rule be enforced?

Enforcement Level:  Override by pre-authorized actor

Table 1 lists the most common enforcement levels for behavioral rules.[3] Table 1Common Enforcement Levels for Behavioral Rules
Enforcement Level Description
strictly enforced Violations are disallowed in all cases – achieving some newstate successfully is always prevented.
override by pre-authorized actor The behavioral rule is enforced, but an actor with proper before-the-fact authorization may override it.
override with explanation The behavioral rule may be overridden simply by providing an explanation.
guideline Suggested, but not enforced.
  Be sure not to overlook the last enforcement level Table 1.  A business rule that is actively evaluated, but not enforced, is (literally) a guideline. Guidelines are business rules too! Breach Question 2.  Guidance Message What message should be returned when a breach of a business rule occurs? When a business rule is breached, somebody, often a business actor directly engaged in a business process, needs to know about it.  The breach means the work being conducted has strayed outside the boundaries of what the business deems acceptable or desirable.  From a business perspective an error has been made, so some error message should go out.  What should that error message say? As a default, we like to say that the business rule statement is the error message.  From a business point of view, that equivalence must always be true – what else are business rules about?! Rather than saying ‘error message’ (which sounds technical) or ‘violation message’ (which sounds harsh, especially for guidelines), we say guidance message. Generally, guidance messages should be as friendly and as helpful as possible.  For example, guidance messages can be written in a more personal, informative style. More explanation or suggestions can be appended or substituted as desired.  Perhaps a link to other media (e.g., a how-to video) can be provided.  Sometimes the best guidance message takes the form of some icon or signal (e.g., a warning light turning to yellow or red).  Guidance messages frequently need to be specific to the circumstances in which a breach occurs (e.g., what role or user produced it). In all cases, guidance messages should be made available only to people who are qualified and capable. Breach Question 3.  Breach Response Does the breach response for a business rule need to be more selective, rigorous, or comprehensive than simply a message? Example …

Business Rule: A cursory review of a received engineering design must be conducted within 5 business days of the date received.

Ask:  What breach response is appropriate for this business rule?

Breach Response:  The received engineering design must be brought to the attention of the manager of the department by the morning of the next business day.

Breach responses can take any of the following forms:
    • business rule (as illustrated above), or set of business rules
    • processes or procedures
    • sanctions or penalties
    • operational business decisions
    • special notifications, displays or instructions
Multiple breach responses might be desirable for a business rule. They might also need to be specific to the circumstances in which a breach occurs (e.g., what particular part of a process is being performed). Usually, breach responses serve to increase user-friendliness. In cases of potential fraud or malicious business behavior, however, breach responses should be much more aggressive. Defaults Natural defaults for the three breach questions are listed in Table 2. Table 2.  Defaults for the Breach Questions
Breach Question Default
enforcement level strictly enforced
guidance message the business rule statement itself
breach response none
 
[1]Fundamental to business analysis with business rules is the assumption that breaches of business rules can be detected.  If you can’t detect breaches, how can you run the business?! To say it differently, if you can’t detect breaches of a business rule, but you can still run the business, perhaps you don’t need the business rule at all(!).
[2]This breach question applies only to behavioral rules. Since definitional rules must always be true, they are in essence strictly enforced.
[3]Table 12-1 of Business Rule Concepts, 3rd Ed. (Chapter 12) discusses additional enforcement levels.  It also provides tips for designing procedures with business rules.

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To: Business Process Manifesto … From: Business Rules Manifesto … Re: How Business Processes and Business Rules Relate

When the Business Rules Manifesto was published in 2003 (http://www.businessrulesgroup.org/brmanifesto.htm), I co-proposed the six items below related to business processes as an additional (eleventh) Article. The Business Rules Group (BRG) decided (probably wisely) to avoid that potentially controversial area, however, and concentrate on the core message of business rules. Since a Business Process Manifesto has been in the works, it’s worth going back over the proposed items. I believe they remain valid. So I dug them out of my Editor archives, cleaned them up a bit, and presented them below. Aside: In 2003 the BRG wasn’t careful about saying “business rule” (instead of just “rule”) and business process (instead of just “process”). But that’s what we meant – real-world rule and real-world process – not technical specifications. I’m very careful about that clarification these days. A great many people have a hard time seeing the difference. Item 1. Business rules guide business processes.

Comment: If this one is not self-evident, all bets are off.

Item 2. Business rules should be substituted for any activity in a business process where the result(s) of that activity can be produced by the business rules.

Comment: This item refers to what SBVR calls definitional rules – business rules that can derive, classify or compute something. For any given ‘something’, there might be only a single business rule, or a very large number of business rules. The ‘something’ could be an operational business decision requiring many dozens or hundreds of decision rules organized into decision tables.

One thing the item doesn’t say is that not all such ‘somethings’ need to be supported by business rules from the very beginning. In fact as Item 8.5 says, they don’t need to be. Business rules are very good for incremental development. (Development of what? Smart business processes.)

Item 3. Business rules can cause business processes to be initiated under appropriate circumstances.

Comment: Circumstances can arise that require the business to respond in a pre-scripted manner – e.g., low inventory status, potential fraud or intrusion, etc. Some business rule(s) should identify the circumstances involved in such ‘spontaneous’ business events.

Item 4. The default explanation or message for any error that occurs in a business process for a business reason is a business rule.

Comment: This item is truly ground-breaking. Business rules express the do’s and ‘don’ts’ of business activity; therefore, any error that occurs under a business process for a business reason is ‘explained’ by a business rule. What else could it be?!

Keeping systems carefully aside, and noting the obvious possibility of providing additional or alternative ‘explanations’, I like to say ‘the business rules are the error messages’. By the way, I’ve been saying that since 1994 – I have the slides (transparencies actually) to prove it. If you have doubts about this item, please provide examples(!).

Item 5. Any delay in the ability to enforce a business rule must be coordinated with business processes.

Comment: In SBVR, behavioral rules are business rules that can be violated. (Definitional rules can’t be.) An example where such delay might occur is a business rule that requires an approval or sign-off on something (e.g., an extra-large order on credit) by somebody (e.g., the branch manager) who is not immediately available. The business process for that particular something must be suspended until some future time.

Note: Additional business rule(s) providing appropriate suspense criteria (e.g., 24 hours) would be wise in such cases. We don’t want an order sitting in limbo forever(!).

Item 6. Business rules cannot constrain the workings of a business process directly, but only the following: (a) the state required for the business process to be performed; (b) the state while the business process is being performed; and (c) the results – that is, the state – the business process seeks to leave behind when finished.

Comment: I think of a business process as being like a black box with respect to business rules. The business rules cannot and should not ‘look’ inside. Instead, all matters of state should be externalized so business rules – and business people – can know it and talk about it. Get ready for this: This item indicts BPMN with its token-based approach to process state. The future lies with externalizing semantics. Sorry guys!

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