Your ability to respond in appropriate ways to pinpoint circumstances where business rules are breached – automatically and independently of processes – provides the mechanism you need to support very smart, very friendly business systems. Normally we think about breaches occurring for behavioral rules, where a breach means a violation has occurred. Can breaches occur for decision rules too? The answer is yes and no. Read on!
A breach occurs for a business rule when the business rule isn’t satisfied upon being applied to some set of circumstances (state of affairs). Normally we think about breaches occurring for behavioral rules, where a breach means a violation has occurred (e.g., you violated the posted speed limit).
The potential for violations of behavioral rules raises several important questions that business analysts should answer in advance of deployment for each behavioral rule:
1. What level of enforcement should be applied.
2. What special response to a violation is appropriate, if any.
3. What special message, if any, should be returned to some worker(s) upon a violation.
Unlike behavioral rules, no definitional rule can ever be violated. Literally, things must be correct under such rules by definition.
Let’s take an example. Suppose somebody asserts “2+2=5”. According to the rules of mathematics, we know the correct answer is 4. The answer “5” is deemed irrevocably wrong. But is the asserted answer ever allowed to stand?
If the rule is defined as a decision rule, the asserted answer is never allowed to stand. More precisely, the assertion would never be recognized to have happened in the first place. If someone asserts “2+2” the answer “4” is concluded immediately. Period. No breach, no opportunity for error.
If defined as a behavioral rule (one that is not strictly enforced), the asserted answer is allowed to stand, but a violation is recognized. How might that capability be useful? Suppose the error were made by a student in grade school. It might be quite useful for the student and/or a tutor to know about it immediately and automatically. Specifying an appropriate violation response can make such notification happen.
In business, of course, definitional rules can be far more complex. Nonetheless, your ability to respond in appropriate ways to the pinpoint circumstances where certain rule-related events occur – automatically and independently of processes – provides exactly the mechanism you need to support very smart, very friendly operational business decision systems.
Decision Rules and Breaches
Decision rules are a special kind of definitional rule involving implications (e.g., A implies B). They support inferences and determinations – identifying an appropriate outcome from among a set of alternatives.
Like all decision rules, definitional rules cannot be violated. They are simply deemed true by definition.
Purely from a business perspective, however, some assertions of fact(s) may make it appear that a breach-like event has occurred. I take pains to emphasize any such perception is purely from the business perspective, not from the perspective of logic. You perceive a breach of a decision rule simply because it’s useful to do so, not because any true violation has occurred.
In evaluating some particular case (situation, set of circumstances, or matter of concern), for example, things might not follow the ‘happy path’. Think of a breach of a decision rule as a bump in the road – a gap along the happy path.
Let’s return to the three questions listed earlier. Although the first question about enforcement level obviously doesn’t apply to decision rules, adjusted versions of questions 2 and 3 remain in play.
Consider the following simple business example. Suppose a bank has this decision rule:
A credit application must be considered discrepancy-free with respect to a credit report for the applicant if all the following are the same:
date of birth
Social Security Number
Let’s suppose that an applicant uses just the initial for her middle name on her credit application. If the credit report shows her full middle name, then the names are not the same and the credit application will not be considered discrepancy-free.
Note carefully the rule hasn’t been violated; it did its ‘work’ correctly and it did reach the proper conclusion (not discrepancy-free). But a gap – a breach – for her case has been identified from a business perspective because the rule failed on one of the conditions. We should be able to take advantage of that breach to take appropriate action – selectively, automatically and in real time.
For example, the desired response to the breach might be to insert the following to-do item in the work queue of the responsible staff member: “Review discrepancy and manually ok if appropriate”. (The to-do item should naturally also provide ready access to the related documents.) The breach of the rule causes this action to occur automatically.
Think about how many decision rules might exist for determining credit-worthiness, and how many selective conditions they might have. Could you build a responsive system by incorporating the selective responses needed into the related process model(s)? Not a chance – that approach won’t scale. Instead, the selective responses need to be specified based on the business-rule side of things.
Kinds of Breach Specifications for Decision Rules
Breach specifications for a decision rule can be of the following two kinds.Breach Response. A breach response can be an action of virtually any kind. For example, a breach action might be to:
Add some task(s) to a (non-redundant) to-do list in some appropriate work queue.
Add some documentation items to a (non-redundant) not-yet-received list.
By these means very selective follow-up processing/handling (“what to do next”) can be organized pertaining to any specific issue (breach) for a given case. Such selectivity is made possible by the granularity of the rules.
Breach Message. A specially-worded breach message can be forwarded to any involved party either inside or outside the company. A breach message generally explains one or both of the following at any level of detail desired:
Why the rule or condition failed. (The rule or condition statement already indicates very precisely what the issue is, but the breach message can explain in a more friendly manner.)
What should be done to address the issue.
More Complex Example
Breach specifications apply selectively and specifically to a decision rule and/or any of its conditions. A breach specification applies if and only if that decision rule and/or condition fails (is not true) in evaluating some specific case (e.g., a specific credit application). An example of a decision rule with condition-specific breach specifications is illustrated in Table 1.
Table 1. Example of More Complex Decision Rule with Condition-Specific Breach Specifications
A fluctuating income must be considered eligible if all the following are true:
Conditions of the
the applicant has a 3-year proven track record of consistent income
the applicant is likely to have comparable income in the future
Add to-do item for that credit application: “Contact employer to verify applicant has reasonable opportunity for future income.”
the income is validated
Add required documentation items not yet received to a pending list for the credit application.
To applicant: “[date] Here’s a list of documentation items related to your income we have not yet received. [pending list].”
Using Breach Specifications
Breach specifications can be:
General for an entire decision rule including all its conditions. (The example in Table 1 doesn’t include any whole-rule specifications. If the rule did they would appear in the first row.)
Specific to a given condition.
Specific to collections of conditions (none shown for the example).
A breach is detected only if the conclusion of the rule as a whole, or some particular condition within it, evaluates to not true. Things being true should be viewed as moving the case along the desired path (i.e., no breach has occurred). Decision rules (and breach specifications) should be expressed carefully so as to preserve this positive orientation.
Generally, breach actions should be specified only if something can be done to overcome a failure (of a rule or condition). The goal is to move things forward in the case. In the example above, for instance, if nothing whatsoever can be done to correct an issue, the credit application should simply be declined. A behavioral rule to that effect should be specified.
In hierarchies of decisions (e.g., as in Q-Charts) and decision rules (e.g., as based on series of logical dependencies), breach specifications should generally be made only at the lowest level of rule reduction/decomposition. A rule at a higher level in a logical hierarchy only evaluates to not true if some rule(s) below it evaluate to not true. Define breach specifications at the lowest level of granularity.
Although rules can be specified in violation specifications for behavioral rules (e.g., to express some sanction or penalty), they should never be specified within breach specifications for a decision rule. Such ‘nesting’ of rules, especially on the basis of ‘not true’, is inappropriate.
Otherwise the advantages of overall declarative specification can be forfeited.
By default, breach specifications for a decision rule apply only the first time it is evaluated for each case. The assumption is that all business rules, including decision rules, are evaluated on a continuous basis. Re-application of any breach specification for a case therefore requires additional timing and iteration criteria. Whether a case is evaluated iteratively on the same set of decision rules based on timing criteria applied by or for some external process or platform is outside the scope of this discussion. No matter what the scheme of evaluation, the expression of the decision rules – as for all business rules – should be completely unaware of it.
Caveat: I reserve the right to change my mind on this at any time and would love to be proven wrong.The key characteristic of many operational business decisions is that they need to be directly traceable to business policy, regulations, contractual obligations, and so on. You need to be able to readily demonstrate compliance in the broadest sense of the word. (That of course has always been true for business rules. That’s what they do!) So for that reason and others, I doubt that IBM Watson and peers will prove viable platforms for execution-time support of business rules.The engineering of rules themselves – rule engineering – will remain professional work for humans to do (hopefully assisted by machines). Fortunately effective techniques for rule engineering have been proven in practice.I know some experts are calling for smart processes or intelligent processes these days. But if they’re not addressing business rules, they’re not really that smart. We want to enable smartbusiness, not just smart processes.
 These include platform-independent expression guidelines such as RuleSpeak (free on www.RuleSpeak.com). In our book Building Business Solutions: Business Analysis with Business Rules we explain patterns for harvesting business rules from business process models and other deliverables. We have also developed highly effective techniques for decision engineering. See our Primers (free): http://www.brsolutions.com/publications.php#primers
The point of knowledge (POK) is a real place. POK is where know-how – business rules – are developed, applied, assessed, re-used, and ultimately retired. In other words, POK is where business rules happen.
When you start to fully understand business rules, a whole lot of other pieces of the puzzle fall right into place. You arrive at smart architectures, which gives you smart knowledge management and smart processes.
In smart architecture, business systems become knowledge companions, enabling never-ending, on-the-job training. Flash points of knowledge – real-time evaluation of business rules – enables dynamic processes and personalized, just-in-time delivery of up-to-date guidance.
A smart architecture is one equipped to address the formidable challenges facing businesses today – the accelerating rate of change, massive customization, and products and services that are ever richer in knowledge. Effective engineering of the POK is the new litmus test for agility.
The question you should be asking: How do you get your company tothe point of knowledge?
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.phpwww.BRSolutions.com
Consider the following examples of decisions arising in a regulated environment (acks James Taylor):
Government agency in Europe has regulations relating to Social Benefits. The agency itself must make decisions like “Is this person eligible for this benefit?” and “How much benefit, and for how long, is this person entitled to?”” that conform with those regulations.
An individual company might also have a decision like “Is this person entitled to paid leave to care for a sick child?” that is dependent both on company policy/practices and regulations that relate to social benefits (because they might require companies of a certain size to pay for this kind of leave).
My AnalysisIndeed, these are operational business decisions. I’m not surprised, by the way, they are in effect about money. Of course money entails decisions! But here are two important observations.
1. Regulations typically include a great many one-off behavioral rules (“one-off” meaning following no particular pattern). Examples might include:
Payment of benefits shall cease immediately upon the death of the beneficiary.
Payment of benefits shall not be made to any beneficiary living outside the country for more than 9 months of a fiscal year.
Payment of benefits shall not be made directly to any minor.
Is decision analysis suited to capturing/interpreting such one-off rules? Is it meaningful to have a decision such as “Should a benefit payment be made?” Shouldn’t such behavior be presumed automatic (but traceable and adaptable)? A better option is to simply have a task or action such as “Make payment”. Violations of related business rules for any particular case produces exceptions, possibly to be addressed by appropriate messages and/or procedures invoked automatically. That’s how basic business behavior becomes autonomous, so the business can concentrate on matters requiring greater skill, experience or intelligence.
If you’re not careful everything becomes a decision. Where do you draw the line? Isn’t there a difference in simply being competent vs. being smart in doing business?
Aside: Business vocabulary is as always obviously important. For example, does “payment” mean “accrual of benefit”, “act of payment”, “amount of payment”, or something else? No small issue.
(2.) Consider the following (one-off) behavioral rule:
A non-citizen may cash a payment of benefits for a citizen only if married to that citizen and the citizen is not deceased.
What happens in the case of death or divorce, and then the non-citizen tries to cash a payment?
There’s no organizational decision involved there. There’s a personal decision … the non-citizen can decide to try to violate the rule … but we don’t really care about that. We only care about detecting the violation. We really don’t need or want an (operational business) decision here, do we?
Again, if you have a decision for every possible kind of violation of every behavioral rule, you’ll very quickly drown in decisions. Don’t go there!
Have you heard business rules described that way? You certainly have to stop and think about it for a minute. Without additional explanation the term “boundaries” could easily be misleading. For example the term could be interpreted incorrectly as suggesting business rules define scope – i.e., the operational edges of an organization or an initiative. They don’t.Let’s revisit the meaning of “business rule”. Business rules are guides or criteria used to:
shape conduct or actions
form judgments of behavior
Respectively, yes, business rules therefore establish “boundaries” for distinguishing:
acceptable or desirable conduct or actions from what is unacceptable or undesirable.
proper behavior from what is improper behavior.
correct or optimal decisions from what are incorrect or suboptimal decisions.
But these “boundaries” (delimitations) are a result of applying business rules, not what business rules fundamentally are (i.e., guides or criteria).Furthermore, these boundaries (delimitations) are not as rigid as the term “boundary” suggests. Depending on enforcement level, many business rules can be overridden with proper authority or explanation, or even ignored (e.g., guidelines). Level of enforcement is an organizational decision. Note that the transgressing behavior in such cases is nonetheless still within the scope of organizational operations.My bottom line re “boundary”. Describing business rules can …
wrongly suggest scope.
incorrectly assume all business rules are strictly enforced.
But otherwise sure, business rules do set up boundaries (delimitations) for how activity in the organization is undertaken. And that’s especially important when you start thinking about smart processes – as my recent posts suggest.
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.phpLet me use an example to sketch the workings of business rules in smart architecture based on points of knowledge. 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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