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

TURNING OPERATIONAL KNOWLEDGE & COMPLIANCE INTO A COMPETITIVE EDGE

We systemize tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge

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Posts Tagged ‘tacit vs. explicit knowledge’

The Story of Al’s Spreadsheet and Absent Brains

I want to share with you the most intelligent thing I’ve ever heard a manager say on the fly. I’ll give some background first. In one way or another, the situation that evoked what she said may seem quite familiar to you. A few years ago Gladys and I were invited to conduct a one-week facilitated session for a national taxation authority. The objective was to reverse-engineer business rules from a very complex spreadsheet. The manager told us everyone was deathly afraid to touch it because no one understood how it worked. You could never tell what impact making a change would have. Used by many of their systems and embedded in various websites, the spreadsheet was mission-critical. She was finally biting the bullet and assembling some of her best staff to re-engineer it. Everyone knew the spreadsheet by its nickname, Al’s Spreadsheet. It dated to the 1970s when it was implemented under the first generation of automated spreadsheets. Notorious in the organization for more than a generation, it was devilishly convoluted. One of these days I might hold a contest for the world’s most complex spreadsheet. I’ve actually told this story many times around the world, and the audiences’ reaction is inevitably the same – perhaps the same as yours reading this. “No, Al’s Spreadsheet couldn’t possibly be the world’s most complex spreadsheet because my company has the world’s worst!” Around the globe there is extensive core operational business knowledge running businesses day-to-day that is highly inaccessible. Just putting your fingers on it, much less revising it, consumes vast amounts of vital resources. We live in a service provider’s dreamscape. It makes you wonder how brittle (read not agile) many companies’ operations really are today. To return to the story, by mid-week we’d achieved only limited success in deciphering the spreadsheet. Progress was painfully slow. Lapsing momentarily into frustration, an idea popped into my head.  I blurted out, “Hey, why don’t we just go ask Al what this thing really does?!” I assure you my intention was not to provide comic relief. To my chagrin that’s exactly what happened. The whole room erupted into laughter. When the hysteria finally subsided, someone patiently explained to me (barely keeping a straight face) that nobody actually knew who Al was – or indeed, whether Al had actually ever even existed. If so he had long since parted ways with the organization, fading away as all workers sooner or later do into the mists of time. That’s when the manager said the thing that I found so memorable. Looking at no one in particular and staring vaguely into the far distance she said, “No organization should ever depend on absent brains.”. Exactly! To ensure the continuity of operational business knowledge, no organization should ever depend on absent brains – or even on brains that could (and eventually always will) become absent in the future. To say it differently, your operational business knowledge should be encoded explicitly in a form that workers you have never even met yet can understand. Operational business knowledge can be either tacit or explicit (read ‘accessible’). The classic test for when knowledge is tacit is ‘lose the person, lose the knowledge’. You make operational business knowledge explicit by expressing it as business rules. So make sure when you lose your Al, he doesn’t walk out the door with the day-to-day knowledge you need to run your business. Encode it as business rules!

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Single Source of Business Truth

Re-engineering knowledge work is the central problem of the knowledge economy. In recent work at Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and current work a major bank in Canada we used RuleSpeak® to create what I call a “single source of truth for operational business IP (intellectual property)”. This is far more than a conceptual data model. Beyond structured business vocabulary its central feature is comprehensive rules. It may be like what some professionals call a “conceptual ontology” (as opposed to an operational ontology to be embedded in IT systems). But we would never use the term “ontology” in our work.  Most business people and SMEs simply wouldn’t ‘get’ that. The idea is that all audiences (or subcommunities) in an organization should work off a single trusted source of explicit know-how (business vocabulary and business rules), no matter what their specific responsibilities:
    • producing training materials for line workers.
    • making changes in operational policies.
    • providing proof of compliance for auditors.
    • creating new products.
    • communicating with IT.
Here are some key observations about our work to create a single source of business truth:
    • Our primary audience is not IT. Yet our work is of sufficient precision that straightforward translation into an implementation form can basically be taken as a ‘given’.
    • Our approach recognizes that people are the essential ingredient in business (as opposed to other kinds of knowledge problems). People can violate rules. For coordinating the work of people, direct support for behavioral rules, not just definitional or decision rules, is a must.
    • Our work could not be undertaken without a structured natural language for business rules like RuleSpeak. The non-IT audiences do need rich business semantics, but they have no desire whatsoever to become semantic programmers. They simply would not commit if the work were conducted on that basis.
    • No one today knows what the optimal syntax is for expressing all forms of business know-how in all circumstances. I suspect there isn’t one. That fact, plus the exponential increase in computer capability for processing natural language, indicates clearly that focusing on syntax is simply the wrong direction. RuleSpeak is based on, and was one of the reference languages for SBVR (Semantics of Business Vocabulary and Business Rules, on OMG standard), which supports a non-syntax approach. A language for ‘speaking’ with computers that is not a computer language – now that’s an idea whose time has definitely come!
www.BRSolutions.com

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Managing Know-How in the Knowledge Economy: What Role Do Business Rules Play?

I’ve been writing a lot recently about the knowledge economy and what makes a business smart. Let me dig a little deeper. The kind of knowledge I’m talking about might be better described as know-how.

know-how:  accumulated practical skill or expertness …  especially:  technical knowledge, ability, skill, or expertness of this sort[1]

Know-how that you can encode and retain is represented by business rules and the structured business vocabularies (concept models) on which the business rules are based.  Know-how is a subset, a small one probably, of knowledge.  Briefly, knowledge can range from practical to theoretical, from certain to probabilistic, and from frequently applicable to infrequently applicable.  At the risk of saying the obvious, you can’t run the day-to-day operations of a business on knowledge that is theoretical, probabilistic, or infrequently applicable.  In short, business rules are about know-how management, a strictly limited subset of knowledge management. Like knowledge, know-how can be either tacit (in people’s heads) or explicit.  The classic test for when knowledge is tacit is ‘lose the person, lose the knowledge’.  Obviously you want to retain know-how. As a senior manager recently put it, “No organization should depend on absent brains.”

know-how retention:  expressing know-how explicitly in a form understandable by business people and business analysts, and managing the know-how, such that it is always available for future reference or use (by those capable and authorized)

The over-time infrastructure needed to retain know-how is provided by a general rulebook system (GRBS).  It’s what rule management should really be all about. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ 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

[1] Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary

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What Role for Business Rules in *Knowledge Retention*? One of the ‘Must-Knows’ of Business Rules …

Celebrating the 10th Anniversary of the Business Rules Manifesto[1] http://www.businessrulesgroup.org/brmanifesto.htm FAQ #7 Question: How do business rules relate to knowledge retention? The classic test of whether knowledge is tacit or explicit is this: If you lose the person, do you lose the knowledge? Clearly, you want basic business know-how to be explicit, so a basic principle of the Manifesto is …

3.3. Rules must be explicit.  No rule is ever assumed about any concept or fact.

Rules capture and encode operational business know-how in a form that can be retained, managed and re-used. What are rules really about? A well-expressed rule is based on terms and facts (or more accurately, noun concepts and verb concepts). These concepts represent the basic stuff of the business – operational-level things that are talked about, managed and processed day-in and day-out, often many, many thousands of times. Rules provide criteria that guide this operational activity in a consistent way. So the Manifesto emphasizes …

3.4. Rules are basic to what the business knows about itself – that is, to basic business knowledge.  

In business, of course, knowledge is not an end in and of itself. Rather, the goal is consistent application of the knowledge – as well as its continuous improvement. Achieving these goals requires that the people who understand the knowledge – business people, subject matter experts, and business analysts – be able to work with it directly and effectively. After all, the true test of knowledge quality is not whether an application program runs, but whether you get the right (or best) results. So the Manifesto says …

9.3. Business people should have tools available to help them verify business rules against each other for consistency.

In the plainest possible terms, IT professionals simply shouldn’t be the ones to determine whether business logic ‘works’.


[1] The Manifesto is free, only 2 pages long, translated into 15 languages. Have a quick look (or re-look!). No sign up required. Well worth your time.

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