The Perfect Rule Management Tool (Part 2)
Last month, I discussed some of the requirements for a tool that supports managing business rules. This month, I'll explore how (and how well) different kinds of tools support these requirements.
Kinds of Tools
There are five kinds of tools that can be used to manage business rules:
- Microsoft Office
- Business Architecture Tools
- Business Requirements Tools
- Decision Management Systems
- General Rulebook Systems (GRBS)
I have included MS Office simply because most people start with Word and Excel. Both are familiar and readily available. However, MS Office simply does not scale so it is, at best, a short-term solution.
The Business Architecture and Business Requirements Tools generally need to be "extended" or "customized" to accommodate business rules. Most do not recognize business rules as "first class citizens."
With the exception of a few newer tools, Decision Management Systems are for the most part a rebranding or enhancement of older tools. Their focus is on decisions, with business rules being grouped around a decision. Although this is a beneficial approach, it does not cover all kinds of business rules (e.g., behavioral rules). Some of these tools take a hybrid approach, where the rules within a decision can be modeled and executed, or the decision can be modeled and point to where the rules are already implemented.
The only kind of tool that is expressly built for managing business rules from a business perspective is the General Rulebook System.
Support for Requirements
Most tools handle the first five requirements described in Part 1 of this article sufficiently well:
- Properties or custom fields can be added to capture almost any information you want about a business rule.
- Either properties or relationships can be used to trace a business rule from its source to its implementation.
- Usage of business rules is tracked through connections or relationships that can be made to other elements in the tool (e.g., to tasks in a process).
- The lifecycle of business rules can be tracked using statuses that can be configured to any lifecycle. Changes to business rules are tracked through an audit trail. Versions are tracked, and you can usually restore to a previous version.
- Reporting is very flexible with options to select any property and filter on almost any value (e.g., status of "Approved"). There is very little support for automated verification (i.e., detecting conflicts, redundancies, etc.), as it is generally much easier to do this in an execution environment because of the inherent structure (i.e., using a limited specification language vs. trying to interpret the vagaries of plain English).
For these requirements, the primary differentiator is how they accomplish each function, and how easy it is to maintain the information. Sometimes it comes down to the look and feel of the tool.
The sixth requirement — relating to support for business vocabulary — is the one that really separates the GBRS from the rest of the pack.
Most of the other tools allow you to create a relationship to a defined term; however, this is usually a manual process, which means it is very easy to forget. Also, it assumes that you know what is (and is not) a defined term — if you've gotten it wrong in the rule, you can end up adding a duplicate term and so quickly lose control of your structured business vocabulary.
Ideally, for true vocabulary support, you need instant feedback that you've written a business rule or designed a decision table with the correct terminology. The defined terms should be highlighted in some way as you key in a business rule or add cells to a decision table. The relationships between the rule or decision table and the defined terms should be "automagically" created for you.
The tool should also warn you if you are not using the preferred term when there are synonyms for the same concept.
It should also be easy to add new terms to the vocabulary as you are writing a business rule or creating a decision table. And there should be some differentiation between base terms and computed or derived terms.
If you have done a good job of specifying your concept model, the tool should be able to prompt you with the nouns and verbs that you've defined in the concept model — e.g., if you have a verb concept "customer places order" the tool should first prompt you with the term as you start typing, then with the verb once you have selected the term.
The Business Architecture and Business Requirements Tools that purport to manage business rules do a good job of meeting the basic requirements; but they simply do not excel when it comes to vocabulary support. This is because these kinds of tools were designed for a different purpose than managing business rules (e.g., to track requirements). Support for business rules is regarded as an addition or extension to the main functionality of the tool.
Some of the newer Decision Management Systems (that were built from the ground up for decisioning rather than adding a front-end to an existing rule execution environment) offer business-friendly interfaces for modeling decisions and strong support for verification; but, again, only a small percentage of your business rules are likely to be single-sourced in a given rule-based platform for the foreseeable future.
With strong vocabulary support, a General RuleBook System truly supports the need for vocabulary control and structured natural language that is fundamental to the business rules approach. In addition, it provides significant benefits such as the following:
- Increases in productivity — Writing the business rules is faster with the instant feedback for the terminology.
- Greater rigor in writing the business rules — The correct terminology is enforced as the rule is being written.
- Improved reuse of business rules — It is easier to find the business rules using the terms.
- More accurate impact assessment of changes to the business rules — The automatic linkages between the terms and rules ensure that all impacted rules can be identified.
 Some rule execution tools have a modeling environment that lets you do automated verification with minimal effort. However, you usually only use the verification features if you are implementing the rules in the tool.
Ronald G. Ross, "General Rulebook Systems (GRBS): What's the General Idea?" Business Rules Journal, Vol. 10, No. 7 (July 2009), URL: http://www.BRCommunity.com/a2009/b488.html
"Chapter 3," Business Rule Concepts: Getting to the Point of Knowledge (4th Edition, 2013) by Ronald G. Ross.
Building Business Solutions: Business Analysis with Business Rules (2nd Edition, 2015, An IIBA® Sponsored Handbook) by Ronald G. Ross with Gladys S.W. Lam.
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