Business Rules Made Simple

Gladys S.W.  Lam
Gladys S.W. Lam Co-Founder & Principal, Business Rule Solutions, LLC , Publisher, Business Rules Journal and Executive Director, Building Business Capability (BBC) Read Author Bio       || Read All Articles by Gladys S.W. Lam

What is a 'rule'?  Don't you know?  The first thing you understood was probably a rule.  When you were 6 months old and started crawling around and were just about to pick up the piece of junk on the floor to put in your month, your mother said, "NO!  Don't do that!"  That is a rule.

Rules tell us what not to do and also, conversely, what to do.  A business rule, then, is simply a rule applied in a business environment.

For those who need the formal definition, a business rule is officially defined by the Business Rules Group as "a directive, intended to influence or guide business behavior."[1]  In other words, a business rule tells us what we may or may not do in a business environment.

What Is the Big Deal?

What is the big deal?  Haven't we been implementing business rules since the beginning of time?

Yes, of course!  We have always implemented rules.  We need the right payroll calculation rules to calculate the right payroll amounts.  We need the right distribution rules to ensure the right inventory is sent out of the right warehouse.

So, just what is the big deal?  The 'big deal' is that, with the advent of the technology and Internet age, there is a need to make change faster ... especially the need to change business rules quickly in order to keep up with business needs.  In this 7x24x365 high-tech life, no one waits any more.  When you send out an email, you expect to get a reply within an hour, regardless of weekends, holidays, or Christmas.  If your business needs to change a business rule, it can no longer afford to wait 6 months, 3 months, or even 1 week.  In order to stay competitive and to provide customer service in this rapid information age, it is imperative that businesses have the ability to change quickly.  The problem is that the traditional ways of embedding rules in procedural code make rule changes very difficult and time-consuming.

Luckily, we now have the technology to support the rapid change and deployment of rules.  The recent market influx of rules engines introduces technologies that specialize in managing and executing rules separately from the presentation layer and the database layer.  Just like the DBMS that manages and processes data, a rules engine manages and executes rules.  Just think of a rules engine as two things:  a giant database of rules plus the intelligence to know when and how to execute your rules.[2]  The power is in separating the process, the data, and the rule.  You can find and change your rules in one place and the change will apply everywhere you use that rule.

As Ron Ross has said many times, business rules are inevitable!

Do you know why?  Remember the 1980s when Data Management was a big deal?  Back then, we didn't know how to organize data.  After many battles of different products, Oracle, DB2, Sybase, etc. were born.  Today, data management and databases are a given.  No one really 'justifies' the need for a database anymore.  More importantly, the industry has gained the know-how in managing and executing data.

DBMS tools and skills are now stable and powerful.  Given the continuous evolution of business needs and the IT industry, 'business rules' has to be the next big thing.  Just think!  Once a business has omnipotent power with its data, what would it want next?  Data is dormant; it is after the fact.  You can build enormous data warehouses to analyze your data.  You will know your customer trends, your product sales, and your employee behaviors.

But what good is knowing all that if you can't act on it?  How do you act on it?  Business rules!  Remember, business rules tell your business what you may or may not do.  You change and enforce behavior through rules.  Business rules are Power!

For example ...

You discover from your data that the slowest period in your retail store is 8:00am to 9:00am.  You figure you have two options to increase profitability:

    1. To generate business during those hours, you could introduce an early-bird morning sale -- 20% off all items in the store between 8:00am and 9:00am.

    2. To save costs, you could change the opening hour to 9:00am.

Your business simply cannot afford to wait a long time for these changes.  You want to be able to introduce discounts or reschedule workers in a real-time manner.  What if this store is only part of a chain of stores?  How quickly can you act?  How quickly can you analyze the impact of this change?

A business rule approach gives you the capability to identify, analyze, implement, and manage the change in a timely and efficient manner.

Where Is the Challenge?

So, if rules engine technologies are so great, implementing rules is easy, right?  Right! ... and wrong! 

Right -- rules engines make the implementation of rules easy.  They are built for that.  However, the hardest part is not in the implementation; it is in capturing your rules.

Let me back up a little.  Business rules are rules about the business.  So, it shouldn't take a rocket scientist to tell you that business rules should come from the business -- that is, business people should specify the business rules, not IT.

Traditionally, IT gathers rules from the business.  IT then goes away and hides for months on end and, finally, converts those rules into a language that takes a university degree to understand.  The business is too intimidated to challenge those implemented rules or the brains that created them.  IT is thought of as mystical.  Any rule change requires a formal invitation for the wizards to come out and do their magic.  Then you pray it will actually work.

This doesn't fly any more in today's high-tech environment.  Desktop computing enables business people to be their own wizards.  (You should see some of the Excel spreadsheets I have reviewed.)  Business people want more control.  A business rule approach allows that.

Now, back to what is hard.  The rules are hard to find -- that's what is hard.  Every business we go to has rules ... hundreds and thousands of rules.  So, where are they?  In people's heads, in existing code built by the wizards of yesteryear, in policy manuals, in outdated user guides, etc.  So, what is hard is specifying the right rules for the right things.

In order to build a winning solution, you need a solid approach to gather rules.  Your rules engine is only as good as the rules you feed it.  What people always forget is that the key to success is in the approach, not simply the tool.  Giving MS Word to someone does not magically enable the person to write.  You get all the bells and whistles with the tool, but without the right content it is virtually useless.

I have seen too many organizations fall into the trap of buying software in the hope of solving their problems.  Millions of dollars are spent on technology skills to learn how to use the software.  What is always forgotten is how the business side fits in.

Embarking on a business rule approach is no different.  Simply acquiring a powerful rules engine does not guarantee success.  There are many wonderful rules engines on the market today.  The real benefit to a business rule approach lies in the ability to connect the business directly to its rules.

The key and the challenge is knowing how to gather and manage business rules from the business perspective and how to connect them to technology implementations.

Just Rememberů

Plainly speaking, here are some of the main things you need to remember to be knowledgeable about business rules:

  • Rules are about what you may or may not do.

  • The Business Rule Approach is about giving the power back to the business to drive the solution.

  • A Business Rule Approach enables you to make business change, FAST.

  • Rules Engines are to rules as DBMSs are to data.

  • Business rules are inevitable!  This follows the natural evolution of the industry.

  • The key to business rule success is in the approach, not simply the tool.

Plainly Speaking

There seems to be a lot of myth and confusion out there about business rules.  What are they?  How do you write rules?  Where do you find rules?  What are rules engines?  In this column, I will explain the 'A to Z' of business rules.  This column is designed to make business rule concepts easy to understand and practical, especially for practitioners just getting into business rules or for anyone who is interested in simply finding out what business rules are.

I will begin the Plainly Speaking series with "Business Rules Made Simple."  That column will tell the reader -- in a down-to-earth manner -- what a business rule is, why it is important, why now, and what to watch out for.

And stay tuned for future articles in this column:  "The Hidden Secret about a Business Rule," "Thousands of Rules? What do you do?", "Rules in Hiding? Where to Look," "Business Rule and Process ... a Happy Marriage?", "The Business Rule Skill Set -- Who Do You Hire?", "Rules Engines ... the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," ... and many more!


[1]  Business Rules Group, Organizing Business Plans:  The Standard Model for Business Rule Motivation, 1st ed. (November 2000). Available at  return to article

[2]  This will be discussed in an upcoming article on rules engines, "Rules Engines ... the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly." return to article

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Standard citation for this article:

citations icon
Gladys S.W. Lam, "Business Rules Made Simple" Business Rules Journal, Vol. 4, No. 5, (May 2003)

About our Contributor:

Gladys  S.W. Lam
Gladys S.W. Lam Co-Founder & Principal, Business Rule Solutions, LLC , Publisher, Business Rules Journal and Executive Director, Building Business Capability (BBC)

Gladys S.W. Lam is a world-renowned authority on applied business rule techniques. She is Principal and Co-Founder of Business Rule Solutions, LLC (, the most recognized company world-wide for business rules and decision analysis. BRS provides methodology, publications, consulting services, and training. Ms. Lam is Co-Creator of IPSpeak, the BRS methodology including RuleSpeak®, DecisionSpeak and TableSpeak. She is Co-Founder of, a vertical community for professionals and home of Business Rules Journal. She co-authored Building Business Solutions, an IIBA® sponsored handbook on business analysis with business rules.

Ms. Lam is widely known for her lively, pragmatic style. She speaks internationally at conferences, public seminars and other professional events. She is also Executive Director of Building Business Capability (BBC) Conference, which includes the Business Rules & Decisions Forum and the Business Analysis Forum.

Ms. Lam is a world-renowned expert on business project management, having managed numerous projects that focus on the large-scale capture, analysis and management of business rules. She advises senior management of large companies on organizational issues and on business solutions to business problems. She has extensive experience in related areas, including BPM, structured business strategy, and managing and implementing information systems.

Ms. Lam is most recognized for her ability to identify the source of business issues, and for her effectiveness in developing pragmatic approaches to resolve them. She has gained a world-class reputation for fostering positive professional relationships with principals and support staff in projects. Ms. Lam graduated from the University of British Columbia with a B.S. in Computer Science.

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