Do Business Rules Define the Operational Boundaries of an Organization?

Ronald G.  Ross
Ronald G. Ross Co-Founder & Principal, Business Rule Solutions, LLC , Executive Editor, Business Rules Journal and Co-Chair, Building Business Capability (BBC) Read Author Bio       || Read All Articles by Ronald G. Ross

I've heard it said that "business rules define the operational boundaries of an organization."  Do they?

The short answer is no.  Any interpretation of business rules that suggests they directly define scope in some way — i.e., the operational edges of an organization, business area, or project — is almost certainly off-target.  Even if they did, scope needs to be defined in a more basic, straightforward manner.[1]

But the suggestion does provide an interesting basis for discussion.  Something is being bounded by business rules, but what?  Does scope need to be understood in some deeper, richer sense?  And how do these issues relate to smart business processes?

Business Rules as Delimiters

Let's revisit the definition of business rule.  The definition we use is the following:

business rule: criterion used to

  • guide conduct or actions.
  • shape judgments of behavior.
  • make decisions.

Business rules can therefore be used to delimit

  • acceptable or desirable conduct or actions from unacceptable or undesirable conduct or actions.

  • proper behavior from improper behavior.

  • correct or best decisions from incorrect or poorer decisions.

These delimitations might be called 'boundaries'.  But note these 'boundaries' are a result of applying business rules, not what business rules fundamentally are (i.e., guides or criteria).

To say that business rules are boundaries can therefore be misleading.  A thing is best defined according to what it is, not by what it might do or produce.  An umbrella might be used as a weapon, for example, but it's still an umbrella.

Business Rules as Soft Delimiters

The delimitations produced by business rules are not so rigid as the term boundary might suggest.  The key is enforcement level — how strictly a business rule is to be enforced when violations are detected.

Depending on the enforcement level specified for any particular behavioral rule, the rule might be overridden with proper authority or explanation, or even ignored (e.g., as with guidelines).  See Table 1 for the most common levels of enforcement.[2]

Table 1.  Common Enforcement Levels for Behavioral Rules.

Enforcement Level


strictly enforced

Violations are disallowed in all cases achieving some new state 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.


Suggested, but not enforced.

Suppose scope is understood as the kinds of behavior expected and tolerated by some model of the business.  Behavior permitted when a business rule is overridden, or when a rule is applied merely as a guideline, still falls within scope understood in that sense.

In other words, violations of a rule with such enforcement levels are both expected and tolerated.  Business rules specified in that way represent soft delimiters.

How hard and fast any given behavioral rule is to be enforced is an organizational decision.  It's a crucial question business analysts should be asking.  Indeed, enforcement level is how richness of organization response can be achieved at scale in highly-adaptive business solutions.[3]

Lines in the Sand for Smart Business Processes

We've had a fascinating conversation of late on social media about smart business processes.  Here's a good, straightforward definition.[4]

smart business process:  a business process that is self-learning, and can adapt while running

The natural question is how smart business processes and business rules relate.

It's surprising to me (not in a pleasant way) how many process gurus can talk about business processes becoming smart without ever mentioning business rules.  Do they mean system processes, not business processes?  Maybe.  Are there multiple dimensions to creating intelligence in processes?  Probably.

So I think some bottom line, some minimum threshold, is needed to judge when business processes are smart.  The question I would ask is this:

What keeps a smart business process honest?

Is a business process truly smart if it finds clever means to achieve some results where the means are

  • illegal?

  • self-defeating?

  • at odds with the company's business policies or goals?

Clearly not.  Any smart business process will always need to know which behaviors and decisions are acceptable and which ones are not.  Those lines in the sand are business rules.

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[1]  For explanation of our approach to defining scope refer to Chapter 3, 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.  URL: return to article

[2]  Adapted from Business Rule Concepts:  Getting to the Point of Knowledge (4th ed., 2013), by Ronald G. Ross,, p. 135. return to article

[3]  Refer to "Breaking the Rules:  Breach Questions," by Ronald G. Ross, Business Rules Journal, Vol. 14, No. 2 (Feb. 2013), URL: return to article

[4]  Acks Geoffrey Darnton return to article

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Standard citation for this article:

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Ronald G. Ross, "Do Business Rules Define the Operational Boundaries of an Organization?" Business Rules Journal, Vol. 14, No. 12, (Dec. 2013)

About our Contributor:

Ronald  G. Ross
Ronald G. Ross Co-Founder & Principal, Business Rule Solutions, LLC , Executive Editor, Business Rules Journal and Co-Chair, Building Business Capability (BBC)

Ronald G. Ross is Principal and Co-Founder of Business Rule Solutions, LLC, where he actively develops and applies the BRS Methodology including RuleSpeak®, DecisionSpeak and TableSpeak.

Ron is recognized internationally as the "father of business rules." He is the author of ten professional books including the groundbreaking first book on business rules The Business Rule Book in 1994. His newest are:

Ron serves as Executive Editor of and its flagship publication, Business Rules Journal. He is a sought-after speaker at conferences world-wide. More than 50,000 people have heard him speak; many more have attended his seminars and read his books.

Ron has served as Chair of the annual International Business Rules & Decisions Forum conference since 1997, now part of the Building Business Capability (BBC) conference where he serves as Co-Chair. He was a charter member of the Business Rules Group (BRG) in the 1980s, and an editor of its Business Motivation Model (BMM) standard and the Business Rules Manifesto. He is active in OMG standards development, with core involvement in SBVR.

Ron holds a BA from Rice University and an MS in information science from Illinois Institute of Technology. Find Ron's blog on For more information about Ron visit Tweets: @Ronald_G_Ross

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