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Bare essentials of making rules work


Jim Sinur and Dave McCoy of Gartner hosted a quick session on making rules work at the Gartner BPM show. With only 30 minutes this was quick and dirty and the audience was overwhelmingly people completely new to business rules (though not to BPM). Dave outlined his 5 pieces of advice:

  1. Ignore standards
    While it would be nice to have standards for rule interchange and invocation, he said, there is little or nothing to show for it right now and companies should not worry about it for now. Much as I would like to be more optimistic I have to agree with him – there is potential in the various standards but not enough there yet for companies to make it part of how they use business rules.
  2. Don’t ignore rule representation
    How rules are represented in a business rules management system are critical to how your business users and business analysts will use them. Representations like rule sheets (sometimes, confusingly, called decision tables) with their spreadsheet like format are very accessible, as are decision trees and (look-up) decision tables for the right audience. Semantically rich natural language is actually surprisingly hard to use well he said. I would add that matching users to representations that make sense to them is critical because business users don’t want to maintain rules any more than they want to maintain code – they want to run their business and the representation of the rules will be critical in making them feel that this is what they are doing (see this post on whether the business can use these technologies without IT for more)
  3. Dave’s third point was that companies will have multiple rule engines. Again I agree with him – rules get everywhere so everything – your BPMS, your enterprise applications, your ETL/EAI tools – will have rules and probably a rules engine. But this is not the same as saying that business decisions are managed in all these places because business rules are related to but not the same as decisions. Decisions should not be managed in too many places but I do believe that companies will need federated decision management just like their need federated repositories across other technologies.
  4. Agility and the power of business rules to deliver flexibility and adaptability was next. Flexibility and adaptability are two of the four quadrants of the Agility Quotient Gartner is discussing along with productivity and awareness and business rules clearly deliver them. Using business rules to manage decisions can make for much greater flexibility (response to known changes) and make it possible to prepare for unknown changes by developing scenarios (adaptability).
  5. Dave’s final point was to explain that inferencing (forward or backward chaining) are only needed for some rules scenarios and those getting started with rules should focus on those scenarios that don’t require this more advanced capability. I would say that companies should, by and large, not get sucked into discussions about Rete, inferencing, chaining or any of the more technical engine features. Instead they should focus on the power of rules products to deliver stable processing in the face of regular changes. How well does the tool manage a decision when business users without a technical background are making regular, random changes? Does it remain stable, delivering consistent performance and results or does it requires some kind of IT intervention for clean up once in a while? Algorithms like Rete can be part of how products do this but it is the stability in the face of change that I would prioritize.

An interesting session. Hopefully some of these folks will come to my breakfast presentation to learn more.


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