Business Rules Forum: Kathy Long on Process and Rules

Kathy Long, who (like me) is more from the process side than the rules side, gave a breakout session on how process and rules can be combined, and particularly how to find the rules within processes. She stated that most of the improvements in business processes don’t come from improving the flow (the inputs and outputs), but in the policies, procedures, knowledge, experience and bureaucracy (the guides and enablers): about 85% of the improvement comes from the latter category. She uses an analysis technique that looks at these four types of components:

  • Input: something that is consumed or transformed by a process
  • Guide: something that determines how, why or when a process occurs, but is not consumed
  • Output: something that is produced by or results from a process
  • Enabler: something used to perform a process

There’s quite a bit of material similar to her talk last year (including the core case study); I assume that this is the methodology that she uses with clients hence it doesn’t change often. Rules fall into the “guides” category, that is the policies and procedures that dictate how, why and when a process occurs. I’m not sure that I get the distinction that she’s making between the “how” in her description of guides, and the “how” that embedded within process flows; I typically think of policies as business rules, and procedures as business processes, rather than both policies and procedures as being rules. Her interpretation is that policies aren’t actionable, but need to be converted to procedures, which are actionable; since rules are, by their nature, actionable, that’s what gets converted to rules. However, the examples of rules that she provided (“customer bill cannot exceed preset limit”) seem to be more policies than procedures to me.

In finding the rules in the process, she believes that we need to start at the top, not at the lowest atomic level: in other words, you don’t want to go right to the step level and try to figure out what rules to create to guide that step; you want to start at the top of the process and figure out if you’re even doing the right higher-level subprocesses and tasks, given that you’re implemented rules to automate some of the decisions in the process.

The SVBR (Semantics of Business Vocabulary and Business Rules) standard defines the difference between rules and advice, and breaks down rules into business rules and structural rules. From there, we end up with structural business rules — which are criteria for making decisions, and can’t be violated — and operative business rules — which are guides for conduct or action, but can be violated (potentially with a penalty, e.g., an SLA). Structural rules might be more what you think of as business rules, that is, they are the underpinning for automated decisions, or are a specific computation. On the other hand, operative business rules may be dictated by company policy or external regulation, but may be overridden; or represent a threshold at which an alert will be raised or a process escalated.

She recommends documenting rules outside the process, since the alternative is to build a decision tree into your process flow, which gets really ugly. I joked during my presentation on Tuesday that the process bigots would include all rules as explicit decision trees within the BPMS; the rules bigots would have a single step in the entire process in the BPMS, and that step would call the BRMS. Obviously, you have to find the right balance between what’s in the process map and what’s in the rules/decision service, especially when you’re creating them in separate environments.

The largest detractor from the presentation is that Long used a case study scenario to show the value of separating rules from process, but described it in large blocks of text on her slides which she just read aloud to us. She added a lot of information as she went along, but any guideline on giving a presentation tells you not to put a ton of text on your slides and just read it, for very good reasons: the audience tends to be reading the slides in case of listening to you. She might want to consider the guides that are inherent in the process of taking a case study and turning it into a presentation.

A brilliant recommendation that she ended with is to create appropriate and consistent rules across the enterprise, then let the business design their own process. Funny how some of us who are practitioners in BPM (whether at the management consulting or implementation end of things) are the biggest critics of BPM, or specifically, we see the value of using rules for agility because process often doesn’t deliver on its promises. I’ve made the statement in two presentations within the last week that BPMS implementations are becoming the new legacy systems — not (purely) because of the capability of the products, but because of how organizations are deploying them.

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