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What’s Happening with Business Rules and Decision Management? A Q&A with James Taylor and Ronald G. Ross

Originally published August 19, 2008

Why business rules and where does the thinking come from?

Ross: There is a very solid base of technology and practice that has emerged step by step over the past decade or more. It’s a solution-driven movement, rather than vendor or methodologist-driven. It’s not a fad – that’s probably why you don’t hear more about it. This is the 11th year of the Business Rules Forum, and each year we’ve seen steady growth in the base of companies applying the approach.

Why business rules? Well because both your business and your IT practices need it. Business people want faster change in business practices and products. Management wants greater traceability and accountability. IT needs to extract itself from exhausting day-to-day business of making routine changes to decision logic. Frankly, I think the traditional paradigm of hard-coding decision logic has reached the end of its lifetime.

What’s the difference between business rules and decision management?

Taylor: There are many things you can do better with business rules. The automation of critical business decisions and the ongoing management and improvement of those decisions is one of them. Decision management relies on a business rules approach and on business rules technology to make it possible to specify, understand and improve decisions. But decision management is more – it also involves using your data to improve decision making using analytic techniques, testing and refining alternative approaches to decision making and a decision-centric approach. While business rules and business rules technology should be part of many aspects of business operations and system development, decision management is perhaps their sweet spot.

How do business rules and enterprise decisioning fit with business agility?

Ross: A lot of people think that agility comes through process management and business process management software. But process models are about standardizing how work is done, not customizing it. For that, you need rules.

I take the position that business agility is inseparable from customization of products and services. The only way to achieve customization at scale – a million customers each treated as one of a kind – is through a decision-and-rules approach. Nothing else will be manageable or scalable.

How about agility in software development and agile approaches?

Taylor: Business rules and decisioning fit wonderfully with SOA. You can externalize the decision logic as services, such that it is reusable and channel-independent. Every IT professional wants reusability. What could be more reusable than the logic you use to make operational business decisions hundreds or thousands of times per hour? It just makes good sense. While SOA delivers agility in how services are orchestrated and composited, business rules-based decision services deliver intra-service agility – the service itself becomes easy to change.

Business rules and decisioning also complement agile approaches. By providing a way to specify business logic that is accessible to both business and IT professionals and by allowing this specification to be executed, business rules technology brings great benefits to agile methods. With improved collaboration, good support for test-driven design and more, agile practitioners will find much of value in the approach.

What's new in the space?

Ross: In January 2008, the Object Management Group (OMG) released version 1.0 of a groundbreaking new standard – SBVR (Semantics of Business Vocabulary and Business Rules). This year’s Business Rules Forum will be the first to examine this new standard in depth. Add to that work on the Production Rule Representation standard at OMG and the Rule Interchange Format at W3C and we can see a family of standards emerging to support business rules. Meanwhile the predictive model markup language (PMML) is getting broad use in the analytics and data mining communities so all the standards you need are starting to become available. Good standards are critical for a growing industry, and this space is no exception.

Business rules are getting more attention from large software companies this year also, with SAP buying YASU Technologies’ rules product to enhance NetWeaver and IBM announcing an intent to buy ILOG S.A. to bring rules and optimization to the WebSphere platform. Analytics and data mining have never been more visible, especially in the context of customer treatment and CRM. Business process management and SOA vendors and users are also taking more note of the space with leading analyst firms talking, for the first time, about the need for business process management vendors to consider decision management and a recent SOA pattern language including a business rules pattern.

Another breakthrough came with James Taylor’s and Neil Raden’s 2007 book, Smart Enough Systems. This is the first book to look clearly at the business purpose of business rules – making operational business decisions – rather than merely at the artifact itself. I believe we will see enterprise decision management (EDM) eventually becoming a peer of business process management. Decisioning is all about how you make your company smarter – and, as I like to say, there’s no end to how smart you’d like your business processes to become.

Personally, I think we’re also seeing a new emphasis on business rules as a pragmatic means of knowledge retention. Maybe the fear of losing baby boomers is finally taking hold.

Why should I be interested in these things?

Taylor: When you undertake a business rules or decision management initiative, you get several things for the price of one – business agility, channel consistency, improved decision making, compliance and transparency. It’s all about moving away from black-box or hidden decision logic. We want to open up the box – make all decisions explicit, all business rules visible, accessible and manageable. No more hard coding of decision logic! This is most certainly the next major paradigm in building and managing systems.

Perhaps you could give us a quick overview of the Business Rules Forum?

Ross: This October will see the first ever EDM Summit, which will be co-located with the 11th International Business Rules Forum. Originally the Forum was devoted to business rules and rules technology. It remains the only conference in the world devoted to that space. These days, the scope has expanded to cover everything about operational decisioning, including analytics and business intelligence (BI).

It’s our 11th year and each has been bigger and better than the last. The conference itself is 3 days, the week of October 26 in Orlando, with a day and a half of pre-conference tutorials. All the important vendors participate in our product expo, and we run hands-on Fun Labs where you can try out the latest technologies.

What’s new this year with the Enterprise Decision Management Summit?

Taylor: Well, as Ron said, the Forum has been gradually broadening its focus to other aspects of operational decisioning. This year, we went one step further and broke out a specific event focused on operational decision making with topics like data mining to find the rules that work, integrating analytics with business rules, using test-and-learn or adaptive control techniques to continually improve and so on.

What makes these events special?

Ross: For one thing, the conference is devoted to case studies illustrating real accomplishments in real companies by real practitioners. Yes, we have the world’s experts, but you’re not going to just hear about the visions of gurus. It’s real-life stuff.

Another unique thing about the Forum is the cross-section of attendees. We have CEOs and CIOs, programmers and developers, and everything in between. It’s a place where many people find a common ground to talk about the real challenges facing business these days.

Can you give us a feel for the topics that will be covered?

Taylor: The focus of the event will be on business rules and decision making, especially decision making in systems, and topics will include everything from data mining challenges to rule harvesting; from architecting high-performance decisioning environments to managing the organizational change that results from empowering business owners; from integrating business rules and predictive analytics to validating and testing business rules. The core set of topics will be around the practical adoption and use of business rules and decision-making technology, but there is plenty to help organizations become more effective users of business process management, make better use of their business intelligence investments and bring more agility to their service-oriented architecture (SOA) plans.

Any big name speakers or well known companies you want to highlight?

Ross: We are quite pleased to have a special video keynote and interview with Tom Davenport this year, author of Competing on Analytics. When it comes to business rules and decisioning, he really gets it. Add to that the keynote by James Taylor and Neil Raden, authors of Smart Enough Systems, and you’ve got some groundbreaking stuff this year.

This year’s theme is “All Around Agility,” so naturally we’re pleased to have Scott Ambler in the lineup. You can’t have agility without good business processes too, so we have Sandy Kemsley and Roger Burlton speaking on that.

Much of the Forum experience though is about case studies. Here are some of the companies presenting – Bank of America, Chubb & Sons, Circuit City, Dell, Discover, Fannie Mae, Hartford, IRS, Kemper, KeyBank, Liberty Mutual, Revenue Canada, Sun Microsystems, U.S. Navy, Walt Disney, Wells Fargo and many more.

Are there any industries that should pay particular attention to business rules and decision management?

Taylor: Historically, the broadest use of these technologies and approaches has been in financial services – especially retail banking, consumer credit and insurance. Those industries will be well represented in both case studies and attendees. We are seeing rapid growth in marketing and customer experience management across the board, and telecom and government are adopting the technology pretty rapidly. Any organization that is competing for customers in a 24x7 world or dealing with complex regulation, fraud or risk is a good candidate.

Are there any training classes or tutorials at the event for those new to the whole idea?

Ross: I give my introductory overview in a late Sunday afternoon tutorial. It’s a free-wheeling session that acquaints people with the concepts, methods and standards in the space. James and Neil also give a tutorial on enterprise decisioning. Nobody gets left behind, and the conference as a whole always gets fabulous reviews. We really change people’s viewpoints about how to solve real business problems.

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Note:  Business Intelligence Network (BeyeNETWORK.com) has arranged a special $100 discount on registrations to this event. Use code “8MSKW” when you register.
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  • James TaylorJames Taylor

    James is the CEO of Decision Management Solutions and works with clients to automate and improve the decisions underpinning their business. James is the leading expert in decision management and a passionate advocate of decisioning technologies business rules, predictive analytics and data mining. James helps companies develop smarter and more agile processes and systems and has more than 20 years of experience developing software and solutions for clients. He has led decision management efforts for leading companies in insurance, banking, health management and telecommunications. James is a regular keynote speaker and trainer and he wrote Smart (Enough) Systems (Prentice Hall, 2007) with Neil Raden. James is a faculty member of the International Institute for Analytics.

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