Flexible yet permanent – the power of business rules

May 18, 2010
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Sapphire, SAP’s big show, is on this week and I have been following the twitter stream (I was invited but couldn’t make it). Merv Adrian (@merv) had a sequence of posts about some SAP customers (Shell and Unilever) that really struck me:

  • Shell … “Once you pour electronic concrete, it’s hard to get out.”
  • Unilever: “There is no such thing as a temporary solution. Don’t put in things you don’t want to keep.”
  • Shell – you MUST combine IT and functional people across different systems

To me these are a clarion call for the use of business rules and decision management. Let’s think about these comments.

Big systems implementations tend to be “electronic concrete”. In particular you can’t easily change the logic in those systems. You can add process management across and within them, but many business processes are actually pretty stable – it is the decisions within them that are constantly changing. For instance, your order to cash process does not change but your pricing decision does. Identifying the decisions in your applications and processes explicitly and then automating them using business rules

Copyright © 2010 http://jtonedm.com James Taylor

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Sapphire, SAP’s big show, is on this week and I have been following the twitter stream (I was invited but couldn’t make it). Merv Adrian (@merv) had a sequence of posts about some SAP customers (Shell and Unilever) that really struck me:

  • Shell … “Once you pour electronic concrete, it’s hard to get out.”
  • Unilever: “There is no such thing as a temporary solution. Don’t put in things you don’t want to keep.”
  • Shell – you MUST combine IT and functional people across different systems

To me these are a clarion call for the use of business rules and decision management. Let’s think about these comments.

Big systems implementations tend to be “electronic concrete”. In particular you can’t easily change the logic in those systems. You can add process management across and within them, but many business processes are actually pretty stable – it is the decisions within them that are constantly changing. For instance, your order to cash process does not change but your pricing decision does. Identifying the decisions in your applications and processes explicitly and then automating them using business rules allows you to develop a system that is both robust and flexible.

IT systems are notorious for lasting longer than expected. They rapidly evolve from “temporary solutions” to permanent ones. Those who think business rules are overkill (see this whole thread, for instance) often tell me that “this code isn’t going to change” and “it will always be easy for someone to change this code” despite decades of evidence that this is not the case. Instead of assuming it won’t change or that making changes will be easy, companies would do better assuming that they will need to change the logic in their systems more often than they think and that the people making the changes won’t be those who wrote it originally. The ease with which business rules can be changed and re-deployed and the greater clarity of business rules syntax make this work. Assuming that your systems will be permanent, and making sure that critical flex points in the system are easy to change (because they are externalized as rules-based decision services) will ensure that your have permanence with flexibility.

Finally, the use of business rules in this way helps improve business and IT collaboration. Because both technical and business people can read and understand the business rules, there is less confusion and more collaboration. It does not matter if IT still own the rules, if the business people edit the rules themselves or if business analysts take point – rules-based decisions deliver effective IT/business collaboration.

Externalizing your decisions and using business rules to manage them gives you systems that are flexible yet permanent. I wrote a white paper on this topic for SAP recently, Business Rules and Decisioning for Process Experts. Use business rules, focus on decisions and get concrete you can change!

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