Do Business Rules Define the Operational Boundaries of an Organization?

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Have you 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 define scope in some way – i.e., the operational edges of an organization, business area, or project – is almost certainly off-target. 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? This month’s column takes a look at these and related questions.

Do Business Rules Define the Operational Boundaries of an Organization?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, straight forward 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 Description
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.
guideline 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, straight forward 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.


Author: Ronald G. Ross, Principal, Business Rule Solutions, LLC http://www.brsolutions.com/

Ronald RossRonald G. Ross is recognized internationally as the ‘father of business rules.’ He is Co-founder and Principal of Business Rule Solutions, LLC, where he is active in consulting services, publications, the Proteus® methodology, and RuleSpeak®. Mr. Ross serves as Executive Editor of BRCommunity.com and as Chair of the Business Rules Forum Conference. He is the author of nine professional books, including his latest, Building Business Solutions: Business Analysis with Business Rules with Gladys S.W. Lam (2011, http://www.brsolutions.com/bbs), and the authoritative Business Rule Concepts, now in its third edition (2009, http://www.brsolutions.com/b_concepts.php). Mr. Ross speaks and gives popular public seminars across the globe. His blog: http://www.ronross.info/blog/ . Twitter: Ronald_G_Ross


[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:http://www.brsolutions.com/bbs.

[2] Adapted from Business Rule Concepts: Getting to the Point of Knowledge (4th ed, 2013), by Ronald G. Ross,http://www.brsolutions.com/b_concepts.php, p. 135.

[3] Refer to “Breaking the Rules: Breach Questions,” by Ronald G. Ross, Business Rules Journal, Vol. 14, No. 2 (Feb. 2013), URL: http://www.BRCommunity.com/a2013/b688.html

[4] Acks Geoffrey Darnton

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COMMENTS

ryanfolster posted on Tuesday, January 7, 2014 4:47 AM
Great article Ron, in my experience on a current project involving the implementation of a new regulation the process in which business is done has changed slightly defined by the new legislation but the biggest change is to the business rules involved on the process. Some of these rules are strictly forced while some are allowed override by a specific actor. One example of a rule is that data provided by a client should only be used for the purpose for which it was intended defined by the interaction type. In your enforcement level table this rule would be governed by an override allowed by a specific actor which in this case would be limited to the client.
rross posted on Wednesday, January 15, 2014 11:03 AM
Thanks, Ryan. Excellent example.
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