Taking your business seriously

Christmas 2014

I seem to mention a certain man, a Mr Ronald G. Ross, an awful lot in this blog. In fact I did some online training with him and his colleague, Gladys S. W. Lam, just the other week, so it’s little wonder that he’s front of mind for me.

He came from a traditional business analysis (BA) background (ie systems development), so his techniques and thoughts have been extracted from the backdrop of working out how to support business through appropriate and well-aligned computer systems that meet the correct business needs. He has gone a step – or many – further though and put some real meaning around how to put the ‘business’ at the forefront and as the beneficiary in ‘business analysis’.

Business rules are one of several notable examples of this. Business rules in the BA space have often spiralled deep into the technical universe in a complete misinterpretation of their name. Instead of being about the business itself they have been – still often are – seen as the logic for how a computer system operates. Just as confusingly they are often included with system requirements (eg in Requirements Specifications) which makes it very easy to forget there is a human-based organisation on the other side of screen which has non-technical drivers such as customers and values.

Business rules should be just that. Business rules. Rules that govern how an organisation or organisational unit function. It should be that any system designed and developed for use by an organisation accommodates and sometimes even enforces these rules, but it’s the business which owns these rules and it’s up to the business (and whoever is appointed as responsible person for this) to maintain them.

Let’s take a step backwards for a minute and think conceptually: where do business rules reside? In a previous post I suggested that for the most part they will be associated with processes and the actual procedural documentation. I will admit that this is being a bit simplistic – although I do think that a large percentage of the business rules for a given business area will be most practically used in conjunction with a standard operating procedure.

However business rules are beings in themselves. They sit in their own little box (or rule book or reference manual) as statements that need to be made so that members of the organisation know how to behave.

An obvious example is the road rules. There are so many drivers on the road now and so many possible road situations that without a statement like “the driver must be stationary at a stop sign for at least 5 seconds” written down somewhere, people don’t know they have to do it. A general mission of driving safely on the road, or the goal of getting from A to B in one piece or the policy of doing what the road signs say do not give you that information.

There are plenty of other examples of where we do hold the business of the organisation itself in high enough esteem to write down the rules and distribute them. For example in the business of playing board games, in the business of constructing buildings, and in the business of running a club. And yet in so many organisations – even where there are hundreds of employees and huge amounts of money being spent – they just do not take their business seriously enough to write down the rules.

Anyway enough of the sales spiel – I think I went down this path last time I talked about business rules! Or perhaps I wasn’t such a convert back then 🙂

Today we are supposed to be talking about the how of business rules. How do you go about drawing them out and then documenting them down on paper. They are two separate things.

So let’s start with how to draw out business rules. Business rules in reality are drawn from anywhere – and when I say anywhere of course I mean anywhere in the model we are exploring here (see it summarised at www.superiorbusinessanalysis.com).

So to extract all the business rules for your organisation you need to go everywhere and get down into a certain level of detail. What are the rules you can extract from the legislative and legal constraints? What are the rules you can derive from your policies to give them necessary clarification? What are the rules that define how your processes run? What are the rules that define how monitoring of performance metrics occur?

At the end of the day, this takes time and the best I can say here is just beware that as you come to understand your organisation better you will find rules all over the place. You might never document them all, but if you are able to find and document the important ones, you are so much further ahead as people will know what they are and are not allowed to do. The level of detail is up to you. If you own a one-person business, documenting a copious amount of business rules is not going to be very cost-effective. If you have a massive organisation with lots of staff involved in core activities, getting business rules straight will be essential in minimizing risk, variability and confusion.

You also need to consider the many facets of business rules – because there isn’t just one type. According to Mr Ross (see reference below) there are two types of business rules – but who knows, maybe there is a broader framework of rule types just waiting to be imagined!

1. Behavioural rules are the rules that constrain the behaviour of people in an organisation in terms of preventing them from doing something or requiring them to do something.
2. Definitional rules contribute to the definition of key terms used by the business. This does not do away with the need for actual definitions, it just provides the next level of detail.

These are pretty broad definitions, so it is not hard to imagine that in your organisation there will be lots and lots of business rules. The challenge is finding them, organising them, applying the most useful level of detail and then maintaining them. Just a few challenges then! And not enough time today to go down all those burrows.

So let’s take a quick look at what business rules should look like then, which might also help to give a bit more practicality to this post. I have got a few comments to make, but if you are really interested I suggest you take a look at this more definitive reference- http://www.rulespeak.com/en/ .
Here are some examples.

In terms of a behavioural rule you may write , “The accountant must record the total number of fruit chew types in stock that month in the ledger by the last day of the month.”

What about a definitional rule? You might write: “The total number of fruit chew types in stock that month is equivalent to the number of different barcodes in use for stock that is available for purchase for at least one day in that month.” This clarifies what is included in this calculation and closes the loop of the example behavioural rule.

It can be difficult getting your head around the phrasing of business rules but in fact it’s not so different to writing legislation or contracts. If you’re stuck for how to phrase a business rule, I suggest you flick through a piece of legislation or regulation. You basically need the crispest, clearest most unambiguous statement that says what is or is not correct.

In terms of ensuring clarity – and also ensuring that some huge loophole hasn’t been missed – I find it’s useful to check I’ve covered the who, what, when, how, where (but not why) in each statement. If you look back up at the behavioural rule example, you can see that all of these are covered off. I must admit that when I wrote this very paragraph it prompted me to go back up and add in some of those dimensions for clarification – so yes, it works!

The other necessity to be aware of in documenting behavioural rules is that the level of compliance needs to be explicit. You really only have a couple of choices of words: ‘must’ or ‘must not’! As behavioral rules are generally about constraining the business, discretionary actions (which would need a ‘may’ or similar) are generally not going to be business rules. When the choice of action is left to the activity owner, they will need refer to a higher level guidance instead, which would usually be in the form of a policy document.

With that folks, that is it for today – and not only for today, but the year. Apologies for the choppy post, I think my brain is already starting to slip into holiday mode, so it is obviously the right time for a break!

My next post is due 30th December and given that it’s right smack bang in the middle of my holidays from work I’ll be taking a break from my blog too. Stay posted in the new year because we’ve got a whole lot more to explore in 2014 and come 13th January I’ll be kicking off again.

Thanks to my readers for stopping by this year and especially to those of you who’ve gone the extra step of sending me your thoughts. It’s always nice to hear that I’m not just talking to myself and it’s great being challenged by new questions or ideas.

I wish you all have a very merry Christmas and a happy and healthy new year.

Reference: Ronald G. Ross, “What Is a Business Rule?” Business Rules Journal, Vol. 11, No. 3 (Mar. 2010), URL: http://www.BRCommunity.com/a2010/b525.html

Thanks to Tagul for Christmas Tag Cloud

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