The market's demand for increased business agility is forcing organizations to drive cost and inefficiencies out of their application development cycles in order to better serve their customers and do so more profitably. Companies across a wide range of industries are tearing down the silos of information that have separated their lines of business. This often means abandoning the outdated method of "hard-wiring" business logic into applications, which cannot accommodate rapid and frequent changes without a heavy burden on IT staff that slows down the modification process and raises its cost.

Over the past five years, two technologies have been gaining widespread popularity due in part to their ability to alleviate the problem of inflexible applications: business rules management systems (BRMSs) and Web services/service-oriented architecture (SOA). Rather than competing, Web services and business rules are best viewed as complementary technologies. By combining the loosely coupled approach of Web services/SOA with the de-coupled approach of BRMSs that externalizes business logic from applications, organizations can achieve business agility by better representing business logic in more flexible forms. 2006 will be the year in which these two worlds start to combine, and both business decision-makers and IT management will benefit through greater business agility and lower total cost of ownership of both new and existing applications.

Achieving increased business agility requires rapid adaptation of changes to logic across many different applications. Business logic must be transparent to domain experts so that they understand how business policies and rules are applied to business processes and can make changes to the logic themselves. Furthermore, implementing business logic redundantly within multiple applications should be avoided because it is highly inefficient and prone to errors and inconsistencies. By supporting common business logic within an SOA that can be accessed by many disparate applications, decision-makers and IT managers can reduce redundancy, speed implementation, lessen inconsistency and improve overall efficiency of both the application lifecycle and the impacted operations.

Enhancing Automated Decision Support with Business Rules

Automated decision support and management systems are on the front lines in the battle for business agility. Why? Because in all types of industries - from insurance, banking and manufacturing to health care, telecom and government - decision support applications help drive business processes that have immediate, direct impact on operational efficiency and profitability. Thus the speed with which enterprises can react to dynamically changing market conditions and customer requirements can be a make-or-break critical success factor.

Examples abound of how inflexible application design holds organizations back. In the insurance industry, for instance, the task of consistently maintaining business rules and procedures has become very complex and daunting for IT organizations, whether the application is for screening applicants, underwriting, sales training or claims processing. The lack of a common rule repository often results in inconsistent representation and outcomes across many applications or lines of business. Ultimately, this can lead to fines or even worse: customer dissatisfaction or the loss of business to a competitor.

In health care, the business rules being managed may involve direct delivery of health care services, processing health insurance claims or patient advisory services, for example. Note that in all cases, these are mission-critical processes that determine the health outcomes of patients, either directly or indirectly, as well as the financial well-being of all parties: the patient, the provider and the insurer. Even nominal improvements in these types of decision support systems can yield dramatic results both in terms of patient health outcomes and cost benefits.

Business rules are making an impact on public service and safety, too. Government agencies at all levels are beginning to explore the benefits of business rules technology in addressing decision support for the operational rules associated with real-time disaster preparedness and emergency response procedures. Some are implementing pilot projects. The rationale is simple: nearly everything involved in improving the performance of first responders, whether in natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina or man-made ones such as 9/11, comes down to 1) better anticipating needs and 2) establishing procedures to address those needs better and faster. Such massive emergencies test not only resources but also readiness, and it is hard to imagine a better application for automated decision support with the need to deal with speed and complexity while so much is at stake.

Finally, there are many less dramatic but nonetheless important applications of business rules that have wide horizontal application across industries. Perhaps the best example of these is managing regulatory compliance. To provide the flexibility and agility to adapt quickly to frequent changes in both the regulations and IT infrastructure, compliance logic is best maintained externally from applications. BRMS technology can help organizations comply with regulatory demands by supporting greater flexibility for accommodating more frequent and sometimes customer-driven changes. Business rules are also providing a competitive advantage in customer relationship management (CRM), where building customer loyalty requires consistent representation of sales and customer service policies across multiple touchpoints - from the call center to the Web.

The Role of the BRMS

The role of the BRMS is pretty straightforward. It provides a common repository for the business rules and the application logic that govern the business processes. In the most advanced case, business analysts create and maintain the business logic through a natural language interface. After verifying the business logic, it can be deployed to a business rules server. The business rules server is implemented as a Web service that can be accessed by many SOA-enabled applications.

Enabling business analysts to capture the business logic in English - without requiring a lot of costly, time-consuming transformation to programmer requirements and, subsequently, implementation - increases business agility dramatically. A BRMS enables application logic to change more flexibly and quickly. It does this by externalizing business logic from underlying IT systems and representing the logic in plain English. This, in turn, enables business analysts to make changes without requiring IT intervention and IT professionals to provide the framework of services that will access the business logic.

By separating the business rules from the implementation, applications gain the ability to become "process aware" and to accommodate changes dynamically for a more responsive business environment. This provides a framework that allows subject matter experts (rather than developers) who are closer to the business to maintain the business logic as changes occur and effectively puts the management of the business processes directly into the hands of the relevant domain specialists. Letting them define and modify the business logic reduces implementation delays and transformation errors.

The Link to Web Services and SOA

As noted at the outset, business rules technology can facilitate the adoption of Web services and the implementation of an SOA in order to achieve better integration of strategic enterprise applications across multiple business units. For instance, the same business logic can be shared across an SOA with as many applications as needed. These applications can be either new or legacy applications, communicating via XML with the BRMS SOA service. Such a scheme enables incremental introduction of new application and business logic into an existing IT environment without the disruptive effects of a brute force rip and replace of entire applications or systems.

A service-oriented and Web services architecture by itself does not define the implementation of business logic within a service or application. SOA is a loosely coupled architecture, but without also de-coupling the business logic from the application services, the SOA's positive impact on business agility will be less than if the two are combined. Introducing a BRMS engine as a service allows the behavior of a business process or service itself to be managed without redundancy and redeployment for every application. Thus the powerful combination of business rules technology with Web services/SOA not only extends the value of externalizing business logic across the enterprise but also increases the value of getting all applications, new and old, to interoperate efficiently.

Accessibility and Control through Modeling and Natural Language

Quicker and easier implementations can result when BRMSs support a modeling approach and a natural language interface. Modeling allows the creation of a business ontology or business dictionary that defines the terminology and relationships between terms. Natural language capabilities allow users to derive business logic from the business model in English. Both make it more practical to address the entire application development lifecycle, including all the various stages from decision logic, capture and modeling to test, verification and implementation. As a result, business logic modeling and natural language provide the accessibility and control that subject matter experts need to:

  • Capture and manage the business logic,
  • Validate the logic based on their terminology,
  • Test the logic without requiring programmers to first set up a test framework,
  • More easily modify business logic because it is simpler to understand in English statements, and
  • Free IT from maintaining and implementing the business logic.

Improved Decision Support Increases Business Agility and Builds Long-Term Value

Moving beyond line-of-business application silos to a common business logic service will enable organizations to achieve the greater speed and flexibility they need to meet new customer and market demands. A BRMS can integrate with both new or legacy applications as well as Web services and SOAs. By extracting the business logic from the application, application maintenance is simplified and speed of rules modification is greatly enhanced. This allows for more consistent and less error-prone decision-making across all applications in the enterprise as well as reduced costs and improved customer satisfaction.

Providing a flexible way to create, change and standardize business rules quickly is a key driver for successfully improving the bottom-line impact of automated decision support systems. BRMSs can help companies gain greater agility by more efficiently managing their most mission-critical business processes. Enhanced customer responsiveness, revenue growth, well-met regulatory compliance objectives, faster time to market and reduced overall IT costs are among the top business benefits that BRMS adopters can expect. Add to that the already strong case for implementing Web services to extend the useful life of legacy applications, and you have a strategic, two-pronged approach for integrating applications. For more and more organizations, the benefits of implementing business rules technology together with - rather than separately from - Web services/SOAs are going to become increasingly compelling as time goes on. 

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