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How should business rules and business process interact?

(Posted by guest blogger, James Taylor)

We got a comment this week from Paul Haley, founder of the eponymous business rules technology vendor. Commenting on Gib's post “Gartner’s 2008 Predictions Include Bright Future for Enterprise Decision Management” he asked about the possibility of shared models between Business Process Management (BPM) and Business Rules Management (BRM). He feels that "the integrations of BPM and BRMS will remain awkward until models are indeed shared!" and then asked if I could imagine "BPM and BRMS vendors collaborating on an interchange standard".

Paul asks a very interesting question and, as often with questions from people as smart as Paul, the answer has many layers and intersecting points. In this case there are the issues of the touch point(s) between processes and rules, how to integrate the development of processes and rules, what kind of model is required and how likely are the vendors to cooperate to develop one.

First, the touch point. Well, as readers of this blog will know, I am pretty clear on this. I think that the key point of intersection is the decision, specially the operational decision. While there is clearly benefit to being able to embed rules within a process (even in having rules-driven processes), that is about how to use a technology (business rules) to improve an approach (business process management) rather than about the intersection of two, equally important approaches. While business rules can be used as part of how a process is defined and in a number of other areas, the crucial aspect is in operational decision management. Businesses have processes, for sure, and they make decisions and these two aspects of their business interact. Decisions must be taken as to which process to execute, branches of a process are selected by making a decision, some steps within a process are primarily decision steps (what price to offer, for instance, or what cross-sell to make). These decisions are not part of the process but are used by it - they may well support multiple processes and systems. In my mind, the BRM approach is focused on managing how each decision should be taken and then it is the decisions themselves that are integrated into the BPM approach.

While this approach lends itself to a fairly "hands-off" approach to the integration - a decision service can simply be called from within the process - the development process must be more integrated. Users do not specify rules and processes separately, they often have "policies and procedures" manuals and they mix the two quite liberally alongside requirements. As rules and processes and decisions are specified simultaneously there is likely to be some back and forth between them and it is useful, at a conceptual level but probably also at a practical one, to be able to exchange rules across the boundary between decisions and processes. Decisions can also be multi-step and so the boundary between a process and a decision is also somewhat variable over time. The availability of standards to move items across these boundaries would be helpful. Similarly as organizations move towards simulation of planned changes in decisions and processes there will be a need for these simulations to share results.

So what kind of model does this require? Well I think we need business rules standards and business process standards that share a decision concept - indeed this is something being actively proposed to the OMG at the moment. It should be possible to specify that a decision is made according to certain business strategies and constraints, show how it is used in various business processes and ultimately specify the business rules involved in it. This requires both a working definition of a decision, a standard meta model for a decision and mappings from it to both business process and business rules standards.

So do I think this can happen? Yes, I do. I see more and more interest in business rules amongst followers of BPM and other model-driven approaches. I also see a growing recognition that decisions - decision points within processes - are more complex and more valuable and that business rules are a great way to define these. As BPM and BRM vendor partnerships strengthen I think they will want to address these issues. I hope they will anyway.

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