Towards Business Rule Stewardship and Governance

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Corporate adopters of a business rules approach over the past decade have often been limited to individual projects within an organization. It was not surprising to find disparate (either geographically or functionally) areas of the same company initiating independent efforts often resulting in a completely different methodology for applying business rules – and in some cases with different business rule management software. The latest generation of business rule software has, however, been created with the enterprise perspective in mind.

Corporate adopters of a business rules approach over the past decade have often been limited to individual projects within an organization. It was not surprising to find disparate (either geographically or functionally) areas of the same company initiating independent efforts often resulting in a completely different methodology for applying business rules – and in some cases with different business rule management software. The latest generation of business rule software has, however, been created with the enterprise perspective in mind. Consequently, more organizations are taking a global view when they consider business rules. This simple act provides immediate gains by increasing the chances for enterprise consistency. It also opens up new potential areas of concern.

The benefits that can be realized by moving to a business rule approach have been discussed frequently. The notion of an agile enterprise that is capable of rapid change and continuous improvement of services is appealing on many levels. Over and over we hear the promise of "rapid change" and "real management by real business users". Along with those cries, we now also hear the notions of business ownership, stewardship, and governance more frequently mentioned. Unfortunately, those terms are not always used consistently and appear synonymously more often than not. In the context of business rules, what do we mean by stewardship and governance?

Stewardship is generally defined as "the responsibility for taking good care of resources entrusted to one" or the "concept of responsible caretaking". When applied to business rules, stewardship would seem to be composed of the tools and processes that must be in place so an enterprise can safely, consistently, and accurately move towards the elusive "zero time to market". This is a project level view that deals with the standards and processes required to guide, create, monitor, and control business rules and all related artifacts through their established life cycle. Everything from the creation of business rule analyst roles and their associated capabilities to sophisticated testing environments would be included in the realm of stewardship. As the requirements for responsible caretaking will vary from enterprise to enterprise, so will the supporting processes. However, we might generally expect to see things related to rule life cycles, development methodologies, and change management (including versioning, persistence, deployment and security).

We can argue that some kind of rule stewardship has always been in place with previous business rule management system applications. However, enterprise governance typically has not existed. Governance defines the model to ensure optimal reuse of services and enforcement of corporate policies. Ultimately this policy determines the long-term strategy and direction of an organization. It will frequently tie together various technical components to form a piece of the enterprise architecture. When this is considered with respect to business rules, we are interested in processes that emphasize the consistency and quality of rules when viewed as a true corporate asset and how they may be partitioned to enable reuse across the enterprise. These are the best practices, guidelines, and usage models for the enterprise. They ensure that the tools of stewardship are applied consistently and intelligently.

Who makes this happen? Organizations often have the infrastructure to support a Center of Excellence (COE) or Program Management Office. This structure can work well for the administration of business rule governance. There is, however, one primary requirement for any such entity: it must be a multi-disciplinary group that embraces and supports the viewpoints of both technical and business concerns. Although a COE is often created to serve technical purposes, business rules inherently require a combined effort. After all, business rule management systems purport to be the ultimate in collaborative environments! Such a group can be staffed in a variety of ways but should ultimately include executive sponsors (optimally representing business), enterprise architects, a business rule specialist (the evangelist), and members that represent a significant cross-section of the company.

The advance of business rule management systems is clearly past the early adopter phase. New consumers of the technology will look to enterprise solutions on an increasingly frequent basis. Expect to see decisions relating to the business rule approach coming not from technologists with a project-level view, but from executives with a global corporate view. The notion of business rules being created to serve as a true corporate asset will be the sign of the times. Success will be found by those organizations that understand the need for business rule governance to establish the framework for the tools of business rule stewardship.

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