Business rules have become a hot topic. At an industry event such as ACORD/LOMA, you'll hear many vendors talk about having business rules. We've all been here before; the buzz makes it hard for many of us to consider what we really need in those rules that help us automate processes such as claims and underwriting. Much of what we are struggling with is whether we should buy proprietary business rules capabilities that have been built into our applications, or if we should demand that our application vendors use enterprise-strength business rules solutions.Let's discuss the spectrum of what business rules can be. First, flexibility is important. At one extreme is the ability to change parameters, such as age, within the pre-defined rules for a given decision. At the other extreme are flexible solutions, where any new rule that relates to the problem can be added. The first is great when the rules are known, consistent and won't change. But, often the original application design doesn't consider industry, market and legal changes that cause us to have to define new rules we had not considered might be needed. As we have seen over the past 20 years, flexibility is critical to our ability to keep our application current.

Second, consider enterprise use of rules and decisions. When business rules are deeply embedded within a given application, these rules are usually not available to other applications. As an example, we might want a set of rules associated with decisions such as defining a premier customer or identifying and verifying (ID&V) a customer when we interact with that customer.

In both of these cases, the decision (premier customer or ID&V) might be used in many different applications across multiple channels. Having to maintain these rules in each application-and potentially in a different form-is a sure formula for failure, or at least huge coordination problems. So our goal is to define these decisions and their associated rules in a way that can be shared and reused by our many different applications.

BUILD OR BUY

So again, we come to the question: Should I expect my application vendor to build proprietary rules technologies into its application, or should I expect them to use enterprise rules solutions?

As with most questions in the information technology world, the answer is not a simple one. When vendors build proprietary rules technology into their applications, they tend to be very definite. The user interface is specific to the definition of the rules associated with the decision they are automating within their application.

This approach tends to deliver a more integrated experience and associated ease of use, but at a cost. Typically, you will lose a tremendous amount of flexibility and reuse. The cost of the flexibility comes out in increased implementation and maintenance expenditures for these applications when the organic rules solution doesn't meet the business need. The rules are most often not reusable, so you buy or build this logic more than once, and bear the cost of trying to maintain consistency across multiple applications.

HERE WE GO AGAIN

It is clear that business rules are following a pattern we have seen before. In the early 1970s, data was a part of applications. By the mid-1980s, data was viewed as an enterprise asset, and database technologies (DBMS) were viewed as enterprise systems that application vendors needed to support. You just didn't buy applications with proprietary database systems; you bought applications that supported Oracle, Sybase, DB2 and SQL Server. The same will be true for business rules.

Decisions and their associated business rules can and should be shared across multiple applications. These are assets that can only be leveraged by managing and controlling them within a shared and integrated enterprise architecture.

Again, there are no easy answers. In general, the maturity of the business rules market has not progressed to a point where application and solution vendors are offered a purely embeddable solution by most business rules vendors. A solution that allows the application vendor to embed enterprise business rules allows the delivery of an easy-to-use and seamless experience that also leverages rules as an enterprise asset.

So there are times when you will need to buy a solution that is based on a proprietary rules technology-but this is changing. You must get a commitment and plan from your application provider. They will need to show you how they will support enterprise rules, as they have previously moved to support enterprise data. If they have no plan, ask again.

David Straus is senior vice president worldwide marketing, Corticon Technologies Inc., Redwood City, Calif. He can be reached at david.straus@corticon.com.

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