Less and less business activity today naturally occurs in a particular, orderly fashion. That’s due to the degree of product/service customization demanded nowadays by stakeholders, coupled with the accelerating rate of change and new, disruptive digital technologies. The bloated process models and implementation styles of yesteryear act like straightjackets. We need an architectural approach more suited to today’s business reality. That’s why the Business Agility Manifesto mandates Reconfiguration Agility.
One of the Sidebars1 to the Business Agility Manifesto2 introduces the notion of Reconfiguration Agility. It’s a fundamental capability your organization needs in the Knowledge Age. What’s it about?
Procedural vs. Declarative
In the big scheme of things, you have two basic choices for conceiving, and ultimately implementing, business capabilities: procedural or declarative. They are fundamentally different.
Traditionally, the vast majority of business systems have been modeled and constructed on a largely procedural basis – virtually all things tied together step-by-step in processes. Unfortunately, that procedural approach simply doesn’t scale.
What do the terms procedural and declarative mean? Here is how Merriam-Webster Unabridged defines procedural.
procedure: 1a: a particular way of doing or of going about the accomplishment of something 1b (1): a particular course of action (2): a particular step adopted for doing or accomplishing something (3): a series of steps followed in a regular orderly definite way
You can spot the seeds of the scalability problem right away in the definition with repeated use of the word “particular” and with the phrase “regular orderly definite way”. How much business activity naturally occurs today in a particular and regular orderly definite way? The answer, of course, is less and less with each passing day.
The essential characteristic of procedures is that they flow. The flow comprises the steps by which a thing is intended to become a different thing (or the same thing in a different state). The essence of ‘procedure’ is therefore that something will be hopefully transformed. For sure, that’s a very basic, very important, very necessary part of any business capability. The problem arises from depending on procedures beyond that point.
Something declarative, in contrast, doesn’t flow. It just states something that must (or should) be true.
declarative: 2: having the characteristics of or making a declaration : ASSERTIVE; specifically : constituting a statement that can be either true or false
True business rules3 are that way; they simply give guidance. They don’t do anything. They don’t flow anywhere. They can’t be anything other than true or false, obeyed or violated4. In short, true business rules are declarative and therefore fundamentally different than procedures.
Problems with Pure-Procedural Solutions for Business Rules
Traditional processes embed detection, evaluation and enforcement of business rules in step-by-step in procedures (process models, process flows, and procedural code). What happens when things that are naturally declarative are treated procedurally? You get bloat. You lose business intent. You produce needless complexity. As you scale the problems grow exponentially.
How many business rules are we talking about? Any given business capability easily has hundreds, sometimes thousands of business rules.
At the scale and pace of today’s business, step-by-step embedding of support for business rules simply isn’t manageable. It results in un-agile infrastructures and lost business knowledge – solutions set in concrete. It’s unnecessary and very counterproductive.
More Problems with Pure-Procedural Solutions
Procedures and business rules are just two of the elements of business capabilities. Other elements include:
- operational business decisions
- structured business vocabularies (concept models)
- business goals and risks
- business events
- business locations
- business roles and authorizations
In pure-procedural solutions, all these elements become entangled in flow (procedure). The result is configuration stagnation.
The key questions for building more agile business capabilities lies with how the following questions are answered:
- How elements are specified. You need granular, semantically-rich specification. All elements (except procedures, of course) should be specified declaratively.
- How elements are configured –and quickly reconfigured – for operation at any given point in time. True business rules, being declarative, exactly fit the bill.
From an engineering perspective, the secret to agile configuration is ‘late binding’ – that is, bringing all elements together for execution (i.e., performance of procedures) as late as possible. That way all elements can be as up-to-date and as agile in their own right as possible.
This kind of engineering results in what the Manifesto calls Reconfiguration Agility. It should be the new mantra of business agility. In a world of constant and accelerating change is there really any alternative?!
Author: Ronald G. Ross, Co-Founder & Principal, Business Rule Solutions, LLC
Ron Ross, Principal and Co-Founder ofBusiness Rules Solutions, LLC, is internationally acknowledged as the “father of business rules.” Recognizing early on the importance of independently managed business rules for business operations and architecture, he has pioneered innovative techniques and standards since the mid-1980s. He wrote the industry’s first book on business rules in 1994.
With BRS’s client roster of Fortune 500 companies and governments, Ron consults, speaks and teaches worldwide. He has served as the chair of the International Business Rules & Decisions Forum conference since 1997, now part of the Building Business Capability (BBC) conference.
Ron is also the author of 10 professional books, as well as the executive editor of the Business Rules Journal. Through these publications, as well as on the online forum BRCommunity and his blog, Ron enjoys sharing his knowledge and experience in consulting and business rules.
Outside of work, Ron enjoys walking his dogs, travelling with his three children, and tweeting. For fresh nuggets of information, follow him @Ronald_G_Ross!
- Sidebar for the Software Industry: Reconfiguration Agility https://busagilitymanifesto.org/accompaniments/supplements/sidebar-for-the-software-industry
- The Business Agility Manifesto: Building for Change, by Roger T. Burlton, Ronald G. Ross and John A. Zachman, 2017 https://busagilitymanifesto.org/
- I say true business rules because rules supported by many current rule engines and decision management platforms (not all) are actually not reliably declarative.
- Business rules that can be violated are behavioral business rules, a central notion of the OMG standard Semantics of Business Vocabulary and Business Rules (SBVR). For more information on SBVR, see SBVR Insider on BRCommunity.com, http://www.brcommunity.com/standards.php?id=620.