IT Under Siege from Business Rules Management

BRM proponents want to do away with tasks many IT pros take for granted

These days, many in IT have a siege mentality. There was the economic downturn, for starters, and (more recently) the impetus to better align IT with business processes, driven in part because information technology is viewed—from the perspective of business leaders, anyway—as a rogue practice.

Don’t look now, but there’s a new wrinkle on the attack from without: the idea that business users should, in effect, be able to code their own applications. It might sound like a pipedream, but that’s the vision touted by proponents of a new application paradigm—called the business rules approach.

First, some background. The business rules approach proposes to allow business users to make changes to application code and implement these changes—via a business rules management system (BRMS)—in production environments. A number of vendors market BRMSes, including IBM Corp. The idea itself isn’t new—proponents usually trace its genesis to expert systems development and artificial intelligence research in the 1980’s.

Whither IT?

Advocates argue that even an empowered class of business users won’t replace the IT pros and services that have grown up in support of today’s all-too-dependent business customers.

“What we mean by business rules are sort of the business-related logic that’s the domain of the business person, but it’s also very changeable business logic,” says Henry Bowers, director of product marketing with ILOG Inc., an established purveyor of business rules management (BRM) technologies. “It’s about making the rules visible and touchable by the people who are defining those rules, and providing a quick and easy path for getting those rule changes into a production environment.”

What’s more, say Bowers and other advocates, business rules can reduce or eliminate many of the tasks that IT pros detest most, such as application maintenance and production support. After all, a lot of production support issues are prompted by requests from line-of-business customers to add new features or functions to, or change the operation of, existing applications.

So why not let line-of-business users make these changes themselves? It helps free up IT pros to concentrate on projects that deliver new business value, and—from the perspective of the suits upstairs—also helps to align IT with the overall business strategy. Everybody wins, right?

“Forty to 60 percent of a major corporation’s IT budget is associated with maintenance, and when they’re doing that, they’re not doing the new things. They’re not adding the real value,” argues David Straus, vice-president of sales and marketing with BRM vendor Corticon Technologies.

“The second thing is, there are business-oriented IT organizations and there are tech-oriented IT organizations, and the shift we’ve seen in the industry is that CIOs who are being successful have a dramatic focus on the success of the business—when you find IT organizations that are very well aligned to driving business value, they latch on to this just like the business users do.”

BRM End Game

It’s a pragmatic vision, to be sure. Inasmuch as it’s also a pragmatic reflection of the capabilities of today’s BRMSes, it’s a fairly accurate one.

After all, few (if any) organizations have embraced the business-rules approach without also involving representatives from IT, and—according to some adopters—the role of IT in testing and validating the code changes committed by business users is invaluable.

“The thing we didn’t do was really understand what the testing requirements would be, particularly for regression testing,” acknowledges Michael Koscielny, director of regional underwriting operations with automotive insurer and BRMS adopter AAA Michigan. “We tended to focus on just testing the change, and not really regression testing the whole process. We’ve stepped back from that now and created a team of people to fully regression test that, so you miss some of the independence.”

Nevertheless, some enthusiasts concede, the idea of substantially reducing—or of eliminating altogether—the degree to which business users depend on IT seems to be built into the business rules paradigm itself.

“The current generation of technologies to do this [business rules approach] still requires developers, so there’s no immediate danger of having tools so powerful that it takes the IT developer out of the loop,” says Ron Ross, co-principal of consultancy Business Rules Solutions LLC, member of The Business Rules Group, and executive editor of BRCommunity.com, an online resource for developers and business users working with business rules. “There are capabilities on the horizon, and to some extent becoming to be available, that more seriously restructure who does what and how.”

These are horizontal solutions, however. In the near-term, Ross and other experts say, IT pros should be more concerned about having their jobs outsourced offshore than about losing their jobs to the business analyst in the next cube. As the experience of Koscielny and AAA Michigan demonstrates, IT still must be a feature player in the post-BRM landscape. More to the point, says a grizzled veteran of both the IT and the business sides of the divide, there’s a lot that’s utopian in the BRM vision. Because of this, executing on its most ambitious elements might prove to be prohibitively difficult.

“I see the issues [this] raise[s], but no solution,” says Robert Schultz, an IT pro with a municipal government office in Florida.

Like other long-time IT practitioners, Schultz points to the difficulties of identifying, modeling, and encapsulating ad hoc business rules and processes that still aren’t formally recognized in most organizations.

BRM proponent famously Ross calls this the “gray-haired phenomenon,” and Schultz, for his part, says the problem is both real and intimidating. “The reason I think [there is no solution] is because it is extremely difficult to replace the ‘gray-hairs’ with some kind of knowledge-based automation. “This gray-hair effect is, in fact, the human intuition, training, knowledge of industry, and most important, experience that allows a professional to make the judgment call [that’s] necessary more often than not, to make business happen.”

Related Article:

Trends: End-User Application Development Using Business Rules
http://www.esj.com/Enterprise/article.aspx?EditorialsID=1352

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.