2 MegaTrends at Business Rules Forum 2010

on November 4, 2010
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After a very intense Rules Fest show in California, Carlos and I headed East to Washington DC.  I lived 10 years in Northern Virginia but forgot how pretty it was.  As we landed, I was moved by the gorgeous Fall colors.  Oh boy, I really love this area.  Driving into DC, over Memorial bridge, past the Lincoln memorial, through Georgetown…  So many memories, so wonderful…  California is amazing in a very different ways…  A piece of me definitely stayed in DC!

It was a great surprise to have the show in DC.  The last time Business Rules Forum stopped by DC, a few years ago, we ended up at the hospital waiting for news from Dr Charles Forgy as a result of a heated panel.  It all ended up well of course but it had been a very painful and scary moment for the Business Rules community.  So we showed up, cautiously optimistic about the show, definitely hoping for an eventless conference this time.

This year, Business Rules Forum joined forces with 2 other shows: Business Analysis Forum and Business Process Forum.  The conference was branded Building Business Capabilities (#BBC2010).  I must admit that I was skeptical about the 7 tracks.  That’s a lot of tracks!  But it worked pretty well.  The combined attendance was around 700 people, a significant increased from the original Business Rules Forum only crowd (typically around 300).

Predictive Analytics World was hosted up the escalator, which gave all the attendees a chance to visit the “other” expo during the duration of the show.  It was a nice idea but it would have been more productive to have 101 sessions or keynotes in each other’s conference.  Pragmatically speaking, booth staff is typically there to capture leads and therefore you are quite likely to hear the “approved Sales & Marketing pitch” and little really educational materials.  Anyway, that may be food for thought for next year…

Back to the BBC show downstairs…  We might have a few more follow-up posts to get into some interesting developments there.  In this post, I want to focus on the 2 megatrends that clearly emerged from the many sessions and overall buzz at the show.

MegaTrend #1: Business Analysts meet Business Rules

The size of the show might have been an indication, the agenda maybe more.  Although there was only one Business Analyst track, it was quite clear that most of the sessions were focusing more on methodology than actual implementation.  I attended a few sessions in the Deployment track that surprisingly focused exclusively on the Business Analyst role and the applied methodology.  In some cases, they did not even mention the BRMS they ended up deploying with!

Why such strong focus?  Well, it has always been the bias of the organizing team.  They have come up with methodology and tools to help capture knowledge in a structured way.  Many options are available now as it seems that each small consulting company is also building tools to support their methodology.  The other reason is that Business Analysts were outnumbering the Business Rules practitioners — by far.

Several Business Rules projects presented at the show covered the methodology used to extract the logic and codify it in a way that allowed eventually Business Rules practitioners, typically in IT, to automate them, sometimes automatically, sometimes through manual coding.

If you sat in the Practitioner panel, you may have been ticked as well by Janice Guzzi, the Great West Life Assurance Company speaker, stating that “only 3 rules out of 300 ended up in the rules engine”.  She meant it.  It was not a lapsus.  According to her, a large majority of the captured business rules end up in the data structure or the presentation layer.  This is pretty disappointing of course.  How could it be that 99% of the identified rules are not decision rules managed in a BRMS?

This was not an isolated event though.  In another “Organizing & Deploying Business Rules” session, Rik Gerrits from RuleArts made a similar point “only 10% of the rules can be automated”.  This statement created some commotion in the audience.  To add insult to the injury, his co-speaker, Linda Nieporent from IBM / ILOG, reinforced the point that “You can’t really manage rules as Corporate Assets in a BRMS”.

Wow, all of that really flies in the face of the Business Rules management discipline we have collectively shaped over the past decade.  Words can’t possibly express my astonishment.

Taking a step back, I think that they have been stressing an uncomfortable evolution that has been slowly taking place.  The overall Business Rules crowd divided early in two camps that evolved independently but now need to reunite.  The world of Business Analysts is merely the step that comes before real life implementation inside a BRMS.  Similarly BRMS is the world that merely comes after the Business Analyst’s work — as such those 2 worlds are closely related.  Methodologies and Tools have proliferated in that Knowledge Acquisition world with some gateways to the Knowledge Automation world.  The disconnect I have been highlighting here is the normal “to-be-expected” consequence of a parallel evolution with some but apparently insufficient coordination between those two worlds.  The fact that rules are translated into data model concepts means that either Business Analysts are calling rules concepts that we have usually not called rules (requirements maybe) or that BRMS are falling short of the modeling expectations.

The sparkling interactions at the show and the follow-up in the blogosphere seems to confirm that those two worlds are in a collision course.  I mean that in the most positive way of course.  There is a need and a desire for more synergy and this is a great thing.

MegaTrend #2: The Innovator’s dilemma?
This topic actually started at Rules Fest the week before Business Rules Forum.  Mark Proctor and other AI veterans accused the BRMS vendors of little innovation.

Although I must admit I was excited to participate in Expert System projects in the old days, I have embraced the BRMS transformation since then.  AI definitely inspired me and shaped my journey to Decision Management but it is unfair to say that BRMS did not bring any innovation.  We invented some pretty core concepts during this timeframe.  It was huge, in my opinion, to reverse the monolithic applications into agile decision agents / services ahead of the SOA revolution, to expose those technologies to Business Users in a zero-training user interface, etc.

That being said, from my conversations at the show, it felt like practitioners agreed to some extend that little innovation was happening.  The excitement of the BRMS community was toned down this year.  You could blame the over-emphasis on Business Analysts of course, the smaller Business Rules crowd, but it felt like little was going on this year at the show in the BRMS industry.

What would you expect?  In the past, big and small announcements broke at the show.  In no particular order, one year it was about the first decision table or decision tree, one year was about simulation tools, one year introduced PMML integration for quick Predictive Model deployment, one year was about intelligent questionnaires, etc.  This year, nothing.

If you attended a session that revealed cool new progress from the tools vendors, please chime in.  Personally I did not see nor hear about anything worth remembering once my suitcase unpacked at home.  The comments like Linda’s actually indicate a step back from the vendors into a smaller, more limited role of Automation.  This is to be expected thought with Platform acquisition.  As part of that bigger picture, BRMS are becoming a more modest component than what we had originally envisioned.

I still think that innovation is needed.  We are still miles away from the expectations of Business Analysts and Business Users that we heard loud and clear in the Practitioners Panel.  I already stated it in my tweets: this panel was the highlight of the conference.  I want to publicly thank the panelists for their insights and openness.

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