Business Rules – August 2009

Excerpted from Chapter 1, Business Rule Concepts: Getting to the Point of Knowledge (Third Edition), by Ronald G. Ross, July 2009. ISBN 0-941049-07-8, Reprinted with permission.

Ask managers and workers in the business what they mean by requirements for developing software systems, and typically you get answers centered on functions to
be performed, or on the look-and-feel of user interfaces. Maybe use cases, hopefully data models. The answer “business vocabulary” (or “shared business vocabulary”) is almost
never among the responses.

Nonetheless, a shared, well-structured business vocabulary is indeed a kind of requirement – perhaps the most fundamental requirement of all. Without such a vocabulary, you cannot provide real
meaning or coherency (sense) to all the others, especially to business rules.

A shared, well-structured business vocabulary literally provides meaning (semantics). This meaning, of course, is abstract. It might not be as obvious as what a
system does or how the system looks on the outside. Just because something is less obvious, however, does not mean it is any less important.

The problem is by no means limited to communication of requirements between business workers and IT. Indeed, in many organizations today, business workers from different parts of the organization
often have trouble even talking to each other. Or to say this more accurately, they talk to each other, but they are not really communicating. They live in different semantic silos.

A well-managed, well-structured business vocabulary should be a central fixture of business operations. We believe it should be as accessible and as interactive as, say, spellcheck in Microsoft Word.
So you will need appropriate business-level platforms to manage your business vocabulary.

Developing and managing a shared, well-structured business vocabulary means capturing business knowledge from the business-side workers and managers who possess it. The skills involved with
distilling that business knowledge are essential. Those skills go beyond data modeling, no matter how technically proficient.

About Noun Concepts and Terms that Represent Them
A term is a noun or noun phrase that workers recognize and use in business communications of all kinds – for example, in agreements, procedure manuals, schedules, directives, training,
instructions, and so on. Requirements for IT systems, and the documentation and help or guidance messages in operational IT systems, are additional forms of business communication. So are business

A term carries a particular meaning for the business, which should be unambiguous given a particular context of usage. Some examples:

Employee name
Delivery date due
High-risk customer
Line item
Quantity back-ordered

Our meaning of term comes straight from Webster’s. Note the key words precisely limited meaning in this

Term: a word or expression that has a precisely limited meaning in some uses or is peculiar to a science, art, profession,
trade, or special subject
Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary [MWUD]

The particular noun or noun phrase selected as a term represents merely the tip of the iceberg with respect to meaning. More fundamental is the business concept
for which the noun or noun phrase stands. This concept must be defined. That is, the concept a term represents should never be taken for granted. As one
practitioner put it, “The more self-evident the meaning of a term is, the more trouble you can expect.” As an example, another practitioner from a medium-sized company rattled off six
different (and conflicting!) definitions of “customer” from different parts of his organization.

To communicate requirements and business rules effectively, a precise definition for each term should be given explicitly in business-oriented fashion, free of any IT jargon (and business rules).
Every use of the term will depend on this meaning. Here is an example of a definition, again from Webster’s.

Customer: one that purchases some commodity or service; especially, one that purchases systematically or

The core terms in the business vocabulary – those typically depicted in a graphical model – should satisfy these three tests:

Basic: A term should represent something fundamental to business – that is, the term should be one that cannot be derived or computed from any other
terms. Any term that can be derived or computed should be specified as the subject of a business rule.

Countable: A term should represent a thing whose instances are discrete – that is, whose instances can be counted.
A term that has an aggregate or mass sense (e.g., merchandise, personnel, inventory, and so on) should be broken down
into its countable constituents (e.g., product, employee, item, etc.). Those are the core concepts of the business vocabulary.

Non-Procedural: A term should always represent a thing we can know something about, rather than how something happens. In other words, a business vocabulary is
about knowledge, not about the actions, processes, transforms, or procedures that produce or use that knowledge. A business vocabulary, for example, might
include the terms customer and order, but it would not include any action for takingcustomer orders.

Core terms in a business vocabulary represent types or classes of things in the business, rather than instances of those classes. For example, a business might
have 10,000 customers, but they are represented by the single term customer. Incidentally, since the term refers to the class rather than to all the instances,
the term’s singular form is preferred in the business vocabulary (that is, customer rather than customers).
Business rules generally address classes rather than instances. But business rules can addresses instances too – for example, a business rule might apply to one country, say The Netherlands,
that does not apply to another country, say Belgium.

The collection of all terms and definitions that satisfy the tests above are the core part of a business vocabulary. Basing all business requirements, business rules and your data model(s) or class
diagram(s) on a shared business vocabulary is the way to avoid a “Tower of Business Babel” when organizing business operations or developing IT systems to support them. Actually, the same
is true for just about any day-to-day work product you could write. Here then is a fundamental (and obvious) principle: We will inevitably work more effectively if we all speak the same

Copyright 2009. Business Rule Solutions, LLC. All rights reserved.             1
Excerpted from Business Rule Concepts: Getting to the Point of Knowledge (Third Edition),
by Ronald G. Ross, 2009. ISBN 0-941049-07-8.


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About Ronald Ross

Ronald G. Ross, Principal and Co-Founder of Business 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!