Business Rules August 2011

A few years back my older son, now a fresh young lawyer, started his first day of work as an intern for a professional sports team. He called me at the end of the day, puzzled. “I asked them what my responsibilities were,” he related, “and they said, ‘We need you to know what we are supposed to be doing.’” After a long pause, he added, “I wanted to ask them why they didn’t already know what they were supposed to be doing, but I didn’t think that would be such a great idea my very first day there.”

Let’s see if at some level this sounds familiar to you. It turns out his area of responsibility had to do with ensuring operational compliance with corporate sponsorship agreements. You would think these agreements would be relatively simple, but of course, there’s no such thing as a truly simple business. The sponsorships are quite expensive, and they outline a complex configuration of promotional and other benefits, some automatable and some not, all usually tailored specifically for the individual sponsor. They are loaded with decision criteria and computation formula (read ‘business rules’) to govern the sponsorship relationship. And owing to the dynamic nature of the sponsors’ marketing needs, the contracts are amended frequently, both formally and informally (via hand-shake).

To continue the story of my son’s first day, they gave him a stack of contracts, amendments, operational schedules and invoices and told him to see if they all matched. Of course, they didn’t. Not by a long shot.

By the end of the first week, he had become fairly fluent in the organization’s governance problems. (Ah, young minds!) All the contracts and schedules were produced by different people at different times. Some of the schedules were  created manually and some were automated. But even the ones that were automated often didn’t match the contracts. The invoices were automated, but in many cases they too bore little resemblance to the contracts. The IT people were not much help. “They seem to speak a different language,” my son reported naively. Bottom line: A number of the sponsors were becoming quite annoyed – not a good thing for a mediocre team in a mid-sized market.

But there was more. The sales reps were, shall we say, quite creative in what they offered the sponsors. Their terminology, which often found its way into the contracts, was highly idiosyncratic. Yet they were talking about the same shared resources (e.g., banner boards in the stadium) that had to be coordinated in real time across many sponsors. They seemed oblivious to some of the company’s rules – even though some, quite literally, were dictated by physics (e.g., a banner board can only say one thing at a time; there is only so much time during a game, etc.).

By the way, my son went to one of the team’s games his first week at work. The team lost. Attendance was poor. Sponsors were unhappy. “I think it’s going to be a long three months,” my son said.

After a moment of reflection he added, “You know what really worries me is that I am going to figure all this out, then walk right out the door with all that knowledge. They’ll be right back where they started. Doesn’t seem to me like a very good way to run a business.”

Welcome, my son, to the story of business rule mismanagement in the 21st century!

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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!

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