Business Rules – June 2013

Data models are ultimately about business concepts, right? So why not start with a concept model! A concept model squarely addresses the missing ingredient in most current approaches to IT requirements and business rules – a standard business vocabulary. Every data professional should be familiar with the technique – it’s simply about clear thinking and unambiguous communication. What are basic constructs in developing a concept model? This article discusses four prefabricated elements of structure, ones that will enable you to build a complete and robust business vocabulary.
Excerpted from Chapter 6, Business Rule Concepts: Getting to the Point of Knowledge (4th ed.), by Ronald G. Ross, April, 2013. ISBN 0-941049-14-0

A concept model is a structured business vocabulary, the set of terms and their definitions, along with special wordings, that organize operational business know-how. Think of a concept model as a semantic blueprint for supporting highly complex business communication (such as business requirements and business rules). Without a good blueprint whatever you build will be … well … wobbly.

Certain elements of structure for concept models come in handy, pre-defined shapes. This discussion illustrates use of four of these ‘shapes’, as presented in Table 1. These elements of structure are based on the standard SBVR (Semantics of Business Vocabulary and Business Rules). Our approach to depicting and developing them is called ConceptSpeak™.


Table 1: Elements of Structure for Concept Models

Categories and Categorizations

A category is a class of things whose meaning is more restrictive than, but otherwise compliant with, some other class of things. For example, male is a category of person. Each male is always a person, but not every person is a male. A male can have properties that would not apply to any person who is not a male. In general, a category represents a kind, or variation, within a more general concept.

Representing one class of things to be a category of another class of things is called categorization. Figure 1 illustrates several categories using the ConceptSpeak convention of heavy lines.

Figure 1: Illustration of Categories

The following categorizations are illustrated by Figure 1.

  • Both sales representative and engineer are recognized as categories of a more general concept employee. Note the property employee name is indicated for employee. Since all sales representatives and engineers can have names – indeed, any employee can – the name property is indicated only for employee. Remember that all sales representatives and engineers are employees in this business, so the name property pertains as a matter of course to both representative and engineer. It does not need to be re-specified for them; applicability (inheritance) of the property is assumed. On the other hand, commission rates apparently pertain only to sales representatives – not to all employees (e.g., not to engineers) – since commission rate is indicated only for sales representative.
  • Product has three categories – military, corporate, and consumer – forming a group. This group of categories is organized on the basis of a categorization scheme named orientation – more about that later. Note that (as always for categories) military, corporate, and consumer must be products. Indeed, unless everyone reading the ConceptSpeak diagram is thoroughly familiar with categorization, better labels would probably be military product, corporate product, and consumer product. The boxes represent that anyway, but these revised labels would emphasize the point.

Any category can have categories; any category of a category can have categories, and so on. Multiple levels of categorization are not uncommon in concept models. Indeed, such refinement or narrowing of meaning as you go ‘deeper’ yields a high degree of precision or selectivity for making statements about the business (e.g., expressing business rules). For example, a business rule might be expressed for software engineers, a potential category of engineer, which does not apply either to other kinds of engineers or to employees in general.

PropertiesMerriam-Webster Unabridged defines property as a quality or trait belonging to a person or thing. Figure 1 indicates employee name to be a property of employee, and commission rate to be a property of sales representative. In ConceptSpeak, a thin line is used to attach each to the appropriate box (noun concept). Exactly what does the thin line represent?

  • The thin line does not indicate that every member of a class of things actually has an instance of the property, only that it can. If each member of a class of things must have an instance of the property, an explicit business rule is required (e.g., an employee must have an employee name).
  • The thin line is actually shorthand for a binary verb concept. The wording for this binary verb concept defaults to (thing1) has (thing2). The important word here is has. The verb to have is very general – not specific or descriptive at all. Has makes very poor wording for verb concepts not specified as properties. For properties, on the other hand, a has default is often convenient.

Can properties be worded using verbs other than has? Yes. For example, the commission rate property of sales representative might be worded sales representative is compensated at commission rate.

The property shown at the end of the line is often actually a role of some other noun concept. For example:

  • Suppose commission rates are always percentages (in this business). Then the commission rate property of sales representative actually represents the verb concept worded sales representative is compensated at [commission rate] percentage.
  • Similarly, the employee name property of employee might actually represent the verb concept worded employee has [employee name] name.

Figure 1 actually includes several other properties, as follows:

  • Two properties for the objectification briefing have been indicated using a single thin line – another ConceptSpeak shorthand to reduce clutter.
  • Orientation, which can be seen just above the crossbar for the categorization of product, is also a property, albeit a special kind. Orientation is the name of the categorization scheme used to organize the three kinds of product. Since orientation is a property of product; we can say product has orientation. (That’s like saying person has gender, meaning male and female.) Is it required that every product fall into at least one of the three categories: military, government, or consumer? In other words, must every product have an orientation? (Or perhaps exactly one?) Never assume so – that would require some explicit business rule(s).

Compositions – Whole-Part (Partitive) StructuresMany things in the real world are composites, made up of several other kinds of thing. For example, an automobile (simplistically) is composed of an engine, a body, and wheels. A mechanical pencil is made up of a barrel, a lead-advance mechanism, pencil lead, and eraser. An address (simplistically) is made up of a street number, a street, an apartment number, a city, a state/province, a country, and a zipcode / postal code.

Sorting out the terminology and composition of such whole-part structures is often quite useful. Before looking at a graphical example, let’s address some relevant questions:

  • Is every instance of the whole in a whole-part structure required to have at least one instance of each part? No. For example, not every address has an apartment number. If every instance of the whole is required to have some part(s), an explicit business rule must be given.
  • Can an instance of a whole have more than one instance of a kind of part? Yes. An automobile must have at least three wheels (a business rule). But use caution here. A whole-part structure usually works best where there is only one, or a small number of, each part.
  • Can the specification of a whole-part structure indicate only one kind of part? Yes. However, exercise common sense! For example, is it really useful to consider the verb concept worded order includes line item to be a whole-part structure? ConceptSpeak does not favor that practice.
  • Can a part itself be a whole composed of other parts? Yes. Multiple levels of composition are possible.
  • Can both the whole and the parts be selectively involved in verb concepts on their own? Yes.
  • Can an instance of a part exist independently from an instance of the whole? Yes (unless business rules disallow it). A wheel, for example, can be removed from an automobile.
  • Can an instance of a part be in more than one instance of a whole at the same time? Yes (again, unless business rules disallow it). A power source, for example, can be part of more than one circuit.

Figure 2 illustrates a composition of briefing using the ConceptSpeak convention of a tree structure of thin lines to indicate the parts. The wording for this verb concept, not shown explicitly, is assumed to be: briefing is composed of: introduction, main body, conclusion. (Or, as they sometimes say in the military, tell ’em what you’re gonna to tell ’em, tell ’em, and tell ’em what you told ’em.)

Figure 2: Example of a composition (whole-part structure)

ClassificationsA central focus in concept modeling is on identifying, defining, and naming the classes of things important to basic business operations. Most often the business cannot possibly know in advance what all the instances will be of a class of things. For example, most businesses cannot predict all their future customers.

For certain classes of things, however, the business can identify or prescribe in advance some or all of the instances, especially for those classes where the instances are relatively stable. For example, we know all the European countries at the present time. Moreover, the business will need to pre-define instances when it has some business rule(s) that pertain selectively to them – for example: A shipment may be made only to the European countries United Kingdom or The Netherlands.

Representing the connection between an instance and its particular class of things is called classification. Figure 3 illustrates. In ConceptSpeak a line with the double-wavy hatch mark indicates a classification connection from the class of things European country to some of its instances.

Figure 3: Example of classification

Some additional examples of classifications:

  • Health care: All recognized health services – e.g., consultation, office visit, hospital admission, surgery, and so on.
  • Ship inspection: All recognized parts of a ship – e.g., bulkhead, hatch cover, railing, deck, and so on.

These examples were chosen deliberately to illustrate that classifications can be multi-level. For example, the instances bulkhead, hatch cover, etc. of the class of things ship part type might themselves be viewed as classes of things with respect to specific bulkheads, hatch covers, etc. These specific bulkheads, hatch covers, etc. probably have serial numbers and would be found on a given ship or in a given shipyard. Business rules might be targeted toward any of these levels.

SummaryCertain elements of structure useful for concept modeling come in handy, pre-defined ‘shapes’. This discussion has illustrated four of these special-purpose elements of structure: properties, categorizations, compositions, and classifications.

These special connections between noun concepts extend the reach and precision of the concept model significantly. They also allow statements to be written with great precision – for example, giving business rules or writing very precise requirements. In the final analysis, it’s simply all about clear thinking and unambiguous communication.

Oh, and I almost forgot – developing solid, business-grounded data models too.


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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!