A simple definition of Business Rules


I love talking about business rules. Having been involved in S1000D® (International specification for technical publications) community for eleven years and having discovered how important business rules are, I use these two words most probably more often than ten times a day.

I did resist them at first and denied my affinity to them. I used to claim that my interest went rather to the implementation guide for S1000D and not to the business rules.

One possibility for this resistance might have been the power transmitted by the word “rules” and the mildness of the word “guide”. Who wants to follow the rules? I better be guided and step off the guided track if I don’t feel like it, right?

But business rules where in everyone’s mouth in the S1000D community in fall of 2005, when I became a chair and co-chair of then freshly created Implementation Guide and Business Rules task teams. It was clear that you needed functioning rules in order to produce a reliable, stable, and usable information for products utilized by many and for critical purposes, like in the military. And not any kind of rules, but precise and that everyone understood.

Yes. This was the “tiny” problem in all this. For them to be precise and understandable. And for their definition to be precise and understandable.

“What are actually business rules?” I’ve been often asked.

Ever since leading the business rules team, which later became a working group, I had never believed that there was a simple answer to this. When somebody asked me what business rules were, I answered, “Well, everything! Every decision you make in your work, connected to technical publications, is a business rule.”

Confused looks and frowns came always in reply to this answer.

Our group did find a definition for the specification. This is what S1000D says since 2012:

“Business rules are decisions that are made by a project or an organization on how to implement S1000D. Business rules cover all aspects of S1000D and are not limited to authoring or illustrating. They can also address issues that are not defined in S1000D such as rules related to how S1000D interfaces with other standards, specifications and business processes that are related to its implementation.”

But does this apply only to S1000D and technical documentation?

Of course not!

By the way, did you notice the following phrase in the definition above: “They can also address issues that are not defined in S1000D …”?

Here we go again: everything is a business rule.

So about two months ago, I was genuinely shocked when I heard myself giving a simple and precise answer to the question I’d heard probably more than thousands times before that.

“What are business rules?” my brother-in-law, Poul, asked.

My then nine-months old daughter Emma and I met Poul for a coffee, after coming to Århus to apply for Emma’s first passport.

After having her bottle of milk, Emma happily crawled around and under the tiny coffee table Poul and I were sitting at.

My maternity leave was coming to end, and I was about to decide what I would be doing after that.

“Can’t you use the knowledge you gathered in the area you’ve worked before Emma?” Poul asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe. S1000D is very specific, but I guess knowledge about business rules is applicable to many areas.”

Poul interrupted my usual flow about one of my favourite topics. “I know what business plans are,” he said. “But what are the business rules?”

After a short thought I said,
“Business plans are about a company, its plans how it is going to operate and what it wants to achieve in the near and far future.
Business rules are about products. These are the rules the company and their partners, and to some extent also customers, need to agree upon and follow in order the products (including services) to be of high quality and longevity.”

Poul thought for a second, nodded his consent and continued discussing my professional future.

But I didn’t follow him at first. I was dumbfounded. It was a good answer! Simple and actually quite precise. After giving it, I understood myself what the business rules were.

Since that time I have repeated this answer in its various forms to my husband, friends in the S1000D community and anyone who would listen. All nodded their understanding and consent. And they showed interest! I was losing my listeners before that.

I am probably not the first to understand this. And maybe this is obvious to others. But for me it was an epiphany. Especially because it proved to me that one of the topics, which I considered to be one of the most complicated, could be so simple.

Yes, business rules are about products and services, or anything that is offered for sale. And business plans are about the companies, who offer these things for sale.

That simple.

I am grateful to Poul for asking me that question and for the way he asked it.

P.S. In the next post you will be able to learn what the business rules (that is the decisions you make in respect to the product or service you sell) are composed of, and the first big step in defining them.


This post is a part of “Business rules: General”, copyright © 2015-2016 by Victoria Ichizli-Bartels