Navigating Toll Collection

Business rules are one of the most misconceived and misunderstood management tools in the tolling industry.  Although many agencies have a set of business rules, few have developed rules that clearly provide value over time.  This is unfortunate because well-developed business rules are one of the most beneficial and practical tools available to a tolling agency.

Business rules are a compass for operations.  When developed and maintained well, they not only provide guidance in day-to-day operations, they provide direction for the future by establishing a baseline by which risks, costs, and revenues can be evaluated.

Graham Witt discusses this topic in an interview with Data Quality Pro about his book, Writing Effective Business Rules.  He posits that “natural language rules” are the best way to deal with business rules.

Ronald Ross compares business rules to the human body in his book, Business Rule Concepts.  They provide an integrated source of structure, power, and control for an organization.  He goes on to say that success depends on the effective integration of those concepts.

The Business Rules Group, a peer group of IT professionals that has published business rule resources collectively and individually, defines a business rule as, “a statement that defines or constrains some aspect of the business. It is intended to assert business structure or to control or influence the behavior of the business.”

With varying definitions and concepts in the available literature, it’s easy to see how, even with much study, groups can come to different conclusions about how to develop their own business rules.

Good business rules are more than just statements, as Ross describes.  But if the lay understanding of a business rule leans towards the well-written and singular statement that can stand on its own, what are we to make of Ross and his definition?  It seems that we’re leaving something out.  How do we solve this problem?

The following pages present simple and straightforward methods for business rules that break out of the single statement paradigm and pave the way for dynamic and practical business rule development.

Start at the Top

As Witt does in his book, we start with “all rules that govern an organization.”  This means that we are dealing with things that fall outside of the established definitions of a business rule.

Our experience has shown us that we must start at the top and address everything that controls a toll agency.

This departure is the first step on the path to success.  It is also at this point that we also abandon the term business rule and begin to refer to rules as what they really are—legislation, code, policy, process, procedure, system configuration, etc.

The top level of rules contains the smallest set of information, but also the most important.  It makes up the governance an agency must comply with.  Governance that an agency can’t change on its own–things outside of direct control.  This could be federal or state legislation, county code, regional planning organization directives, or anything that is beyond the purview of an agency’s executive staff or board of directors.  Typically, it is the realm of elected officials.

The next layer down represents an agency’s policy, which can also be described as the interpretation of governance.  This is the executive layer of high-level policy statements.  If a toll agency were a ship, this is the rudder.

Below policy is where the real operations happen—processes and procedures.  This layer is what we call the departmental or managerial level.  The functional groups within an organization take policy and translate it into workable, practical methods of doing business.

The last layer, and the one that seems to wreak havoc on the rule effort the most, we affectionately call “the weeds.”  This is where system configuration files, translation tables, discrete parameters, and other similar critters live.  This layer is a vital part of operations and its importance cannot be discounted.

Understand the Landscape

The pyramid above illustrates the first part of the structure.  A contextual overlay of the different categories of rules and the basic concepts underneath gives a more complete picture.

This illustration draws heavily on the fact model.  A model rooted in defining things that can be known.  Ross points out that fact modeling has a “long and solid pedigree.”  Terry Halpin and Sjir Nijssen have written extensively in this discipline.

In the simplest terms, rules are made up of concepts, which are, in turn, made up of terms.  Rules fall into three major categories governance, process, and definitions.

From this very basic diagram and the hierarchy of governance, policy, and process, we can begin to build a comprehensive rule structure.  This contextual perspective makes a huge difference in shared understanding and the success of a rule effort.

Know Your Purpose

Typically, an organization will document business rules to satisfy a specific external need, for example, writing requirements for a toll system RFP.  Understandably, the need at the time is to communicate between “the customer and the technical community,” as discussed in many IEEE and ISO standards.

Unfortunately, this is the wrong time and likely the wrong way to approach such an effort.  Policy, process, and rules exist to help an organization internally.  The external benefits are secondary.  This is paramount for a toll agency.  A toll system touches the majority of an agency’s policies and processes.

When there is a lack of adequate documentation on all levels, it is critical to back up and start from the top.  This is where Ross and Witt have a positive influence on the business rule method.

Focus on all rules that affect your organization and leverage the benefits that come from creating the structure, power, and control for your organization that Ross describes.

Pace Yourself

So how does an agency go about this process?  How does one handle business rules successfully?  There are fundamental principles for the overall effort, and each layer of the pyramid has a different approach.

1. Know your language.  Create a vocabulary that is consistent and clear.

2. Organize your knowledge.  Begin with governance and work your way down to create a complete structure. The level of detail for each agency is different.

3. Create meaning.  Use drawings, diagrams, and flowcharts to illustrate and provide context for natural language statements.

4. Emphasize process.  This is the power that Ross talks about, the activity of your business.

5. Write good rules. This is where it gets academic, and let’s face it, not everyone was an English major.  Find the right people to do your writing.

6. Link everything.  Find a good business process management tool and use it.  Whether it’s SharePoint, BlueworksLive, Bizagi, or whatever fits your organization, leverage technology.  This effort is too big and too important for spreadsheets and Word documents.

It’s important to know that this process is not quick, and it never stops.  For a large organization, it will take dedicated staff and, more importantly, the right staff.

More times than not, we see organizations assign this work solely to business analysts or technical staff.  This can be a critical mistake.  From policy down, rules must be owned by the staff and departments that control them.  To create a dynamic and useful rule library with structure and meaning, an organization must make it a collective effort.

Set it in Motion

Business rules are a tricky subject.  Do your research, set goals, and be clear about what you intend to get our of your rules effort.

It’s important to cover the basics, too, like following good project management principles.  Draft a project charter and get executive buy-in before you roll out the initiative.  Consider a pilot program to work out the kinks before tackling larger pieces of your organization.

With good planning and a metered approach, you can be successful.