Best of both worlds: How greater collaboration amongst IT and business ensures success

Re-engineering or changing an IT system can prove to be a challenge within a complex environment

October 11, 2012

By Nick Cadenhead, solutions consultant for AIGS

Re-engineering or changing an IT system can prove to be a challenge within a complex environment, particularly for manufacturers who may require a system able to take hundreds if not thousands of variables into account. In addition, the dearth of IT professionals with an understanding of these unique operations present an even greater difficulty. How exactly, then, could these two skill sets join together: the operational staff that understand the day-to-day requirements of a system, and the IT staff that are able to implement the business rules needed for the system to run efficiently?

By expressing the business rules and logic in a non-technical way. In short – translating programming conventions and code into business friendly terms.

The success of this philosophy was evident when Columbus Stainless Steel implementing the Corticon business rules engine as they began re-engineering their existing production planning system. The company is South Africa and Africa’s only producer of stainless steel flat products, producing product for both domestic and global consumption.

As Columbus operates in a very competitive market, with volatile raw material prices and tight margins, they require a high level of flexibility in the manufacturing processes – which in turn requires an equally agile business system for its planning, optimisation and execution. The limited skill availability of the old technology and its associated high maintenance costs led the company to re-engineering the production planning process to allow for rapid change and more effective working practices, which in turn would allow for an increase in volumes.

But it would not be an easy task. Stainless steel production is extremely complex, involving a wide range of control variables, including differing chemical compositions, mechanical properties, physical properties and surface finishes.

“There are actually too many variables to catalogue,” says Alfrieda Robertson, who had been the internally appointed Technical Project Leader in 2008 and later took on an external consultative role at Columbus Stainless through a BPM consultation firm. “And the systems that were in place had been developed over several years. To get the agility we required, we needed a business rules engine that could operate within a highly multifarious, technical environment. We evaluated all the options, and Corticon ticked all the boxes. It could support all our rules, no matter how intricate.”

Corticon solutions are built on top of a Business Rules Management System (BRMS), which automates business rules without coding, allowing business and IT to collaborate. It is locally distributed by AIGS.

Addressing the challenges
Previously automated business rules were coded directly into applications as business logic. Because business logic is the most volatile aspect of business applications, the pains of maintaining rules in application code are significant in rapidly changing environments.

Columbus Stainless wanted these rules externalised from the code allowing business personnel to easily change, build, integrate (as decision services) the logic, whilst still meeting enterprise performance and scalability demands. This would ultimately allow the personnel involved in the day-to-day operations to take full control of their own business rules without any involvement from program developers.

“We didn’t want to put this tool into the hands of IT people – we wanted the business people, the decision-makers to use it,” Robertson explains. “Corticon distinguishes itself from other Business Rules Engines because it is much more than just the standard table lookup mechanism – it manipulates datasets and allows for complicated calculation and algorithms. As an added bonus it was the most user friendly option for end users. They loved the power we put in their hands.”

Implementation
Due to the strategic impact of the project on the future of Columbus Stainless, the decision was made to appoint an internal Columbus IT Project Manager and the somewhat unorthodox decision was made to also appoint a joint Business Project Manager that would be on equal footing with the IT Project Manager. It was this unique approach that demonstrated the value of the business representation, changing the project from being an IT Technology initiative, to a business-driven Strategic Objective.

“It was empowering for both the industrial engineers and the IT staff,” Robertson says. “If you consider how long the legacy systems had been in place, you can imagine how long it would have taken for a new developer to read the old code and start changing things. By taking out the business logic and putting it in the hand of the industrial engineers who understand the policies, processes and underlying business logic that has to be implemented, it allows the development team to focus on their expertise without having to master the entire business platform or build algorithms around all its complexities by looking up tables to get an answer. This accelerates the entire development process.”

Putting the system in the hands of operations staff
Although committing industrial engineers to such a project can be costly, Robertson believes that this was part of the reason the project had been successful. “The structure of the project team greatly contributed to its success. Business analysts and industrial engineers worked with IT at every step of the design process. Now industrial engineers are empowered to manage the entire rule authoring process from inception to deployment without having to master a technical programming language or the complex interactions of rules. The people who understand the business best are driving the business – as it should be.”

Conclusion
If companies can provide a flexible and agile IT environment to a complex, rapid-changing manufacturing operation whilst still remaining business-friendly, they are guaranteed the best of both worlds. As one of the IT project managers succinctly put it, “A successful Business Rules Management System (BRMS) is not just implementing the IT solution, it is focusing on process ownership and developing a common understanding of the business processes with the participation and good working of both business and IT.”

Columbus Stainless’ collaborative approach demonstrates exactly that.