Monday, June 19, 2006

Standards

Andy Hayler's post on business rules Through a Rule Darkly includes a comment about a readers' poll reported by David Stodder, editor of Intelligent Enterprise, in an article entitled Mission Intelligence: Hide Complexity, Expose the Rules.
"I was amused by the readership poll quoted that said that 61% of respondents say that they have 'no standard process or practice' for business rules management. This might imply that 39% actually did, a number I would treat with considerable caution. Personally I have yet to encounter any that does so on a global basis."
For my part, I always treat these kind of polls with caution. My observation is that people often don't have a clue about what is really going on in their own organizations. They attempt to answer these questions by combining beliefs of what ought to be going on (largely based on what they read in the trade press) with an impression of the general capability of their own organization (linked to emotive factors such as pride and motivation).

[See my post on Received Opinion]

In interpreting this particular survey, Andy adopts the law of the excluded middle. Yes plus No must sum to 100%. Andy uses this calculation - presumably tongue in cheek - to call the Yes vote into question. But even if we assume the don't-knows have been taken care of, there are further problems with this kind of survey.

One of my first mentors in data modelling, Raimo Rikkilae, taught me that there were always three answers to any question: "zero", "one" and "many". Thus for example it is often useful to reframe apparently binary (Yes/No) questions into more complex questions (e.g. Always/Never/Sometimes).

So if 61% of organizations have no standards, this doesn't necessarily mean that the remaining 39% have exactly one standard. It could mean that they have many overlapping standards. (Of course, you might argue that having lots of different standards is tantamount to having no standards at all - but many organizations fail to operate according to this logic.)

Meanwhile, the easiest way to implement a single standard is to make it so vague and abstract that anything you like can be interpreted as conforming to the standard. (Of course, you could argue that having a vague and ambiguous standard is useless, and doesn't really count as a standard at all, but how many organizations follow this logic?)

On this analysis, it's hard to take figures such as 61% or 39% seriously - except as rhetorical gestures. If we want to assess the level of standardization in an organization (whether business rules or anything else), we need to investigate the matter properly, with a clear understanding of (a) what counts as a meaningful standard and (b) how to make sense of the multiplicity of standards in play.

And there is a wider question here - which links to governance. What is the relationship between standardization and the existence (and enforcement) of multiple standards? Does the software industry need more standards - or fewer? Obviously there are some strong vendor interests at stake, but there are also some independent bodies with strong standardization agendas. But while there is a lot of debate about individual standards, or the choice between apparent alternatives, there is little rigorous debate about standardization as a whole.


Related post Received Wisdom (January 2005)

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