Case Management and BPM


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A white paper that I wrote for Software AG in April 2011. Published here since it does not appear to be available on their site any longer.

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Case Management and BPM

  1. 1. Case Management and BPMMost business functions combine some amount of structured processes withunstructured, ad hoc activities. This white paper examines how concepts of businessprocess management (BPM) and adaptive case management (ACM) can effectively beapplied together in order to manage a wide variety of business process types.The Nature of Work: Exceptions are the New NormA key trend in business is the increased focus on knowledge worker productivity. Inpart because more routine work is becoming completely automated. Keith Swenson, inhis book on adaptive case management, “Mastering the Unpredictable”, definesroutine versus knowledge work: Routine work can be analyzed and a common pattern derived. This is not to say that routine work is done mechanically, exactly the same way every time, but rather that there is enough similarity in each instance of it that there is a benefit in identifying a specific, detailed pattern for the work. Because routine work is so repeatable, it can be automated by traditional process automation means. Knowledge work is not routine – it does not have the level of repeatability found in routine work. The detailed differences from case to case overwhelm the similarity of different cases: it is not that similarities between cases do not exist, but rather that the differences are greater than the similarities. When it comes to work automation, any advantage gained from similarities is overwhelmed by the additional costs of having to accommodate the differences.Routine work, as his definition states, is about work that is performed the same wayevery time. You can analyze it ahead of time, work out the pattern – or what we wouldcall a process model in business process management (BPM) terms – then execute itthe same way every time. The key thing here is that executing routine work the sameway every time is a good thing: we want it to be standardized and efficient, and there’snot much room for creativity in these processes. This covers fully-automated straight-through processing, but also transaction processing work that involved people in thesteps, for example, keying transactions from instructions on a paper document. In 1
  2. 2. order to standardize and automate routine work, it takes some amount of analysis andimplementation up front, but the high volume of repeatable processes makes thateffort pay off.Knowledge work, on the other hand, doesn’t have the same level of predictability asthe routine work; instead, the knowledge worker needs to be able to decide whataction to take next on a particular piece of work, and when to send it on to someoneelse. Since the processes don’t happen the same way each time, it’s more difficult tomanage them using standard structured BPM methods as with routine work. If youhad to map out every possible path that could be taken in this sort of situation, itwould take forever to get something implemented, and it would never be complete. Inother words, it would be too expensive to even try to do that sort of modeling andimplementation for a process that is truly knowledge work. Furthermore, not only is itnot possible to remove all of the runtime variation in knowledge work, it may be thatvariation – and the ability to manage it – that brings value to the process.Deloitte Development, in a recent white paper entitled “Social software for businessperformance”, highlighted this shift from routine to knowledge work: “Increasingly, employees encounter non-routine issues which break the standard processes. These “exceptions” impede operating processes and drag down business performance across all parts of the organization... The current technologies support standard business processes, but fail to support the dynamic informal communications needed for resolving exceptions.”Their conclusion: exceptions are not exceptional – they are the norm.BPMS in a Dynamic EnvironmentMost modern BPM systems (BPMS) have their origins in the management of structuredprocesses, and excel at modeling, automating, executing, measuring and optimizingbusiness processes. Historically, the focus was on standardizing and automating high-volume, repeatable processes: the business equivalent of a factory assembly line. Theonly agility in these processes was not in the process topology, but in the rules thatgoverned the flow through the a priori model. 2
  3. 3. An example of a high-volume, repeatable process is that of the data entry portion ofprocessing an insurance application: an application form is received on paper from anexternal customer, and the information on the form must be keyed in from the formbefore further processing. There are several steps involved – scanning the documents,verifying the quality of the scanned image, entering the data, validating the data entry– and workers performing in the tasks in this process have little room for creativity:they are required to perform exactly those steps in exactly that order. The goal of theprocess is to complete the steps as efficiently and accurately as possible.For repeatable processes, a significant benefit comes from optimizing processperformance, in part by modeling the process in advance in order to make it explicit toboth business and IT: everyone sees the process model and understands what stepsare going to be done in what order. That also provides a basis for monitoring theprocess, examining how many instances are in each step, or where a particularinstance is relative to the process model at a point in time. The model defineseverything: what you model is what you execute, but requires complete knowledge ofevery step in the process in order to implement.This method of BPM works when the number of repeatable process instances justifiesthe analysis and implementation efforts, such as automated processes or thosegoverned by strict procedural rules. However, many processes don’t fit well with astructured process model: there is too much variability, and workers must either usethe defined process even though it is not optimal, or perform workarounds outside theBPMS.Traditional BPMS have been applied with excellent results to routine work, but it hasbeen more challenging to adapt these systems to handle knowledge work, where thereare dynamic processes, content and rules. This typically results in the requirement foran undefined “hold” step where the process participant puts the item on hold whilethey send email or make phone calls in order to resolve the issue at hand. In otherwords, they step out of the audited and controlled BPM environment in order to dowhat is necessary in order to achieve the goals of the process.Many BPMS tools are adapting to more effectively handle the unique challenges ofknowledge work: more dynamic process definitions, better use of rules and external 3
  4. 4. events, and inclusion of process-related content. And since many processes includeaspects of both structured and unstructured processes, many of the systems areallowing these to be combined in a single process, either where a structured processspawns a collaborative case for exception handling, or a dynamic case invokesstructured process fragments for standard procedures.In our insurance application example discussed earlier, an application form that couldnot be processed due to missing information is forwarded to an exception task where aworker could decide what actions to take in order to complete the process, such ascontacting the customer to request the missing information. The presence of a lessstructured task for exception handling doesn’t turn the entire process into anunstructured or dynamic process: it just allows for a single point of unstructured workin the context of a structured process. The possible paths through the exceptionhandling tasks are not modeled in advance, since they are relatively unpredictable.Adaptive Case ManagementThe deficiencies of conventional BPMS’ in managing dynamic and unstructuredprocesses led to the rise of a new class of systems, called adaptive case management(ACM) or dynamic BPM. Focused on supporting knowledge workers rather thanautomation and efficiency, ACM includes a variety of functionality for problem solvingrather than transaction processing:  The work is centered on a specific situation, or case, and a desired outcome for that case. A case folder provides a persistent container for all tasks, rules, content artifacts and history related to the case resolution.  There may be little or no predefined process flow, with the worker defining the flow as the case progresses.  The worker may add new tasks at any time during case, either previously- defined (including structured process snippets) or completely ad hoc.  Business rules may constrain the selection of specific tasks, or trigger other tasks and processes based on the user selection of tasks within a case.  External events may impact the course of a case, either through automated processing of the events, or user reaction to the events. 4
  5. 5. Human-focused and content-rich, the goal of ACM is to assist, not replace, humanwork. There are many business situations where we just don’t know the exact stepsthat need to be taken in order to complete an assignment: we need to get started, thenuse information that comes up during the process in order to determine which stepsto take next. Peter Drucker, the well-known management consultant, coined the term“management by objectives” to describe how these processes – and the people whoparticipate in them – need to work: you set the goals, and let the person figure out thebest way to do things in order to achieve that goal based on their skills andexperience.Case management systems must combine aspects of BPMS, enterprise contentmanagement (ECM), business rules and collaboration in order to effectively supportknowledge workers, and maintain a solid history of the case in order to allow forauditing and also to provide a reference for workers added partway through the casetimeline.For an example of case management, consider an insurance claims process. Unlikethe insurance application process discussed earlier, which has a fairly structuredprocess with a few points of unstructured exception handling, claims processing isprimarily a dynamic process where the claims worker decides what tasks to perform,and in what order. The claims worker may request information from the customer orother involved parties based on their assessment of the claim, then wait for thatinformation to arrive in order to build up a complete, auditable claim file that supportstheir final decision. The goal of the process is to resolve the claim, not to performspecific tasks. However, even this dynamic, unstructured case management scenariomakes use of structured process fragments in order to complete some tasks: theoriginal claim form and other supporting documents, if they arrive via paper or fax,will go through a structured data entry process before being seen by the claimsworker, as will other structured tasks such as processing payments once the claim isresolved. However, the claims worker is unlikely to be performing those structuredtasks, but works purely within the adaptive case management environment.Proponents of ACM compare their offerings with a specific definition of BPM thatfocuses on structured processes, although this is a somewhat unfair comparison: they 5
  6. 6. are actually comparing conventional BPMS tools based on older workflow andapplication integration approaches with a dynamic planning approach. There isnothing inherent in the definition of BPM – either as a management practice or thetools used to assist it – that prevents BPMS tools from including ACM functionality.Ultimately, both BPM and ACM are about managing business processes.A Spectrum of CapabilitiesRoutine work and knowledge work are very different in terms of the degree of structureand a priori knowledge, as well as the skills and level of responsibility of the peoplewho actually do the work. In reality, however, few business processes are purelystructured or purely dynamic: instead, we see a spectrum of functional requirementsbetween these two endpoints, and a spectrum of capabilities required to assist usersin managing these activities.On the structured end of the spectrum are repeatable processes that are mandated byregulations, part of a strict compliance process, or mostly automated. At the adaptiveend are processes that are unpredictable, or for which there is so much variation thatthere is no benefit in modeling all possible permutations; instead, the knowledgeworker must select operations based on external events and case content. The goaland focus at either end of the spectrum are different, too: structured processes aretypically focused on transactions with the goal of maximizing efficiency, whereasadaptive processes are focused on knowledge with the goal of problem/case resolution.The structured processes are clearly the target of conventional BPM systems, whereasthe adaptive processes are better handled by the emerging class of ACM systems.However, the reality of business is rarely that simple: between these two extremes, wesee scenarios such as structured processes that require case management forexception handling, and ad hoc processes that require some structured processsegments if the knowledge worker includes a task that is governed by specific rules.The earlier examples, of insurance applications and insurance claims handling,showed how a seemingly structured process actually has unstructured steps, and aseemingly dynamic case management situation may include structured subprocesses. 6
  7. 7. Structured Structured with Adaptive with Adaptive •e.g., regulatory ad hoc structured •e.g., investigations process exceptions snippets •e.g., financial back- •e.g., insurance office transactions claimsThrough the course of their lifecycles, most cases will be handled by a variety ofdifferent kinds of workers, some of whose work is very structured, and others whosework is more unstructured, even ad hoc. In order to achieve efficient, consistent casemanagement, organizations need to support the entire gamut of “caseworkers” –whether they are called that or not – and the various kinds of work they do to processand resolve a case. And they need to do this in a way that doesn’t involve awkwardhand-offs that risk losing key pieces of context and case information in the transition.Process may also migrate along this spectrum over time, once some analysis can beperformed on running instances of the processes. Applying process discovery andanalysis to ad hoc processes may detect patterns that allow some portions of theprocess to be standardized into structured processes. Alternatively, moving from moreto less structured, the analysis of a structured process may show such a high degreeof exceptions and workarounds that portions of the process are converted to a moredynamic style.SummaryRecent discussions that position BPM and ACM as competitive approaches ortechnologies don’t account for the complexity of real-life processes, where manyprocesses include aspects of both routine and knowledge work. It’s critical to position 7
  8. 8. an organization’s business processes along that spectrum to gain an understanding ofwhat degree of structure and flexibility are required, and thereby be able to select thebest approaches for managing those processes.BiographySandy Kemsley is an independent analyst, application architect and blogger,specializing in business process management and Enterprise 2.0. During her career ofmore than 20 years, she has started and run successful product and servicecompanies, including a desktop workflow and document management productcompany and a 40-person services firm implementing BPM and e-commerce solutions,and held the position of BPM evangelist for a major BPM vendor.Currently, she practices as a BPM industry analyst and architect, performingengagements for end-user organizations and BPM vendors. She writes the popular“Column 2” BPM blog at, is a contributing author on otherbusiness and social media-related blogs, and is a featured speaker on BPM and itsimpact on business. 8