Adaptive case management—A new approach for achieving goals

This article appears in the issue May 2012, [Volume 21, Issue 5]
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Whether you are in government, non-profit services or something commercially oriented, your business is driven by goals. Those goals may be explicitly identified and formalized, such as with Peter Drucker's management by objectives (MBO) model, in which leaders establish specific goals within the organization so that the outcome is mutually understood, while leaving the specific course of action and the decision-making to qualified workers and stakeholders. That approach offers the benefit of both guidance and measured outcomes that support establishing performance dashboards.

Alternatively, goals may be (and to some degree or another inevitably are) less formal and more likely in response to a particular event, such as countering a competitor's product release or delivering aid in response to a natural disaster. In every case, however, goals drive the mission of all organizations, and transactions and transactional processes comprise some part of the means to the end.

That fact stood out clearly in a survey I conducted recently (see downloadable chart), in which respondents reported that the vast majority of any given day involved working toward specific goals, yet did not follow a predetermined path. Most of the day is spent working toward an identified outcome, yet the means for achieving that cannot be predicted in the way required to program it into a transactional system (think predefined steps, automated workflows, structured data models.)

Of course, business has always been goal-driven, even though that contrasts with the design and architecture of most information and communication technology (ICT) investments today. What is new is the ability to leverage combinations of capabilities, such as business rule engines (BREs) and business process management (BPM), to deliver goal-seeking solutions that are driven by outcomes rather than predefined paths. The best examples are found in the new space known as dynamic or adaptive case management (ACM).

ACM offers a way to manage the entire lifecycle of a "case"—capturing information and context, as well as events and outcomes surrounding new pieces of information, while applying rules and process to them in real time. The combination of two core capabilities-serving as a virtual system of record of the "what" while providing guidance for the "how"—defines ACM.

ACM and goal-seeking solutions

Customer service is cited as a primary target for both process-oriented and knowledge-oriented ICT investment. It also illustrates the difference between achieving goals as enabled by ACM, and simply processing transactions. For example, consider the most basic customer service process—the customer support ticket. A customer reports a problem, a case is opened and the process has begun. What happens next, however, begins to show the gap between managing goals and simply processing transactions. Most support systems, whether full-blown CRM or internal helpdesks, are focused on the fastest time to close the ticket (i.e., transaction processing) without necessarily focusing on the larger goal of satisfying the customer.

With most support systems in place today, there will be an easily accessible log of the number of tickets opened and metrics around time to close them. Yet the process is based on solving a specific problem; thus, the goal is known, but exactly how to achieve it cannot be fully determined in advance. Often potential solutions are tried, maybe successfully, perhaps unsuccessfully. No doubt there is correspondence with the customer, whether an external customer or an internal customer. When it's supplied unsuccessfully, alternatives will be researched. It may take months to resolve, or it may take hours to resolve.

When a case is launched, the circumstances that define its successful conclusion are known—the policies, the rules, the resources, the players involved—but not exactly how those will combine to ensure the outcome, e.g., that the customer is satisfied. Exactly what will happen is left to the discretion of the qualified individuals involved. That helps to ensure an optimal outcome, one based on the unique circumstances of that case, but leads to an unpredictable workflow. It may jump ahead, jump back or otherwise advance based on the circumstances of the case at that point in time. It is not a sequence that can be determined in advance.

Not simply "ad hoc" but "adaptive"

The use of "adaptive" in ACM refers to the ability of the system to respond based on the evolving circumstances or "state" of the case. For example, the arrival of a new document into a case folder may kick off a series of other required documents, or similarly a new event may obviate a previously identified need for documents and information. At any point, the context of the case folder is determined by the combination of its contents and the applied rules and policies. It is the combination of those that are used to inform the knowledge worker.

Adaptability is defined in terms of how a response is facilitated, rather than simply the ability to respond or change. Thus, the defining quality of ACM is the ability to support decision-making and data capture, while allowing the freedom for knowledge workers to apply their own understanding and subject matter expertise to respond to unique or changing circumstances within the business environment. That includes providing reusable templates for initiating new cases, as well as use of completed cases as templates. Knowledge workers can take advantage of automated tasks, while controlling if and when they are invoked, for example, having the ability to create standard correspondence (letters, e-mails, etc.) at any point in the case, with the system automatically capturing context of interaction and responses.

With ACM, the need to perform comprehensive product/system training in advance (what is known as "just-in-case" training) can be replaced substantially with a "just-in-time" ability, in which guidance is delivered within the run-time environment and the specific context at that moment (i.e., "context-sensitive support") by leveraging the applicable business rules and case-related content. That could also include the ability to identify and initiate collaboration with specific subject matter experts.

Working the way they work best

If this is starting to sound like knowledge management, it should. Although not designed as a repository for codifying implicit knowledge in the traditional spirit of knowledge management, it should offer an effective means for identifying know-how by capturing the context in which knowledge work is performed.

ACM enables better records and data management by connecting context and outcomes with the actual information. The ability to identify cases, to be able to access that information based on the case and on the context of what occurred, as well as to manage that separately so the different files can be cross-referenced and linked between cases, allows for capturing and managing the context and the know-how from what has occurred in the course of the performance of that case.

ACM is ultimately about allowing knowledge workers to work the way they work best, giving them the tools and information they need to do their job. Increasingly, that means having access to social media and outside information sources. A significant amount of work currently is conducted through LinkedIn, Twitter and other social sources, as well as resources selected by individual workers that create input and contextual information that's a critical part of the case record, but is not part of any centrally managed ICT infrastructure. ACM provides the ability not only to pull that in as part of the case record, but also to be a platform for enabling mashups and to work in the chosen environment.

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