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Adaptive case management:
New tools for doing more of what we do best

This article appears in the issue April 2011 [Volume 20, Issue 4]
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In the half-century since Peter Drucker first coined the phrase “knowledge worker,” its share of the work force has grown considerably, to as much as half of all workers by some measures. So too have grown investments targeting knowledge worker productivity, with global IT spending reaching $4.35 trillion in 2010, according to Global Technology Index author Dr. Howard A. Rubin.

Yet we are far from realizing the level of improvement seen in manual labor over the course of the last century. Traditionally, IT investments targeting business productivity have focused on one of two areas. The first is automation technologies, such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) or the more contemporary technology of business process management (BPM). Those address repeatable, predictable modes of work and are designed to enforce a command and control management model, where efficiency gains are sought through standardizing how work is performed.

Yet scripting work processes in advance, as is presented through work automation, offers little benefit for increasing knowledge worker productivity, without the ability to adapt to changes in the business environment. Much of the knowledge worker’s daily activities cannot be accurately defined in advance, at least not with the precision necessary to code into IT applications, and therefore most often take place outside the realm of ERP and BPM. Where it does occur, it is in the other common target area of IT investments—the tools and infrastructure that enable communication and information sharing, such as networking, e-mail, content management and increasingly social media.

We might visually depict those related trends of IT with the vertical dimension—running the line of predictability—and time, on the horizontal. Highly predictable work is easy to support using traditional programming techniques, while unpredictable work cannot be accurately scripted in advance, and so requires the involvement of the workers themselves. Aiding knowledge workers, enabling real productivity gains, would logically come from both automating repetitive work where possible, while facilitating the less predictable, more dynamic work modes requiring the flexibility to be defined according the circumstances and context of a given moment in time.

As IT investments have advanced their footprint in the workplace, a gap has emerged. It can be found between e-mail and ad hoc communication tools, which, while used in one form or another by all knowledge workers, offer little with regard to task management, and the ERP/BPM realm, premised on predictable work patterns defined in advance. What has emerged to fill this void is adaptive case management (ACM).

In a recent McKinsey Quarterly article entitled “Rethinking Knowledge Work,” Tom Davenport defines case management as a combination of workflow, content management, business rules, portal and collaboration tools, which collectively allow for the completion of an entire “case” or unit of work. In other words, it is the orchestration of those tools together that support the entire life cycle of a case, from end to end.

Case management ties together the tools that support knowledge work, as single application and environment, whether virtually or physically, with a single point of access. That involves the integration of external tools and social media (think “mashups”) to facilitate communication and assist with data visualization, with various information sources or repositories.

Case management differs from tools such as BPM and ECM because it is not simply a parallel silo, but rather a superset or master system of record, capturing both the “what” (data, files, records or most often links to the physical sources of those) and the “how” (metadata, audit trail, as well as the context of decisions and actions). As a result, adaptive case management facilitates better data and records management through the ability to identify and organize content distinctly from other cases—whether shared or unique, it is connected to the specific business context in which it was used.

Davenport writes, “Case management can create value whenever some degree of structure or process can be imposed on information-intensive work. Until recently, structured provision approaches have been applied mostly to lower-level information tasks that are repetitive, predictable and thus easier to automate.” Case management offers the chance to improve the productivity of knowledge work by allowing knowledge workers to make smart choices and apply best practices, not to simply automate decisions for them.

Productivity improvements, measured in both financial and non-financial terms, come from reduced re-work, as well as improved customer and employee satisfaction. In part, that results from greater visibility into areas of work previously “under the radar” when performed in purely ad hoc environments, offering the ability to prioritize activities across multiple cases, balancing workloads, as well as monitoring quality, timeliness and speed.

Supporting the dynamic nature of constantly shifting business environments and the self-directed, non-repetitive nature of knowledge worker processes requires the ability to assemble structured and unstructured processes from basic predefined business entities, content, social interactions and business rules. It requires capturing actionable information and supporting decisions without having to model or re-engineer processes in advance, but instead based on patterns defined by business users. Unlike traditional BPM systems, where the focus is process route, along which the item of work or case information follows a predefined path, it is the case itself that is the focus.

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