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The Case for Humans
Where BPM Falls Short

This article is part of the Best Practices White Paper Business Process Management [January 2010]
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At its core, business process management (BPM) is a basic sequence of activities characterized as having measurable inputs, added value and measurable outputs. The activities, which can cross organizational boundaries, are repeatable, definable and predictable.

Because of its ability to deliver on cost reduction, increased productivity, higher customer service levels and a respectable return on investment, more and more organizations are recognizing the value that BPM provides.

For a class of applications, however, business processes must be flexible enough to incorporate uncertainty and human judgment into the process the first time around. It’s this point—agility—that is uncovering the limitations of traditional BPM.

The Limits of BPM
Dynamic is hardly the word used to describe most process applications, primarily because the very heart of BPM lies in repeatable, definable, predictable tasks. Yet industry analyst Forrester says that organizations are seeking "dynamic applications" in order to gain the most benefit from process applications.1 Dynamic is more than a catchphrase here: It’s an absolute necessity for accommodating uncertainty and human judgment, combined with the ability to adapt to change quickly.

Why are dynamic applications so critical these days? Increasing pressure to drive down operating costs, rising customer demands and price competition are at the top of the list. Changing market conditions require that organizations be more responsive and deliver increased value to customers and clients.

The problem with traditional BPM is that many processes require human intervention when decisions cannot be modeled by a rules engine. Yet precisely the opposite occurs when humans interrupt a business process: Costs can rise and responsiveness can drop dramatically—a tried-and-true recipe for creating unhappy customers and investors.

Human intervention has a way of morphing a straightforward task into a complex web of changing business rules, shifting external factors and potential business risks to handle situations that simply don’t fit into defined, repeatable processes. Most BPM products cannot elegantly synchronize complex situations. Yet many organizations use interactive processes that demand tight integration with decisions from knowledge workers combined with ad hoc collaboration and decision-making.

For example, in the financial, insurance, pharmaceutical and healthcare industries, where governmental regulations can drive daily business decisions, compliance issues can create exceptions that must be addressed on a case-by-case basis. It’s imperative that an organization be agile enough to deal with these exceptions appropriately and in a regulated way.

Take the simple scenario of opening a savings or checking account at a bank. A woman comes in to open a new account, so the account representative begins the process on the computer. Several standard process steps occur: input name, address, phone number, etc. Then, the woman, who is from another country, tells the account representative that she does not have a social security number.

The process comes to a screeching halt. An exception is required to open the account without a social security number. The account representative must now take a detour from the standard account-opening process and determine whether authorizations are required to open the account, who must provide those authorizations, what information can be accepted instead of a social security number—and the list goes on. If one step is missed, the financial institution can invoke the ire of the government and potentially incur fines or other penalties. In addition, even after the account is opened, compliance and governance demands can persist long after the processes are complete.

Software coding just isn’t enough to handle all the possible combinations of activities that might occur with this seemingly simple account opening. Experience and judgment are absolutely essential for managing the situation and making procedural decisions. Knowing when to be suspicious of fraud, when to involve specific knowledge workers or when to use compassion in a process is a human thought process that mechanics just can’t match. For cases like these, a new process approach is not only desirable but necessary.

Case Processing
That new approach is case processing, also known as case management. This is a pattern of work in which processes can be sequential, nonsequential, manual and/or automated as well as standard and ad hoc in nature. You can’t get much more dynamic than that.

Gartner says that case management "...departs from the traditional view of structured and sequential predefined processes. Instead, workflows are nondeterministic, meaning they have one or more points where different continuations are possible. They are driven more by human decision-making and content status than other factors."2

Case processing differs from BPM in several key ways:

  • The case offers a central point of control and containerizes multiple documents, data, tasks and discussions related to the matter at hand;
  • It provides deep flexibility for "on-the-go" process changes by taking into account all potential outcomes of a given step within the case; and
  • It allows nondeterministic workflows in which activities can be performed in different ways depending upon the details of each case instance.

In any given case, there are one or more points where different continuations are possible, and the workflow depends on the details of each case. Case processing, then, depends most on human decisions concerning specific facts of the case.

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