BPM and Case Management

I’ve been giving this “BPM vs. case management” thing a lot of thought lately. (I know, get a life.) All the time I read that “case management” evolved from BPM. And it’s just another evolutionary step along the path to complete information enlightenment. I’ve been as guilty as anyone in trying to connect the dots along some kind of “evolutionary scale,” like those posters of early man changing to modern man.

Like almost everyone else, I allowed myself to simplify it so much that the “workflow begat BPM begat case management” common perception seemed plausible to me.

That’s before I gave it all that thought I talked about a minute ago. Now I can tell you that the evolutionary arc in popular opinion is rubbish.

The Difference Matters

BPM and case management are not complementary; they are polar opposites. BPM describes an environment where frequently conducted tasks need to be replicated and repeated on behalf of those who conduct predictable work day in and day out.

Case, on the other hand, has nothing to do with predictable, repeatable processes. Case has evolved not from the assembly-line, cookie-cutter transactional processes that, however valuable, can’t resolve the exceptions facing decision-makers every day. Case has emerged straight from the desks of those incredibly valuable employees who handle an eclectic mélange of information sources.

AIIM (the Association for Image and Information Management) has a handy definition: “Sometimes known as adaptive or dynamic case management, case management endeavors to improve the performance of your organization by putting case information front-and-center rather than considering the process as primary, the way workflow and BPM do. Such information will be accessed over the entire length of time you are working on a given task and will become the official record for that work.

“Case management is described as operating on bundles of content rather than individual documents or images. A ‘case’ is a compendium of information, processes, advanced analytics, business rules, collaboration, and sometimes social computing that relates to a particular interaction…” AIIM has become a dominant figure in this adoption of case management as the ultimate worker’s tool.

In her accompanying feature article here, Amanda Ulery, product marketing for OnBase by Hyland, provides a “short list” of things to look at and consider as you reach to get a handle on “scattered spreadsheets, network folders or siloed departmental databases like Access or Lotus Notes—all of which can cause service, security and response times to suffer,” Amanda writes.

“Consider the ‘gaps’ that exist in your daily work—areas that your major business applications can’t fully support. Once you’ve found these, you’ve identified opportunities for a better case management approach.”

Carl Sagan said, “We are star stuff.” Well, organizations are “business process stuff.”

Some of these processes are simple; some are more complex. BPM is really good at optimizing those simple business processes and transactions. Case management focuses on the more complex business processes. This characteristic division between transactions (simple, straight-through) and complex, exception-prone processes defines and supports my hypothesis that BPM and case management do not live in the same neighborhood.

The Professionals Rule

Many discussions about case management solutions tend to focus on an organization’s knowledge workers—individuals who use their knowledge and discretion to make decisions and move dynamic work forward. It’s the modern equivalent of the big, fat briefcase. It doesn’t matter if it’s a legal proceeding, or a contract negotiation.

A baffling array of support documentation can become urgent, to varying degrees, depending on the “case.” It’s entirely up to the professional which of these information assets can play a positive part in resolving the case. No pre-determined routing, no pre-established workflow, no “book policies” that decide the transaction for you.

With case management, you’re on your own, baby.

I should hasten to add that there is a perception that case management is technology-free. That would not be true. In fact, I would argue that case management is technology-heavy. Every one of those assets that might become a critical inflection point in a case resides in some kind of repository, most likely electronic. Which means an effective case management tool must embrace not just the “system,” as in many BPM instances, but instead, “whatever works.”

The Technology Decision

I like the way Amanda puts it: “When it comes to case-driven solutions, you could have your developers build applications via custom coding or purchase multiple point solutions, each specific to one process. However, custom-coded applications take longer to build and are difficult to change; point solutions, while effective for one use, can’t be easily extended to other areas of your organization or tailored for specific customer needs.” That pretty much sums up the challenge for developers in this emerging area: “How much is too much? When do we drop in?” The technology piece DOES get complicated—do you provide tools to do the work (BPM) or tools that allow smart employees to do the work (case)?

Well, it might be good to talk to the people who face these dreadful exception cases. Ask them what they need for a toolbase. Do they want a dashboard that shows every conceivable option? Or do they want a technology background a little different than that? One that allows frictionless access to the “right information, at the right time, to the right people.” Where have I heard that before?

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