Saturday, 7 February 2015

The difference between BPM and Case Management

This question hinges on a clear understanding of traditional flow-chart oriented BPM for which there is some widespread confusion. As you read responses to this question, keep in mind that many people confuse BPM (which is a management practice) with BPM Suite (which is a technological product to support the practice). Many BPM Suites support not only the practice of BPM, but many other management practices as well, and this confuses the entire discussion. For discussion, we should use the updated, One Common Definition for BPM.

Traditional BPM is a management practice that views the “process” as the most important organizing theme. A practitioner of traditional BPM talks about “optimizing a process”. In order to optimize a process, there must be a concrete representation of a given process; it must be useful for many individual instances of the process; you must be able to measure how good this process is in abstract from a given case. Traditional BPM is a practice of perfecting that process is for the purpose of supporting of future cases. This only works if you have confidence that future cases will be like the cases of the past that you are measuring the process against. In short, the process must be predictable. Traditional BPM is based on mass production principles: the up front investment that you make in perfecting the process, is paid back in a increase in efficiency over many instances of the process.

Case Management is a technique that is useful when processes are not repeatable. A case represents a situation without necessarily requiring a process. Case management can be used for one-off situations for which the process can not be predicted in advance. A practitioner of case management needs a different kind of support: instead of tools to aid in the elaborate design and optimization of a process up front, a case manager need a way to communicate goals and intent. There is no point in investing a lot of up front effort in designing an optimized process — because it is unlikely to fit the situation, and unlikely to pay back the up front investment — so instead the investment is in information tools and capabilities that can be used directly by the case manager on demand: such as information collecting tools, and communications resources.  In short, case management is useful when the process is unpredictable, or at least not repeatable enough to warrant the up front investment in perfecting the process.

The two approaches are very different:

  • Sherlock Holmes will use a case management approach, not a traditional BPM approach, when solving a case.
  • Bank of America will use a traditional BPM approach, not a case management approach, to support signing up people for new regular accounts.
  • Admiral Thad Allen will use a case management approach, not a traditional BPM approach, when responding to the oil disaster.
  • Amazon will use a traditional BPM approach, not a case management approach, to handling sales of common books.

To say that these approaches are the same, because they both help to get work done, ignores the very essence of traditional BPM and case management. Yes, they are both techniques to help accomplish work, but they achieve this result through different means.

Some will say that even in case management since ultimately a sequence of activities is performed, that this is a “process”. Yes, you can view that retrospectively as a process, but not one that has been or can be “improved or optimized” in any way similar to the practice of traditional BPM. Yes, it is true that the case manager gets better over time, because they learn their job. But to argue that all learning is actually “traditional, flow-chart oriented BPM” stretches the definition of a flowchart too far to be useful. Traditional, flow-chart oriented BPM remains important as a distinct practice of defining, measuring, and optimizing a process in abstract from a given case, for use in future cases.

This has nothing to do with any vendor’s product. I am not making a sales pitch here. Those that say their favorite BPMS can do all of this are simply pointing out that these two management practices can be supported with similar technology – and many products will support both approaches. But remember, traditional, flow-chart oriented BPM, and Adaptive Case Management are not technology, not products. They are both approaches to managing work

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