Less Controversial BPM vs. Case Management Comparison?

  • June 4, 2010
  • Scott

Imagine my surprise to see a pretty reasonable comparison of BPM and Case Management, that doesn’t attempt to belittle either approach, nor pigeon-hole either approach, and yet captures an interesting distinction (from David Yockelson of IBM):

Business process management focuses on optimization of a process with a key goal to increase the volume of throughput or work completed for an individual process.  Case management has a different “design goal” and focuses on optimization of outcomes for individual cases by providing an integrated set of information and services for the case worker.  However, case management leverages BPM capabilities to address the different types of processes that could be called upon to drive case outcomes.  These could involve complex structured processes, dynamically assembled sets of services, or ad hoc exchanges among those related to the case (including the customer).

I would have phrased it a bit differently – but if I can pull apart the previous definition a bit I think we can get at the key elements.  If BPM is focused on optimizing the aggregate of many process instances, Case Management is focused on optimizing the outcome of an individual run of a process by providing better information and tools to the case worker.  To take the medical example – case management would philosophically try to help improve the outcome for a single patient.  BPM would philosophically try to improve the overall outcome of health care provided by the facility across all patients.

This seems like an interesting working model for how to think about the two approaches, but I’m curious to see what the ACM folks (besides David Yockelson of IBM) think of this definition.

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  • I think that there is a lot of truth to the distinction between BPM optimizing the aggregate of many process instances, while case management is focused on optimizing the outcome of an individual run of a process. On the other hand, I don't think that is the crux of the issue between the two “camps”. I think that is the crux of the issue is:
    1. Is it possible for a process to have every instance be different – or is a case a fundamentally different type of paradigm than the “standard” process paradigm requiring a different approach and different tools.
    2. Should an organization strive to always to make process instances the same.

    I think that most case folks believe that for certain processes instances are handled indiviuallly because of certain intrinsic properties of the process, not because of poor planning or execution. That means these types of processes don't lend themselves to management in the same way as “standard” processes, and require fundamentally different tools.
    BPMS folks (i.e. the product guys) tend to see the world differently, they don't see a process made up of one-off individual cases as a process at all, but as a set of exceptions that should be fixed. For them, BPMS just needs to be enhannced (or maybe not even that) and this pesky ad-hoc, unpredictable, unstructured process (case) issue will go away.

    On a lighter note – I think it will be hard to find an agreed upon definition comparing the two – since there is no agreed upon definition defining BPM(S) itself…

    Jacob Ukelson – CTO ActionBase

  • I think its interesting that you agreed with the basic point above, but then turned to bashing BPM proponents (good naturedly, I'll admit). No need to take the debate there, in my opinion.

    Let's get back to reasonable discussion about management approaches and software technology that can help businesses get their work done, and how these things can work together for the benefit of the business. I think that's what the framing of a comparison between BPM and CM above does – anyone with a different opinion?

    My 2 cents.

  • The problem with your (and David's) definition of Case Management is that it restricts its usage to cases, and case managers. That is why WfMC chose Adaptive Case Management (ACM) as the term – as an attempt to widen the net to include many more types of knowledge work, beyond just the current definition of case management.

    Adaptive Case Management (as I see it) is an attempt to make knowledge work more productive, not just case work (though in many instances there is a lot in commmon between the two).

    ACM is not just about optimization – it is about providing enough structure to an ad-hoc, unpredictable process to make it manageable; but not so much as to strangle it.

    I am not sure for any single case ACM provides a better outcome (since the outcome is dependent on the participant experts much more than the tool) – but it does make it easier for the experts to manage the process more efficently and effectively – wich should lead to better outcomes.

    Jacob Ukelson – CTO ActionBase

  • Jacob – I'm not attempting to narrow ACM. Keith Swenson has previously argued that BPM *cannot* do ACM because ACM is based on a case, and BPM is based on a process (as if these two are mutually exclusive) – I don't make any such claim in either direction – but if BPM is management of processes, I'd be surprised if case management doesn't involve management of cases 🙂

    I think we might be in agreement as to what the people using the terms mean by them after all – i explicitly used the term “case management” rather than “ACM” to (try to) make it clear that I was addressing the more traditional philosophy (not definition) of case management.

    “ACM is not just about optimization – it is about providing enough structure to an ad-hoc, unpredictable process to make it manageable, but not so much as to strangle it” – I think this is what all of us would strive for (whether we call ourselves ACM or BPM practitioners. But in previous writings I've seen Keith Swenson and others focus much more on how ACM can help a one-off process that, in their view, BPM cannot address. Philosophically that is a different focus than BPM – improving your business by improving each instance without regard to the others – whereas in BPM we'd try to improve your business by aggregate improvements in processes (by and large). They aren't absolute differences, just coming at things from different ends of a spectrum with lots of overlap, of course (it would make sense for BPM to care about individual instances, and for ACM to care about overall outcomes).

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  • Yokelson starts with the axiom that “case management leverages BPM capabilities” and everything else follows.

    Scott, on many occasions I have suggested that when you speak of BPM, you use BPM in a way that suggests that BPM is “all automated work”. All work is composed of activities, and all collections of activities are processes, and therefor all work is supported by BPM. Given this world view, ACM would be a part of BPM.

    In order to clarify whether you really mean this or not, I have asked you to give an example of automated work that is NOT BPM in your world view. Forgive me if I missed it, but don't remember seeing any such examples from you.

    There is a certain blindness that we are afflicted with once we adopt a mindset for viewing the world. It is inevitable that we adopt mindsets, but be should at the same time explore the limitations of particularly mindsets. As I have said before, if you have a hammer, you tend to view all problems as nails. More importantly, if a problem does not look like a nail, it ceases to be a problem, and becomes a non-problem. There is, of course, a large gray area of things that look sort-of like a nail. I would like you to identify some problems that do NOT look like nails, and then we can talk about those cases.

    However, if when you say “hammer” you really mean “tool” , then your term is all inclusive term over all possible tools, and when I argue that a screwdriver it not a hammer, we end up in a useless argument because I mean a specific tool for a specific purpose, and you mean an all inclusive tool.

    I use BPM to mean a specific technique where you define a process, analyze it, measure it's “quality” across a large number of typical cases, with the purpose of making a process that will be run many times in the future. That is what I understand BPM to be, NOT simply a term that means all possible work automation. It is a specific kind of work automation.

    There is no point in arguing, if instead you believe (as many do) that BPM is simply a term that means all kinds of work automation.

  • Scott, he is not “bashing” BPM proponents. He is describing the reaction to situations, and there is nothing pejorative about those reactions. When you believe that all work can be described as a process, you naturally try to find a “process” solution to all problems.

    I know you don't believe this, but there are work patterns that simply can not be described as a process.

    Just as there are types of music that can not be written down. Do you believe that? Can all music be written? If so, why do improvisational solos exist? Is a world view that all music can be written down, there should be no need for improvisation.


  • Keith, in the rarefied air of bpm-acm discussion, I stand by my characterization, because it turned into a criticism of the way *people* who use BPM or BPMS can think, rather than of ideas, and it turned negative on BPM alone, rather than keeping to the tone of Yockelson or myself (balanced). I don't believe there was a single critical word about ACM in the original post. Correct me if I'm wrong.

    I even borrowed your favorite medical analogy.

    Keith, music is great. I, too, have heard Wynton Marsalis in concert. His brother as well. He's fantastic, and the experience of hearing him was amazing. I've heard many other musical acts, I even have some musical skill myself. It just has no bearing on BPM or ACM software. ACM wouldn't help Marsalis any more than BPM. Its an analogy without teeth because it doesn't inform how we actually work.

    And yes, all music can be written after the fact. But not all music can be written ahead of time (improvisation).

  • You started with “Yockelson starts with the axiom that 'case management leverages BPM capabilities' and everything else follows.” – fair enough you don't like that statement -but setting that aside what did you disagree with? ACM shouldn't leverage BPM capabilities? Your comment just goes straight into an unrelated argument.

    There's also certain blindness we get when excited about a shiny new bauble. We should still get excited about this bauble, but we shouldn't lose sight of perspective, and reality, in the process. Our tools aren't as simple as hammers and screwdrivers. I think the framework of optimizing outcomes over many instances, versus the framework of optimizing specific outcomes for specific instances, does a nice job of helping figure out which approaches will give you the most bang for your buck depending on where your problem is in the spectrum. But you prefer to define things in terms of can and can't, black and white, and I don't find that as useful and I don't feel that I need to comply with being binary in my arguments.

    Here is the previous thread in which we discussed the same complaint from you that I need to describe what is not BPM.


    If you want to jump to the relevant comment and my response:


    I think three weeks have passed- we've been busy. If posts like this and the previous one don't do it justice for you let me know. I think its clear, and I could give 4-5 more examples but I think the point has already been made and so the # of examples aren't going to increase clarity. I even used your framework (the doctor patient experience) to explain myself.

  • So, you agree that improvisation is different from composition?

  • If you assume that ACM is part of BPM, then you will conclude that as well.

    I like the fact that Yokelson points out the different design goal. That is good. But he has completely missed the point that some cases simply don't have processes. But this depends upon your definition of a “process”. If a process can include the concept of “no process”, then we just go round and round.

    I responded on the thread that you linked. I have provided a definition of BPM, I hope you will too.

  • of course. that's like asking me if the sky is blue. But i don't agree that it has relevance to the bpm/acm discussion.

  • You don't have to assume ACM is part of BPM to conclude what David concluded. If I say that my support site will leverage email capabilities, it does not say that my support site is part of email. Usage doesn't imply containment.

    Why is the idea that cases don't have processes the point that everyone must agree with to satisfy you? this is something you always come back to but I'm not sure it is nearly as important as you say. Again, an email is neither a case nor a process, but I can build a process that involves email. Or a case that involves email. Why can't processes involve cases and vice versa? It just isn't logically complete.

    In math, the lack of something is zero. and yet math leverages the absence of something just fine. So yes, a process can include the concept of something that has no process. That doesn't tie me in knots, projects deal with this all the time.

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