Cases Managed The World Over

June 21, 2009

A recent spate of interest in Case Management is good to see (I always called it Case Handling but the concepts are the same). The OMG is about to vote on an RFP (Request for Proposal for a new standard) on Case Management. As some of my regular readers will realize, I have a special interest in the subject of Case Management.

Some of us have been talking about the problems of dealing with Cases for a number of years (e.g. this post in 2007). My own experience started with the development of what would today be called Case Management systems starting in the mid-80s and culminating in an Oracle-based object oriented repository in the early 90s – way too clever by half for that era so I canned it in 1992 and became an Analyst looking at other peoples products, writing white papers, etc. Since then I put together a number of white papers specifically talking about the issues of Case Management:

  • In 1996 a paper called “The Business Case for Case Handling” and although the vendors I referenced at the time have since disappeared (bought out), the issues are just as relevant today.
  • Over the last few years, I published a couple of papers that start to explore some of the related issues (these papers are available on BPM Focus with registration). In particular, these two papers address many of core concepts of Case Management.
    • “Process Innovation and Corporate Agility – Balancing Efficiency and Adaptability in a Knowledge-Centric World”
    • “Business Processes and Customers – Difficult Domains to Integrate”

So with this post, I am having my own stab at defining the issue. I have been invited several times by those in the OMG to take part in this particular enquiry, but hesitate to get involved as these things can act as an enormous time sink. So first let me point you at some other perspectives. In recent months, we have seen several bloggers discussing some of these ideas (touching on the need for adaptability and agility):

  • Jim Sinur of Gartner talks of “… Agile processes that are tapped into emerging events and contexts driven by organizational and community goals … the need for creating and managing unstructured processes. This kind of environment requires organizations and vendors to master goal driven processes.” In another post he said “Today most processes are Flow directed, but the future will likely require goal direction for at least a portion of the process. This is what we call unstructured processes that are composed of process snippets that are flow directed and portions that are completely dynamic. A combo looks to be the way forward.” See here, here and here.
  • Neeli Basanth Kumar (of Cordys) talks of Process Patterns in Adopting Case Based Solutions (he even uses one of my diagrams from a 97 paper – The Workware Evaluation Framework … where I tried to highlight the role of Case Management).
  • A discussion paper put out by Dennis Byron at ebizQ provides a sort of summary of some of the thinking of the vendors that replied to his request for information (originally it contained references to my thoughts and some of my graphics but that content was pulled after I pointed out the provenance). 
  • Bruce Silver commented on the RFP discussion going on at the OMG and postulated what he sees as the difference between “traditional BPM” and “Case Management”.

For me, it all comes back to the continuum of Process. On the one hand, we have the image of the organization as machine, with mechanistic “Procedures” used to control the work of the resources available. Most BPM initiatives are still stuck at this level, seeking to automate things and remove (human) resources from the equation. If Productivity = Value / Resources, this reductionist approach is all about reducing the resources involved in the deliver of a given value.

At the other end of the spectrum, we could consider processes as more like evolving “Practices.”  Think of what you do personally and see if this concept makes sense – some parts of what you do are defined in Standard Operating Procedures, other parts you interpret and apply your judgment. The more leeway you have to make decisions (in your job), the more knowledge you exercise in carrying out your job. Most knowledge workers are goal oriented, regarding procedures as a means to an end, rather than an end in themselves. Managers tend to be goal oriented.

We could think of high level processes as being about a “Purpose” – and how that Purpose is interpreted will inevitably be somewhere on that spectrum Procedure and Practice. Indeed, one finds that most business problems need a combination of both – hence the approach that has become know as Case Management. Now we’ve got this concept established, from a process perspective you could think of Case Management as applying to the Practices end of the spectrum. Workers here are goal oriented, and typically apply processes to achieve those goals.

Case Management is a very important “Design Pattern” for supporting flexible work Practices instead of more rigorous Procedures (where no adaptability or run time flexibility is needed). Different products take vastly different approaches to Case Management, all with the aim of providing flexibility and adaptability to the user, yet still providing support for the organizational objectives (processing more work, more efficiently and providing traceability).

Case Management proffers a way of mixing overarching support for that Purpose – normally through a high-level, outline procedure, which is then supported by a library of process fragments that can be bound into the parent as determined by the user. In some cases, the user has complete control of what should happen next; in others, the ability to progress from one phase of that high-level outline to the next is constrained in some way. Some products leave it very loosey goosey, others are all about constraining the user. Depending on how strong the need for adaptability is (in the target domain) the user may even have the ability to develop new process fragments to support a given need (imagine a Software Engineering project … it’s not always possible to predict every possible permutation). In others (say a Bank for example), it might be good enough to have the user select from a library of available sub-processes to bind to the parent. Indeed, in a Bank or Insurance company, it is unlikely that the run time adaptability would be allowed (the last thing you need is a clerk getting creative with a bank draft).

With careful architectural design, it is possible to create a Case Management environment out of many different BPMS products. But that implies that the end-user organization already have a clear idea of how such environments are constructed. In a sense, they create an application layer above the BPM Suite. 

My concern with the OMG RFP is that it is trying to standardize something that is poorly understood (as evidenced by the varying perspectives given in the OMG BMI mailing list). 

While the rest of this document goes on to outline my own views on Case Management, I believe that developing a standard in this area at this point would only result in hampering innovation. Having said that – there is a definite need for much more discussion and exploration of the domain of Case Management.

I believe that the approach proffered by Cordys represents just one way of approaching Case Management. There are others, and I do not believe that tying everyone down to one interpretation of Case Management at this point will be a good thing in the industry. Other vendors with Case Management approaches include:

  • Singularity
  • Cordys
  • Global 360
  • Sword (was Graham Technology)
  • Itensil
  • TIBCO
  • EMC Documentum
  • IBM (FileNet)
  • BizAgi
  • Pallas Athena
  • Pega
  • Polymita
  • HandySoft

All these vendors have some sort of capability that could be described as Case Management (and I am sure there are plenty of others that would put themselves on the list).

Finally those in the Process technology world are starting to see that a pure “one sized fits all approach” to the standardization of process definitions is entirely inappropriate when it comes to the needs of humans and knowledge workers. Moreover, Case Management approaches provide all sorts of benefits to companies in that they enable a far more flexible response to the needs of customers.

As different vendors struggle to work out the best approach, the last thing they need is to be tied down to a “standard” approach. In the end, it will be the Darwinian process of selection that will see the best products win out; not some imagined need for standardization and interoperation between wholly different approaches to the problem. 

Notes

Most BPM efforts could be characterized by their incessant focus on process standardization. They are predicated on the assumption that overall business effectiveness improves through better control. And while this is true for procedural, back-office problems, the reality is that customer facing and knowledge work processes are extremely difficult to standardize (if not impossible).

This is a real problem for long term BPM adoption. Ask yourself how many organizations you know in the BPM arena that have more than 5 or 10 processes “under management” (i.e. using a BPM Suite to ensure that things don’t fall through the cracks). And then think about how many spreadsheet are used in those same organizations to coordinate work.

In the paper “Customers and Business Processes – Difficult Domains to Integrate” I suggested that there were several different types of Case Management (Case Handling). These range from the traditional BPM Suite (which struggles to support the necessary adaptability), through what I called “Design Time Case Handling” on to “Run Time Case Handling”.

Case Management and BPM

Case Management and BPM

The vast majority of BPM Suites and Workflow tools assume that all activities/tasks/steps (and the potential paths through them), are modeled a priori (beforehand). Putting that another way, they focus on driving work between employees based on a model that maintains the status of a work item. The process model must exist up front, which presents the first hurdle of process discovery—i.e. ensuring those models are “correct.”

Further, in most products, all work of a given type share a common process description (rather than copying the model to support each work item). In such situations, the engine will normally allow the end-user little or no choice but to follow the pre-defined procedure.

Of course, the challenge is then for process modelers to predict all possible permutations in advance—something that is virtually impossible to achieve in customer facing situations. To get around show stopping scenarios, a few products incorporate features that provide the ability to bypass, redo, and rollback steps, while most rely on re-assignment of work to the supervisor (who must then step outside the system to resolve the problem). It does not take long before the supervisor becomes the bottleneck as cases mount up (those that do not follow the “happy path”).

Change is only possible through re-development of the common process model. New items of work then follow the modified process description (most products incorporate some form of version control). Change to an individual work item normally requires the deletion of all threads of work and the work item is then recreated under the new model (compromising any future audit). Alternatively, mechanisms must are needed to move an existing case to the new model.

These adaptability issues are not constrained to customer facing scenarios. For example, as government regulations change, the firm needs to revamp its process models to handle that change. There might be thousands of cases in the system, the vast majority of which will complete before the new regulations come into force. But imagine that there are still 100 cases outstanding at the point the new regulation comes into effect. For most products, it would simply be impossible for them to handle this problem in any sort of constructive fashion. Each of those work items would have to be manually stopped, and then restarted (somehow) under the new process definition that met the new government regulations. The only viable way of approaching the problem is to incorporate mechanisms to migrate individual instances to the new model.

For Case Handling support, the key differentiating factor (of the BPM Suite) is the ability to link multiple processes to a given case of work—the primacy is with the case of work, rather than the processes that are used to support it. Each case is usually “managed” by a relatively loose (high-level) parent procedure, but the worker can then add new procedural fragments to handle each different requirement of the work in hand. Effectively, the user is binding new procedural fragments to the case at run time; either by selecting them from a library, or by developing new ones.

Of course, this sort of approach is reliant on a BPMS that can facilitate such modifications to work in flight. For most products, it will also require great care in the design of the process architecture itself, and may involve the development of an external application.

(Some of these thoughts have been culled from my past White Papers on the subject of Case Handling)


The Elephant In The Room

April 11, 2009

On Thursday, I was chatting with Jim Sinur over the big issues affecting our industry. I suggested that what we need at the next Summit was to get people to start seeing these big issues … the ones that BPM is only tangentially starting to address. So the ides was to have a combative session where we bounce around the big things that seem to go largely unmentioned. The idea is that we discuss the major trends and big problems associated with long-term success of BPM. So here are a few that I proffered on the call (you’ll notice these ideas are sort of related).

  1. Organizations are struggling to drive wider adoption of process management? The average number of Processes under Management in a typical BPM site is probably 5 or less; I think we would all agree that more than 10 is unusual. While there may be some cases of organization with over 20 or even 50, the reality is that there is little widespread adoption inside your average large organization (although some are starting to grapple with that problem). Why is that? Because the effort required to standardize the processes and deal with all the data and artifacts is just too great. Yet at the same time, the number of spreadsheets used to coordinate work in those same organizations is numbered in the thousands (or at least hundreds). Every one of those spreadsheets represents and opportunity to manage and improve organizational performance. There are lots of issues that are associated with the broad base adoption I am suggesting here … education and training are key.
  2. The emergence of Case Handling as a dominant design approach in the BPM. Today, too much emphasis is placed on the purely transactional, procedural end of the process spectrum. Not enough on the needs of workers. If you like, we need the same rigor that was applied to ERP implementation now to be applied to all the other stuff in the firm.
  3. Value chain optimization trumps behind the firewall efficiency! Some organizations are experimenting with processes that span organizational boundaries (i.e. outside the corporate firewall). This is driving innovation as firms come to grips that they are part of a wider value chain. Suppliers and partners need to collaborate, as they coordinate their efforts they are using processes to work with each other. In turn, I believe that this trend is going to drive adoption of SaaS-oriented BPM solutions.
  4. Innovation is occurring in both thinking, and technology to support the needs of knowledge workers (like you and I). Not only do we need more accessible products (who wants to rely on the IT department to hold your hand), but we need new ways of thinking about process and collaboration.

And then there are a few Problems we all need to deal with if we are to get success.

  1. Deal with the Politics First – it’s an absolute waste of time trying to move forward with a BPM initiative if you haven’t got your ducks in a row. I would posit that one of the reasons why a CoE approach tends to be more successful than one-off BPM projects is precisely because of the organizational buy-in required to create that sort of entity. However, the fact remains that a CoE is major overhead on your first BPM project; establishing a CoE is an evolutionary step on the path toward BPM Nirvana. Managers should address this issue early on to avoid disappointment. This is as much about ensuring that the process is rooted in the organization appropriately.
  2. It is people, not computers that drive innovation (contentious issue I know). BPM Vendors need to get off their soap-box; they need to avoid the “add water and stir” flavor in their marketing.
  3. Resource management – I mentioned it earlier, but there are just not enough good people with knowledge and expertise available. Where are the skills going to come from? I would suggest it is much better to train your own (growing your own capabilities) rather than assuming that some outsource provider will give you the resources at the right time. I bet you were thinking abotu your project team resources … I am talking about within the business itself. As an industry, we have spent so long conspiring to keep the business professional in the dark, yet now they need to grapple with how things get done around here (one of the best definitions of a Business Process I have heard was from Howard Rheingold … “The Way Things Get done Around Here”). Point is, you cannot outsource change.

Do some of these themes resonate. I am sure there are  other “Elephants In The Room” that the industry needs to grapple with. What do you think?


Gartner BPM Summit Report

September 14, 2008

Well the book (BPMN Modeling and Reference Guide) is out, and we sold out at the Gartner BPM Sumit last week (we launched the book there). People would come up, thumb through it, think about it perhaps but then buy a copy. Several of them came back an hour or so later and bought more copies … with phrases like “this is actually designed for people to read …”, “the rest of my team need to read this …” and “I must get my boss a copy of this.” And then some of the vendors popped their heads above the parapet – one of the larger names in this space is now talking about buying 2000 copies (one for each member of staff I guess), and two others walked off with half a dozen copies for their colleagues. So all up, we were pretty pleased.

My “BPM and Modeling” track session was well attended (a couple of hundred delegates), and only 3 people fell asleep. Of course, it was directly after lunch, and modeling is not exactly the most rivetting of topics, although I did try to make it as interactive as possible (given the situation). I reiterated a central tenet of my approach to process modeling – in the early stages of a BPM initiative it is important to contrast modeling approaches to drive understanding (rather than slavishly following just one technique such as BPMN). The key point is that you need to be able to change your perspective … to see things differently if you want to really understand the process. Of course, when it comes to implementing a process using on a BPM Suite, then you need to resort to BPMN to get clarity into the execution model.

On Friday morning, I filled the (relatively small) room at the “BPM and Process Architecture” power breakfast, which was always going to be a difficult task given that the night before was the vendor parties (free booze). Anyway, several people complemented on an interesting session afterward. I had tried to communicate the set of methods we use to move from thinking about Strategy to through to implementation. This session included an overview of techniques to support the clarification and definition of:

  • What business are you really in, and what business services you need to support that vision.
  • From that, what is an effective Process Architecture -i.e. what processes do you need to support those business services and how do they communicate with each other, etc. (referencing the RIVA Process Architecture method).
  • And from there, how do you get to the SOA-based IT Services that are needed to support those business processes (i.e. how they are implemented). What service interfaces are required for each component, etc.

The problem is that, when it comes to process architecture there are very few reliable approaches … certainly functional decomposition falls down a hole here. Most rely on what I call the “black art” approach. They make the mistake of linking Process Architecture to the current mechanisms for apportioning blame (the organizational chat) – i.e. the Process Architecture should be independent of the organizational structure. If you change the way the departments and business units are structured, this shouldn’t force a refactoring of the processes.

I ended the session with a short overview of Case Handling approaches … an area that I feel is poorly understood (especially by vendors who have little incentive to change the status quo). Case Handling is really a design pattern enabling a balance between control and adaptation (efficiency and flexibility), where users are left in control, yet the organization can still provide support for the vagaries of customer interaction (see “Customers and Business Processes – Difficult Domains to Integrate” on page 2 of the papers available on the BPM Focus web site for more detail there).

I attended a few other sessions, but found new insights a bit few and far between (for me that is, too educated I guess). I only caught the last third of the opening keynote (I was told I didnt miss much earlier), and found myself taking notes (as much as anything on the language used and the phraseology for concepts). I sat through an entire session on Customer Interaction and BPM (which I felt missed the mark entirely … but still managed to salvage a few points here and there). I enjoyed Dan Roam’s session (keynote on day 2) on modeling on the back of a napkin (using simple rich pictures to communicate). I felt that the session on BPM and SaaS (Michelle Cantara) didn’t go far enough (stopping well short of talking about the implications of the cloud on the way work will happen in the future). But there were other sessions on that (competed with my modeling session), so no doubt they got more into that aspect then.

The Vendor Showroom floor was the usual zoo – with people wandering on and off stands or generally ignoring the vendors while they consumed their deserts or coffee. This format just doesnt work for either the vendors or the delegates who want information on what the products really do. Contrast that with the BPM Technology Showcase we are running on October 14-16 in DC. The last one of those in Nashville was a roaring success as people got up close and personal with what the technology can really do for you.

Otherwise, I seemed to be either signing books or getting button-holed by folks in the hallway.


BPM and Knowledge Work – Looking for Proof of Concept Partners

June 24, 2008

I am looking to prove that Business Process Management technology can really change team productivity, especially for teams that span diverse organizations. We will choose a half a dozen knowledge-centric organizations, and then build out a proof of concept or initial application for each of them that they can then take forward, deriving long term value and changing the rules of competition in their industry.

This will appeal to organizations in the following situations:

  • A consulting group looking to package and deliver their expertise via a robust, service-based model that creates a leave-behind environment and an extended client engagement.
  • Start-ups developing a knowledge-based product offering, seeking a comprehensive Proof of Concept to close the first round of customers.
  • Corporate teams focused on Project delivery or Product Launch, needing to capture their project/product artifacts and support evolving business practices.

A Short History

Business Process Management has been taking great strides—moving from the highly structured transactional procedures into the realms of ever more human-centric, evolving and adapting processes. Instead of limiting processes to the confines of IT (as the BPEL guys are trying to do), some vendors have been exploring providing better support for the roughly repeatable business practices—rather than always following a standard pattern, processes unfold and many fragments of process might come together to support an evolving business scenario.

But achieving a balance between the explicit world of processes with an effective collaboration and knowledge capture environment is no easy feat either. And all the while, ensuring the user interface is accessible to the average goal-focused knowledge worker.

Now, I believe I have found such an environment, one that can enable efficiency and effectiveness in knowledge work – all delivered as a service online (i.e., no hardware or software charges).

What You’ll Get

The organizations I select will receive a ready to deploy (internally or for resale), process-based web application. You will need to have your own IP (method) and some of the supporting documentation. I will personally lead the development, working with your organization to really capture and make explicit the processes and areas for evolution. I will build out the initial data structures and a set of processes that support a reasonable application. This should take just a few weeks (30 days at most) and it will include a full year of hosted service with a generous number of seats—and all of this for what you would pay for typical BPM product evaluation.

In the short term, please respond to me directly (miers at bpmfocus.org). Tell me a little bit about your company and what you are looking to achieve and we can start a dialogue as to whether you fit into my research initiative. Following up our work, I will expect to develop a set of short case studies, so please be prepared for a bit of blatant promotion of your concept going afterward.


BPM Technology Showcase and Awards – An Opportunity to Save Hundreds of Hours and Thousands Of Dollars

February 12, 2008

Well after a lot of hard work the event is now fully fleshed out. Of course there are a million and one things to get done to organize a major event – and I am still getting through them.

But we have a full program of really interesting vendors (IMNSHO). They cover a range of different themes that regular readers will recognize. This is a real opportunity for people involved in BPM projects to save hundreds of hours and many thousands of dollars by assessing all the best vendors in one place, picking up on the best practices, pitfalls and other implementation wrinkles.

In no particular order they are:

BPM and SaaS – Appian, Integrify, Itensil, Lombardi (Blueprint) … I am not sure whether I should put Cordys, and Fujitsu in that category (since apparently they can do this combination but haven’t made a big noise about it).

Case Handling – Cordys, Graham Technology, Itensil, Pallas Athena, Pega

Complex Customer Interaction – Graham Technology, Pega

Knowledge Workers – Appian, HandySoft and Itensil

Microsoft and .NET – Ascentn, Bluespring Software and BizAgi

BPM-SOA Stack – BEA, Fujitsu and TIBCO

Unified Data Model – BizAgi, Pega

They all have something special about them – they are all becoming more and more “model driven” (some are better than others), they all feature mechanisms to monitor and track work. Here is the complete list along with links to their web sites.

AppianAscentnBEABizAgiBluespring SoftwareCordysGraham TechnologyHandySoftIntegrify ItensilFujitsuLombardiPallas AthenaPegaTIBCO

That’s 15 vendors, each delivering 4 sessions – one in the morning and one in the afternoon on each of the core showcase days (Tuesday and Wednesday). The Showcase itself is capped off with a simulated product bake-off where each vendor demonstrates how they have built out one or other of the two core scenarios we will provide them with.

I intend to create short 5-minute videos of each vendor, featuring their best points and place them on YouTube with links to their product profile – which I will endeavor to get up on the BPMF site within a few weeks of the event (but I am traveling for the month of March so it might not be till mid-April before that happens.

Oh – and lets not forget the Monday when you will hear a keynote from Connie Moore (of Forrester), followed by three new case studies (the best submissions from the Awards program – Wells Fargo, Geisinger Health and Louisiana Supreme Court), the three inclusive ½ day training courses:

  • Ensuring BPM Project Success – from me
  • Modeling in BPMN – from Stephen White of IBM (the main author of the BPMN specification)
  • BPM Overview from the WfMC

And all of this is available for the killer price of just $395 (up until close of business this Friday … after that it reverts to $595). Just to put that price in perspective, that’s less than you would pay a traditional conference for their pre-conference workshop !! We have deliberately kept the prices low so that you can bring the team – to form a shared understanding of the issues and the way ahead (and it’s impossible to get around all 15 vendors in the 12 sessions that you will have time to attend).
You can get directly to the registration page here

Download the brochure here


Case Handling Discussion

December 16, 2007

Mea Culpa – yes, like others in this space, the challenge is keeping the blog going. Usual story of not managing to keep the clones working properly while I am sleeping. Lots of things to start sharing here … and now that I am out from under the endless train of deliverables and trainign courses, I should be able to find the odd bit of time.

The reason for this long awaited posting … I felt I wanted to pick up on discussions emerging in the BPM space – driven by Henk de Man’s presentation at the OMG meeting last week. He was talking to the need for better modeling approaches to support Case Handling (or Case Management depending on your perspective).

Like James Taylor (name now corrected),  I thought Henk’s presentation was also interesting. And as I pointed out during the session, a great many processes should be viewed in the Case Handling context. Readers might also be interested in the papers I produced that discuss these sorts of issues. But really getting at it from the pov of the Customer and Processes – “Business Processes and Customers – Difficult Domains to Integrate” available in the White Papers section of the BPM Focus web site.

The core of Henk’s presentation was that BPMN style modeling is not much help when trying to capture the essence of Case Handling. His own product has a strong Case Handling orientation and uses “States” and “Events” to enable some of the flexibility that Case Handling apps demand. In my experience, the key differentiating factor (between a tranditional workflow/BPMS app and Case Handling) is that the emphasis is with Case – it may have many processes and documents associated with it.

I suggested to him that he investigate Role Activity Diagrams (a way of modeling at how the Roles involved change state as a result of the actions and interactions that occur). This is perhaps much more appropriate for the state based view he was hankering after. The best reference on this is Martyn Ould’s book “Business Process Management – A Rigorous Approach”

But all should understand that Case Handling approaches have been around for a very long time. They are everywhere you look once you get it in your head. Think of these:

  • Government – State and local government, NGOs, Police, Justice (investigations), Land mgt …
  • Financial Services
  • Insurance – Every claim is an exception
  • Banking – Trade exception handling, premium account management
  • Healthcare – From clinical provision to administrative management and payment
  • Oil & Gas Exploration- Knowledge workers spread thinlyaround the world
  • Pharmaceuticals – Clinical trials, compound development, marketing campaign management
  • Virtually all “professions
  • Wide range of Small to Medium sized contexts
  • All sort of Procurement situations
  • Customer Contact Centers – across virtually all industries, where they validate, identify work items and then resolve … here 80% of all calls are WISMO (What Is the Status of My Order)
  • Even the weekly Staff Meeting is a kind of case handling situation if you look at it from a process point of view.

All of them have continually unfolding, evolving scenarios. That is where BPM needs to concentrate its efforts. The transactional space that has characterised efforts to date is really pretty straight forward. Case Handling involves synchronous interaction with users, long running case resolution situations, multiple process fragments, knowledge work, …

Interesting vendors in this space are few and far between. At one level it is big systems implementations such as Cordys, Pega and Graham Technology. But there is a simpler more accessible level that is best characterised by folks like Itensil (in my mind one of the most itneresting I have come across). I am sure, that with care you could implement TIBCO, Appian and Lombardi to build effective Case Handling situations, but it is really a quesiton of adopting the right style of design thinking. And with more and more of these vendors offering SaaS delivery mechanisms, I think we are going to see an ever increasing level of innovation in this area.