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Can a BPMS do a good job with case management?

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As Bruce Silver asks in this blog post, "Can a BPMS do a good job with case management, or do you need a special dedicated tool?"  What are your thoughts?

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  • I don’t think we can make a sweeping generalization that it can’t. A really good platform like some BPMs vendors have can certainly do a good job with many things including Case management. I believe it’s just a matter of how much work and development it would take to accomplish. This would be like with any other software when you take the product outside its sweet spot there are prices to pay. But in short yes some can, but you really have to sit down and layout your priorities in what you need the system to do, and figure out how much work it would take to get there vs. buying a specifically designed Case management system.

  • I think Bruce makes a lot of good points. One that I keyed on was this:

    If the next activity is selected from an enumerated menu or list, this is really orchestration, but one in which an orchestration diagram like BPMN would be visually confusing, too hard to construct, etc.

    I agree. In this situation, guidance trees are the best visual representation of the process. The notation is only slightly different from straight BPMN, but it is presented as a tree that shows only a subset of the tree at any time, similar to the way that mind-map software typically works.

  • The short answer has to be "Sure it can", but as Chris notes, "can" might be the wrong perspective. I can use a hammer to knock in a screw, but it's not optimal.

    BPMS is a flowchart-driven technology for organizing procedural work. It can certainly be extended to supported to create Case "containers" to hold process artifacts including BPMN fragments.

    However, most of the discussions regarding Case focus on Dynamic/Adaptive Case Management solutions, most of which are not built around a flowchart technology, but rather support emergent processes, goal-oriented processes that are built up from a series of interactions based on context.

    Sandy Kemsley had a good post on "Process and Information Architectures" (http://www.column2.com/2011/11/process-and-information-architectures/) where we had a related exchange about BPMS.

  • Of course, just as a hammer is a great replacement for a screwdriver, or c is a replacement for a BPMS.

    Less sarcastically - you can build any piece of software using a BPMS, but the real question is why would you want too? Word, excel and email are that main tools used by most knowledge workers for case management. We'll know that case management tools (or at least adaptive case management tools)are successful when that statement is no longer true - and it is clear that BPMS hasn't done that.

  • Bruce makes a good point about orchestration as Michael also points out.

    My only observation is that BPMSs only do BPMN style orchestration where the routing or process logic is explicitly defined. Not BPMS products are "work flow" based. Some are "event-based" and allow for dynamic orchestration or b1 in Bruce's examples.

    Case-based process is not only about the dynamic orchestration but also about the data and documents and latley even discussions, associated with the case. BPMSs that have the ability to give a case view of all of these have the ability to do a good job of case management.

    I am sure there will be as many different views on this as there are definitions of BPM, but as Bruce mentions, there was a convergence of human workflow and integration processes. There is likely to be a convergence of BPMS and Case Management technology

  • Am I going to be the only one taking the position "no it clearly and unambiguously can't" ??

    Can a car also be an airplane? There are vehicles that are both car and airplane, but they are neither a good car nor a good airplane. A good airplane makes a really lousy car, and a good car makes a lousy airplane. There is a reason for that: in the process of perfecting something for one purpose, it becomes less useful for completely orthogonal purposes.

    BPM is all about automating predefined processes. In the attempt to model the perfect process, there are aspect that build the sophistication of that modeling capability, that make it inherently complex.

    Let me draw an analogy that is closer to home: will Visual Basic eliminate Excel? If VB was good enough ... would it eliminate the need for spreadsheets? There is no question that there is a lot of similarity between visual basic computational capabilities, and that of a spreadsheet. IT has FAR more power than Excel. There is no question that anything you want to do in Excel, you can easily do in VB, and it will be faster, more robust, etc. But VB is optimized for a professional, while a spreadsheet is optimized for an office worker. The difference between these two design points will always keep these categories distinct.

    The same is true of BPM and Case Management. BPM is for professional process designers to make pre-defined processes that are capable and fit well to a business problem. Case management is the opposite: nothing fixed in advance, powerful modeling capabilities get in the way of the case worker. No need to model decisions: the case manager simply makes the decisions, and modeling would make it more complicated. ACM focus is instead on communications and flexibility.

    A quote from an earlier post: "BPM systems will gain ACM-like features, but few doctors, policemen, and lawyers will use that. Social Business Software like Jive, SharePoint, Quad, Chatter, and Connections will gain ACM-like features as well, and will be far more successful than the BPM systems, because those are systems that the doctors, policemen, and lawyers will use."


  • Keith,
    You are not alone. I agree with you, and that was the point I was trying to make. So just to state it more clearly - IT IS WRONG TO USE A BPMS FOR CASE MANAGEMENT!

  • Keith - Agree on not-fit-for-purpose too, though your car/plane comparison trumps my hammer/screwdriver analogy.

    The 'empty' unmodeled case is the foundation of ACM, but I believe that ACM also provides a better conceptual footing to model by constraints with enterprise information and capabilities. Building up controls based on Case context is inherently more flexible/adaptive than a BPMS based approach for those applications that require compliance or benefit from automation.

    It's more logical to build and adapt a process from a constraint model than to start with a design-time flowchart model and try to externalize its constraints after the fact.

    Due to limitations of BPM consultants already advise businesses to externalize rules, events and data - it's only a small conceptual leap to dump the flowchart altogether. However, if you this 'experiment' sends enterprises down the middleware rabbit hole - lots of expensive hw/sw, increased indirection and latency, difficult system-level governance and adaptivity.

    I think this makes ACM the right choice for the full gamut of work, unstructured to structured.

  • I'm agree with Dave "I can use a hammer to knock in a screw, but it's not optimal."

  • Keith - I agree with you if BPM is "all about automating predefined processes", but to me BPM is about actively managing process steps to achieve a desired outcome. Sometimes the process is pre-defined and sometimes we allow people to choose process routes based on their contextual knowlegde.

    Somewhere BPM got associated with pre-defined workflow paths. I don't think that is always the case. BPM can be "dynamically orchestrated" as Bruce calls it, without being a classic case management scenario. Hence my definition of BPM that combines structured and dynamic processes as actively managing work activities to achieve a business goal.

    Not all BPMSs are built on workflow only logic. The "work flow" style BPMSs are extended workflow tools.

    BPMSs that can cater for event-based and workflow based processes will hopefully change the perception that BPMS is just workflow.

    Maybe these new converging tools should not be called BPMSs to make a clear differentiation.

  • @Pieter

    I couldn't say better. So, I won't.

    Maybe we should call it MCH's . Making customers happy systems.

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