Using case management in ever-changing environments

For Michael Edelberg, change is a constant.

The clinic coordinator for the Chicago Volunteer Legal Services Foundation, a pro-bono legal services organization, needs to access hundreds of case each week. “Cases change and the people issues also change,” he says.

For instance, sometimes the kind of legal issues involved—family law versus criminal or immigration law, for example—may change, but other elements are still part of the same case. “We may have to be active in many ways to pursue legal remedies for someone,” he says.

Dynamic case management (DCM) helps Edelberg manage activities ranging from collaborating with hundreds of attorneys to running “conflict checks”—that is, checks for potential conflicts of interest—in the organization’s attorney database.

The organization’s DCM system also allows caseworkers—often attorneys, including some who may be working outside their specialty areas—to link to training videos, manuals, case-specific information and even other people involved with the case. “That means that a volunteer [intellectual property] lawyer can get the resources needed to understand and deal with a family-law issue,” he explains. “Every case and every legal remedy can be different, so our system helps us manage all those issues.”

Lawyers have always had to move cases along from point to point. Now, “the dynamic aspect is that, although it always changes, we know we can count on the DCM to help smooth the processes and connect everything,” Edelberg says. DCM also readily adapts to the organization’s needs.

Adaptability is much on the mind of Nathaniel Palmer, executive director of the Workflow Management Coalition, a professional and standards organization in Cohasset, Mass. Palmer says decision makers looking at DCM for rapidly changing environments may want to consider a different definition for essentially the same concept: He prefers to use the term adaptive case management, or ACM. That’s a distinction that can help clarify thinking, he says.

Dynamic case management became the standard term for this kind of work because the first widely circulated analyst report on the concept used that phrase, Palmer says. With DCM, he says, you are presumed to have a predefined process model with some exceptions--that is, activities happening outside that model. But, he adds, when you introduce exceptions into a process, you begin to lose control over the process--and you may lose some of its benefits as well. In fact, in conventional DCM thinking, the degree to which exceptions can be allowed is limited because of the underlying process design. The point, he notes, is to consider your goals and whether you are dealing with a defined or definable process or something more fluid.

Outside of simple, predefined pathways, the main idea behind DCM is that it’s ad hoc, Palmer says. In contrast, he says, ACM involves taking rules and what you know, then adding visibility, predictive analytics and big data as elements in the whole. You then use ACM to manage the pathways connecting them all. “It might seem like semantics, but the ability to respond to change by understanding the impact of that change—as in ACM—is really different from the DCM idea of simply having the ability to do something with a little variation,” he says. Keeping the ACM model in mind may help set the parameters for a project more effectively--even if that project is labeled as a DCM initiative.

From a management standpoint, DCM inherently requires employees who are more flexible, who require less structure and “who can figure things out on their own,” says Janelle B. Hill, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn.

In other words, DCM users don’t need managers to prescribe every procedure. Managers can set the goals and outcomes—or, as Hill puts it: “They can let the workforce know where the guardrails are located and what you have to do to stay within them.” But beyond that, she says, managers should give case workers the freedom to work things out—which, of course, isn’t exactly the approach that many middle managers take today.

Hill pointed out that DCM is often collaborative, and teams of people working on a case often produce the best outcome. But many managers lack the skills to foster teamwork, overlooking such basic steps as recognizing and rewarding collaboration. Too often, “performance rewards are reserved for the culture of the hero,” Hill says. “Individuals have to perform miracles to be recognized. That is counterproductive to fostering teamwork.”

Figuring out how to manage and reward collaborative behavior isn’t easy. “All our performance metrics are about counting things: How many calls did you handle? What is the average time to settle an account?” Hill says. “We don’t measure how effective you are at mentoring people or how many people you mentored at the same time or whether someone is great at fostering collaboration.”

In fact, the technology of DCM is always the easy part, Hill says. The real challenges are changing culture and behavior. Her advice: “Start small and focused. Find the right leader who sees these problems and is willing to try some new approaches.”

READER FEEDBACK: Is your company considering DCM to help manage rapidly changing casework? If so, ebizQ editors would like to hear about your experience. Contact Site Editor Anne Stuart at

About the Author

Alan Earls, a journalist who specializes in writing about technology and business, is based in the Boston area.

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