Business Process Management As If People Mattered: Adaptive Case Management

Does this look like your typical day as a local, state, or Federal worker?

  • 31% of your work day is made up of purely ad-hoc, never happens the same way twice tasks
  • 30% of your work revolves around consistent, defined goals but various ways to achieve those goals
  • 20% of your work involves documented and managed tasks that are not automated
  • 17% of your work is automated but there are numerous exceptions to the automated processes
  • 9% of your work is fully automated and there are no ways to change the process (Fischer, 2011, p. 84)

Except for a very few exceptions, every government worker is a knowledge worker because they deal with constantly varying situations that we package into cases. In general, we may deal with specific subject areas and perform repeatable functions but the actual execution of this work will differ greatly from case to case. For example, when I was a paralegal/investigator for a public defender’s office, I helped on numerous assault cases. We had a specific process for interviewing the client, preparing the pleadings, assembling the evidence, and presenting the case. But the facts of the case were always different.

One case was about an assault by a drunken student on an equally drunk off-duty policeman. Another case was a domestic violence issue while a third involved a store employee who tackled a complaining customer. For each case, the kind of pleadings filed, how I conducted the investigation, and so on would differ based on the specific events in that case. You really didn’t know what was going to happen from day to day so it was difficult to determine routines beforehand.

This is why I don’t believe that the best way to improve government work is to start imposing Six Sigma and Lean processes onto government employees. Six Sigma and Lean are great methods if you are talking about repeatable processes that have clear paths and outcomes. But as the above statistics demonstrate, less than 10% of a knowledge worker’s day will benefit from traditional business process management techniques.

On the other hand, traditional case management as practiced by many government workers has many problems. Most government offices have overwhelming case loads, there are conflicting rules and procedures imposed by the top management, and the current support systems cannot easily handle the many exceptions that occur frequently (Swenson, 2010, pp. 10-24). What is needed is a way that allows for the great variation in knowledge work but makes that knowledge work more efficient and effective. I believe that the newly emerging management concept of Adaptive Case Management (ACM) is the answer along with its closely-allied discipline of Social Business Process Management (SBPM) (Fischer, 2011).

ACM is still evolving but there are several core elements. First, instead of being based on the principles of scientific management/Taylorism, it revolves around modern knowledge work. This means that ACM is designed to deal with change and ad-hoc processes as a case is being processed. Second, processes are not formalized and designed up front but are developed as the knowledge worker continues to see the same issue in a number of cases. Third, rules and regulations operate more like guardrails that constrain the actions taken in a case. The fourth element is that the knowledge workers rely heavily on a community-built template library and body of knowledge that is built collaboratively in the organization.

This is why ACM relies so heavily on social networking in the form of SBPM. In traditional business process modeling, discovering what processes exist and modeling these processes were done first and then the knowledge workers were expected to follow the newly-established processes until the weight of exceptions demonstrated that the new processes needed to be modified. Under SBPM, process discovery and modeling occurs as knowledge workers work on cases and share their experiences with each other. Thus, there is a great deal of variation at first in handling cases but as the knowledge workers gain more experience, they collaboratively develop best practices that can easily be modified when exceptions occur.

I have just given the briefest overview of these two new management concepts but I am greatly excited by the potential to reform government work for the better. There are numerous case studies in Taming the Unpredictable including how one local government agency used ACM for better customer service in its case management processes. Much of ACM and SBPM makes intuitive sense and should be especially attractive to those who argue we need more knowledge sharing and collaboration in our offices.

(Disclaimer: All opinions in this posting are my personal thoughts and do not reflect upon my employers or any organizations I belong to.)

Fischer, L. (editor) (2011). Taming the unpredictable: Real-world adaptive case management: Case studies and practical guidance. Lighthouse Point, FL: Future Strategies, Inc.
Fischer, L. (editor) (2011). Social BPM: Work, planning, and collaboration under the impact of social technology. Lighthouse Point, FL: Future Strategies, Inc.
Swenson, K. D. (editor) (2010). Mastering the unpredictable: How adaptive case management will revolutionize the way that knowledge workers get things done. Tampa, FL: Meghan-Kiffer Press.

Additional Resources:
Law and Order: How Adaptive Case Management Serves the Public Good – http://community.global360.com/bpm_practitioner/b/weblog/archive/2011/08/11/law-and-order-how-adaptive-case-management-serves-the-public-good.aspx
Simplify Your Work Life: Adaptive Case Management – http://i-sight.com/tech/adaptive-case-management/
The Future of Adaptive Case Management – http://www.industryweek.com/articles/the_future_of_adaptive_case_management_22981.aspx
What is Adaptive Case Management? – http://www.cmswire.com/cms/enterprise-cms/what-is-adaptive-case-management-008277.php
Adaptive case management: New tools for doing more of what we do best – http://www.kmworld.com/Articles/Editorial/Feature/Adaptive-case-management-New-tools-for-doing-more-of-what-we-do-best-74486.aspx
What Could Cause Adaptive Case Management to Fail in 2011 – http://blog.actionbase.com/what-could-cause-adaptive-case-management-to-fail-in-2011

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thanks for this post – got me thinking in a new direction. working in a public law library, we have “routine” type questions, sure — but there is always something new, a fact or request or technology change, that takes us out of that routine and makes us sharpen our skills. this is another way of creating a sense of routine in a work environment that has none.

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@JohnnyZero: Thank you! I was a paralegal for seven years before I went back to graduate school where they were extolling the virtues of reengineering. I can see the logic of refining processes but not at the expense of the actual mission of the organization.

Working in the law library, you must be quite familiar with the practice manuals and their many templates and checklists. It’s been a while since I have been in a law library so have the practice manuals all moved online and are operating now like wikis?

Jay Johnson

Actually, involving people in the change process is a key part of Lean, but I do see your point about needing a flexible approach vice a one-size-fits-all option. Thanks for the links, I’ll take a look at them.

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@T. Jay – Yes, Lean does involve people but there is still the front-end process discovery in Lean rather than emergent process discovery as in ACM. Thank you for commenting.


Bill – you must be thinking that the practice of law has changed with the times! LOL Just as slow moving and hesitant to take leaps of faith as always. Practice guides have migrated to online books with links to cases, statutes, regs etc. — most of the time they just mirror the print version, and both are still being produced. There is a rare online guide with no print version. A wiki version?! Wow! That’s a mindblower in terms of legal practice — SHARING information instead of hiding it?!! What a concept. It’s a great concept — but further down the road for these folks. J-Z

Jay Johnson

Question, Bill. I read through some of the links and I’m wondering what is the difference between Case Management and Project Management?

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@T. Jay: Project Management is a time-limited method to take a vision and create a product, service, or some of type of result. There is planning up front and the planning is continually refined throughout the process. There is (or should be) clear scope in a project so that only the tasks that fall in the scope are completed.

ACM is not time-limited because the process can last indefinitely. Also, there may be some initial planning up front but ACM depends more on discovering and refining processes as more and more cases are worked. I suppose a case considered a project but the actual handling of the cases (plural) has little to do with project management.

Now there is the Adaptive Project Framework that closely resembles ACM. That might be a good topic for another blog posting.

Jay Johnson

Thanks Bill. So Case Management (uppercase C) involves mulitple cases simultaneously. Would that make it more like Program management (multiple projects simultaneously)?

Terri Jones

I enjoyed this post and we have been grappling with new areas for the phrase case management at Hyland as well. I think your designation “knowledge worker” is particularly apt and we have been focusing on designing systems of document management and business process management that supports the knowledge worker but bring together what they need to handle ad-hoc and typical “cases” within integrated applications. I believe using the framework above will helps us re-design our jobs to capture the success mentioned above and to change the way we approach these programs, tasks and processes. One key piece for us is the ability to develop automation that can be easily adapted to the the ad-hoc, evolving or changing programmatic reality. With these tools, I think we can have the insight that ACM offers with the technology tools that help us realize efficiences, particular where the next steps in a case rely upon seamless access to data. documents and processes. Nice post!

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@T. Jay: Here’s an analogy that may help differentiate between portfolio management and adaptive case management.

Imagine you own a NASCAR team. You have several different race cars with various drivers. Your vision is to win as many races as you can with the driver/cars you have. So you pick and choose driver/car combinations based on how well the combinations can win races. The processes for winning the race are clearly defined from the beginning and you have a clear vision. That is portfolio management.

Now, imagine you own a auto repair shop. Every day that you come to work, you have no idea what repairs will be needed that day. Your goal is to make a profit but there are numerous paths to that goal. You also have staff that have various skills and know a number of processes that can be used for specific repairs. The staff constantly talks to each other to share best practices and to develop new processes as they confront novel situations. You also have to follow the appropriate local, state, and Federal laws while operating your shop but these laws are generally guidelines and not specific directions. Your business processes evolve as your customer base and their cars change. That is adaptive case management.

Hopefully, this will help you determine the difference although there are many similarities in both practices.

Bill Brantley

Avatar photo Bill Brantley

@Terri: Thank you! Good case management is something that agencies have struggled with for years. I think you will find all three books have good insights into what kind of software system you need to support the modern knowledge worker.

Dannielle Blumenthal

This sounds promising. Is there a short slideshow with some recommendations that I can share at work? I tried sharing Action Learning as a diagram but even that was too abstract. People are so busy they feel like anything extra is burdensome, even if it can help. Thanks for sharing this.