ActionBase, Google Wave, BPM and Case Management

When you are doing something new, it is hard to categorize yourself. In some cases it doesn’t matter, but if you want to meet a customer need (especially in IT), it helps if your product falls into a defined category – which allows customers to assess your offering versus competitors. Being part of  a recognized category also makes it easier to talk with analysts.

We decided to focus on the BPM category as the one closest to us – since there seems to be growing interest in the unstructured, ad-hoc processes which we handle. The trouble is that BPM puts a lot of focus on the modeling part of business process management – and uses that model to drive the process. The trouble is that approach doesn’t really work in unstructured processes.

The reason I have been thinking about this is because of  OMG’s interest in creating a standard for case management. another example of  a process that is usually unstructured. It will be interesting to see what conclusions they come to about formal modeling of unstructured processes, and whether the benefits outweigh the costs. I think what is needed is a lightweight model (which I prefer to call a guideline, or best practice) that can be used by the particpants – rather then some new formal language that can be used only by a few specialized practitioners.  I think many managers can sketch out a process guideline in text (understandable by humans that are participants in the process) – but very few can develop a formal process model (understandable by machines). That is what led us to add the “best practice”mechanism to ActionMail.

I think Derek Miers did a good job of describing the issues with Case Management, and why it is too early to try and standardize. Using his segmentation, ActionBase falls into the run time case handling segment of case management.

Case Management segmentation

Derek points out number of the issues of using a BPM like model for case management. In describing how case management differs from BPM, my summary is that since case management is such a human and exception driven process (case-by-case isn’t such a familiar term for no reason), modeling techniques such as those used by BPM tools won’t cut it or as Derek puts it: “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.”

This why guidelines, email and documents are the standard case management tools. For all their failings they allow case workers the control they need to get the job done. I think this one area where our enterprise email based approach (and Google’s Wave) can have a huge impact – we give control to the participants, make the case the center of activity (as opposed to the process), allow for procedural best practices (but blindly enforce them) – and provide all of the management, auditability and tracking needed.

I don’t think the world needs another formal business process modeling standard – when so little of the current one (BPMN) is actually used (see the “How Much BPMN do you Need” post).

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One Response to “ActionBase, Google Wave, BPM and Case Management”

  1. Valerie Defazio Says:

    I think your blog is exceptional. I just added it to my Google News Reader. Found it on Yahoo though. I love the thoughts Keep up the wonderful work.

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