Taming Customer Processes with Adaptive Case Management: Talking with Keith Swenson

Hits: 2808

Schooff: Hello, this is Peter Schooff, Managing Editor at BPM.com. And today, I have the great pleasure of speaking on a podcast for the very first time with Keith Swenson who is the Vice President of Research and Development at Fujitsu America, Inc. and is Chief Software Architect for the Interstage family of products. Keith is also one of the clear thought leaders in case management and that’s exactly what we're going to discuss today on this podcast. So first of all Keith, thank you so much for joining me today.

Swenson: It's my pleasure to join you Peter; thank you.

Schooff: So first of all, what would you say is the current state of case management right now?

Swenson: Case management is seeing rapid growth and rapid adoption at this point. It was about four years ago when we brought the topic out again and it hit the markets and people started talking about it. Since that time, a number of traditional BPM vendors have added case management to their capabilities. There's been a number of cloud-based offerings that are sort of purely case management, and there's been a lot of maturing in that. It's still early times though as far as adoption. The public is still learning about it and learning how to use it effectively which I think is one of our biggest challenges is in the next of couple of years.

Schooff: Definitely. So looking forward, do you see case management really becoming part of BPM or do you think it's enough of a specialty to remain separate?

Swenson: It’s a really good question, Peter. We had a large online discussion in the last six months about the exact meaning of BPM and there have always been a variety of different meanings. And so through this effort, we've come up with a definition of BPM, which is to summarize it briefly, BPM is the practice of making your business processes better. And the important thing to note about that is it's not a technology, and it's not something you buy, and it's not a product, it's something that people do. And then, there's technology, which helps to support that. It's a very broad definition and it tends to encompass basically anything that touches business process in any way. So according to that definition, ACM is actually a part of the broader umbrella of BPM technologies that you might use. So that's a long convoluted answer. The more direct thing is I still think there will be specializations of technology for processes. There will be those for processes that are very predictable and those will continue to work. There will be those for unpredictable processes for things that are not routine, and there will also be technology that incorporates elements of both so that you can sort of bridge between them and switch between them at different times. We've seen some demonstrations of capability like that recently.

Schooff: Definitely. I like that definition as well because as long as there are businesses there will be processes and there will be BPM, in my perspective as well. Now, Forrester is currently calling this age "The Age of the Customer." Do you think case management is one of the key players in delivering the highest quality customer service?

Swenson: Absolutely. Yes. The thing is that we have gone through a couple of phases in how we understand business process. And organizations have always been very, very flexible. A successful department has always been successful by tweaking what they do and making what they do better. I mean nobody ever gets an award for doing the same thing they did last year, right. So organizations have always been very dynamic in changing but this has not always been obvious. Somehow, it just sort of happens so automatically that we don't really see it. And there was phase we went through about ten years ago when the idea was to make business processes, which were, I should call it precisionism, right. These were crystal and perfect business processes.

The idea that you had these process fragments that would snap together cleanly and everything would just run like a machine. Unfortunately, that idea leads to processes that are fragile, when your organization has to change because the environment changes or somebody comes out with a new technology or whatever it is, you need to somehow change the process. And having a precisionism-style process becomes more of a burden than it saves you. So out of this, I mean we see a lot of vendors that talk about making things flexible. And unfortunately, flexibility has never been flexible enough. If you have to go to a programmer to get them to make the change, that is just never going to work.

So we now realize that the goal is to have processes that can meet your changing customer needs as they change very, very quickly and case management is one approach that allows you to do that. It gives the knowledge worker the ability to modify the way they do the work, to take a look at an individual customers and say, well, for this customer, I'm going to do it a different way and that is appropriate in some kinds of work. So I think ultimately to satisfy customers, we're going to need some approach like this.

Schooff: Very interesting. Now, your talk of bpmNEXT referenced a flock of birds. How does this apply exactly to today's work case?

Swenson: Okay. This is a really interesting thing and unfortunately, in this medium, it's hard to show you because you have to see the pictures. It has to do with complexity and dealing with the complexity of organizations and reality. So I showed a picture of murmurating starlings. And if you get a chance, search the web and you can bring up some videos of this. And it's really amazing. If you saw 100,000 birds take to flight, you might easily imaginable that those birds would just make a gray overcast of the sky, but that’s not what happens. They form these little balls, the balls morph, they squish, they divide, they come back together and you realize that these little birds are somehow making these emergent shapes and you start to wonder, well, is there a leader bird.

So if you look very carefully, you'll find out that there is no bird leading it. In fact, when the ball of birds changes directions, different birds are in the lead. And what's happening is that these birds are interacting with each other over time iteratively over and over and the structure emerges from that. Now what this has to do with organizations is that if you look at an organization, there are hundreds, or thousands, or tens of thousands of people that are all interacting with each other all day long. And what the pattern that emerges we call business; business is the emergent pattern from all of these thousands of people.

If a business process analyst looked at the flock of birds flying, they may look at the shape of the overall thing and say this is the shape that we want. But from that shape, it may be impossible to drive back to the rules that guide the birds' behaviors. The same thing may be true in business. If you want a certain business outcome, driving back to the behaviors of the people have to do may not in fact be possible and this throws the whole wrench and the whole idea of BPM in the first place.

However, it's possible that cooperating people in an organization if they can understand through analytics and through a view of how they're behaving, they can modify their own behavior to cause these outcomes to happen. And that’s kind of the goal with the Adaptive Case Management approach is that you have thousands of intelligent people working together all they need is good feedback to guide them so that they can produce the good results.

Schooff: I was hoping you'd bring that back -- bring that up as feedback. Now, how important is this, how do you integrate it, and is it enough really?

Swenson: If it's enough depends exactly on the business process, of course, but it is incredibly important. If we look at, again, the precisionism approach and we say I want to get a driver and a car to drive across the country. You may spend a lot of time figuring out exactly where the car should go, exactly how fast it should go, and exactly where you should fill up. The other thing to do is to provide a dashboard, which has a speedometer on it, and it has a fuel gauge on it, and let the driver workout with that good feedback. Okay, I'm going too faster, or I'm going too slow, or it's about time for me to fill up; drivers can work that out. So the idea behind Adaptive Case Management is that you have these case managers who are driving the case and if you can get them good feedback, they will be able to try innovative things and figure out innovative things that work.

And that feedback also is very important for management because one approach to management is I want to specify exactly what people do, kind of the ultimate micromanager. The other one is to step back from it and say I'm not going to micromanage, but I do want to know if my organization is in compliance. And again, that feedback will tell you if they're in compliance and you can cycle that around and get people to change their behaviors if they're not. So I would say feedback is probably more important than designing the process in the first place.

Schooff: Very interesting. Now I know you have a couple of events and awards coming up. Do you want to just give those a shout-out?

Swenson: Thanks. Yes, that's right. There's a lot of people doing work in case management where they’ve have to face these very, very flexible situations. And in order to allow more people to see those, we run the Adaptive Case Management Awards every year and use cases are submitted of real people using technology like this to solve real world problems. And we have a panel of expert judges that take on the job of deciding which cases are the best and then we publish those cases in a book. So we have now three years, we're going on our fourth year of the Case Management Awards. And if you have an organization, if you have a business model that doesn't seem to fit the traditional fixed BPM process, you may want to look at these books and see how other people have solved that sort of problem for you.

Another thing we have is the Adaptive Case Management Workshop and this is an academically oriented workshop where researchers, and professors, and students publish papers on the subject. We're going into our third on that as well. That'll be in September in Ulm, Germany. So we're trying to get the word out about how people are successfully using these approaches so that everybody can benefit from it.

Schooff: Really exciting information Keith. This is Peter Schooff from BPM.com speaking with Keith Swenson of Fujitsu. Thank you so much Keith.

Swenson: Sure. Thank you, my pleasure.