Adaptive case management (ACM), also known as dynamic case management, is getting a lot of interest lately, especially from the business process management (BPM) community. BPM vendors were the first to identify this need, since they are on the frontlines assisting companies with managing existing business processes. As enterprises become more successful in managing their structured, routine processes through BPM tools and methodologies, the need to also manage unstructured, ad-hoc knowledge worker processes is even more apparent.

ACM tools are emerging as complements to BPM and as a human-centric combination of process and collaboration. These solutions address the issue of how to structure knowledge worker processes just enough to make them manageable, but not so much as to strangle them - thereby increasing productivity. The issue of knowledge worker productivity is not a new concept. Peter Drucker recognized it at least 10 years ago , and it is still an unsolved issue today (Boosting the productivity of knowledge workers, McKinsey Quarterly 2010). Routine, structured processes are becoming automated; enhancing knowledge worker productivity is the next frontier in business productivity and is a crucial stepping stone to economic growth.

So what is knowledge work? It's the group of tasks done by people whose jobs consist primarily of interactions with other employees, customers and suppliers-complex decision-making based on knowledge and judgment. In today's modern workplace, most workers (at least for part of their jobs) are involved in knowledge work. Knowledge work spans the gamut from high-level strategic work (e.g., research, executive decision management) to the nitty gritty of execution (e.g., complex project management, exception handling in an ERP system).

The basic tools most knowledge workers use are e-mail and an office productivity suite (e.g., Microsoft). Web, collaboration and social technologies such as wikis and blogs are also part of the knowledge worker's repertoire. Knowledge worker productivity is difficult to measure, but one way to look at it is that while cost of goods sold (COGS) has gone down 2.7% over the last decade, sales, general and administrative costs (which are generated mostly by people doing knowledge work) haven't budged.

ACM is still an emerging discipline, but it is currently the best bet for process-aware tools to enhance knowledge worker productivity. Over time, these capabilities may be rolled into BPM suites, ECM suites or even e-mail. To alleviate the obstacles to knowledge worker productivity, the coming generations of ACM tools will need to focus on three areas:

  1. User Experience -- For knowledge workers to adopt ACM, these tools must reflect the way people work today. E-mail and Microsoft Office are the tools knowledge workers use most often, and ACM needs to be just as simple and intuitive. ACM tools must adopt a motto of radical simplicity for user experience design. Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious and adding the meaningful. If ACM is to supplant e-mail and documents (or augment them) and be a key driver of knowledge worker productivity, it will need to go beyond ease-of-use to joy-of-use.
  2. Simplified Models -- Standard modeling language and techniques are just too structured and complex for knowledge worker processes. For most knowledge work, there is a greater emphasis on process visibility and monitoring, rather than upfront modeling and a rigid predefined structure. The participants themselves decide on the flow and the structure based on their experience, skills and the specifics of the process and its data. Models as we know them in BPM won't exist in ACM, which will replace models with guidelines, guardrails and best practices. These provide valuable information for knowledge workers as they work through a process. Here, too, radical simplicity must be employed. Checklists and process visibility will take the place of BPM (or other more complex modeling techniques) for ACM.
  3. Process Analysis and Mining -- The use of an ACM creates a system of record, linking knowledge worker processes with the documents and other artifacts used in those processes. That system of record is a goldmine of knowledge regarding the way an organization actually works, providing companies with insight (which is currently missing) about how knowledge work gets done. ACM needs to analyze and mine that data to create and manage best practices for knowledge work, enabling the knowledge workers themselves to make their work more efficient.

The future of ACM lies in enhancing knowledge worker productivity by helping knowledge workers manage the unpredictable, ad-hoc processes they engage in everyday. By focusing on radical simplicity, joy-of-use and emergent process insight, ACM will enable the next leap in knowledge worker productivity.

Jacob Ukelson is chief technology officer of ActionBase, a company that provides human process management and action tracking solutions that enable companies to manage their business critical processes.