Exploring the differences between Adaptive Case Management (ACM) and Business Process Management (BPM)

This past Thursday I attended a session at the the Gartner BPM Summit in Baltimore entitled “The Great Case Management Debate.”  The session was moderated by Gartner Research VP Toby Bell with participation by two other Gartner VPs:  Janelle Hill and Kimberly Harris-Ferrante.  Later that same day, I was in a workshop moderated by Nathaniel Palmer, WFMC Executive Director, on the same topic.  I always knew that Case Management wasn’t very well understood in the BPM community.  However, after attending both of these sessions, I realized that the lack of consensus about the similarities and differences between BPM and ACM is pervasive amongst BPM Software users, business process architects, and business process analysts.

Toby presented the current Gartner definition of Case Management:

“Case management is the optimization of long-lived collaborative processes that require secure coordination of knowledge, content, correspondence, and human resources and require adherence to corporate and regulatory policies/rules to achieve decisions about rights, entitlements or settlements.

The path of execution cannot completely be predefined; human judgment and external events and
interactions will alter the flow.”

BPM, on the other hand, generally refers to the “management or execution of a series or network of value-added activities, performed by their relevant roles or collaborators, to purposefully achieve a common business goal.” (Wikipedia).

Here are a few thoughts on what differentiates BPM from ACM:

1) A BPM diagram can be drawn beforehand to describe a process whereas in ACM diagrams can only be drawn after a business process has run its course

2) In ACM content is king; in BPM the path is what matters

3) ACM is ad-hoc by nature; BPM follows a set of predetermined possible options

4) BPM and ACM are not mutually exclusive; in many ways they could be considered different viewpoints into a single business process

4) Transactional systems such as CRM have more in common with ACM systems than do traditional BPM Software systems

BPM can be drawn beforehand whereas ACM Cannot

As a BPM Software Suite vendor, we often approach a business process with the initial focus of – “how do we draw the process.”  One of the natural attributes of a BPM type process is that it can in fact be drawn beforehand.  There are defined or definable paths and knowable possible end states.  ACM on the other hand cannot be drawn before hand (or at least it is not at all useful to do so).

Case Management moves like a chess game. It is very easy to see, list, or even draw the “results” of a chess game once the game has finished (just look at your local newspaper if you don’t believe me).  However, it is impossible and useless to try and draw or model the possible permutations of any given chess game before it happens.  There are simply too many possible move permutations.  In contrast, traditional BPM processes tend to move a long more like pieces on the board game Candy Land.  In this case, there is a very identifiable start and an identifiable finish and the path is well understood.

In ACM Content is King; In BPM the path is what Matters

By definition, BPM is about the pathway itself and not necessarily about the payload.  It is interesting to note, in fact, that BPMN 2.0 does not really talk about payload, i.e. data or documents (there are icons to define these in the diagramming notation, but it is not the focus).  ACM, on the other hand, usually serves as a system of record and creates a “Meta-Record.”

BPM Software systems are focused on state across multiple systems, and these states are defined in advance.  In Case Management, the changes in the content are defining the changes in state based on one official record. 

ACM is Ad-Hoc by nature; BPM follows a set of Predetermined Possible Options

Case Management tends to be Ad Hoc by nature.  Let’s look at Case Management for a criminal investigation for example.  At any given moment, an investigator may decide that a detective should go back to a crime scene, or he could decide that a new blood sample needs to be ordered from a lab.  Either of these steps could happen multiple times, they could happen in any order, or they could not happen at all.  There is also no generally known idea of how long the investigation might take.  It depends on how quickly meaning can be given to the “content” centric view of the world.

BPM and ACM are not Mutually Exclusive; in many ways they are Both Viewpoints into the Same Processes

Toby Bell joked while moderating the Case Management Debate session that “Case Management is what you want it to be.”  This was obviously sarcastic, but it is not far from the truth.  Do you remember your physics? Light behaves as both a particle and a wave, right? Well, Case Management is the same. Depending on your point of view during the process, it might be Case Management or it might be Business Process Management.  In the afternoon round table with Nathaniel, he drew a series of processes up on the white board and tried to make the point that any of these processes might be launched at any given time based on a live case.  This prompted Denis Gagne to bring up this idea that Case Management vs. Business Process Management is as much an issue of point of view as anything else.  I believe this was one of the most lucid comments that I heard on the debate.  It also seems to indicate the reason why BPM vendors will have to develop or integrate with Case Management Capabilities – the two tend to co-exist.

Transactional systems such as CRM have more in common with ACM systems than do traditional BPM Software systems

This brings me to my last point – CRM is closer to ACM than BPM is (sorry for all of the acronyms!).  Think about your CRM system – everything revolves around the case.  In the case of CRM, it is the customer case.  But it could be the medical case or the legal case.  The focus is transactional and not “state” related.  It seems to me that much less needs to be done to your average CRM to make it into an ACM system than trying to do the same to transfer your average BPM software.

There is a reason that many of the BPM providers have acquired CRM capabilities.  Essentially, they realize that CRM is a unique type of business process which doesn’t lend itself to being drawn.  However, this is not a black and white argument.  There are many processes in CRM that can better be regulated and performed with the aid of BPM.  Ad-Hoc is great for many things, but not all things.


Gartner still does not have a Magic Quadrant for Case Management.  As Janelle Hill described to me after her discussion on Case Management, Gartner won’t setup a Magic Quadrant until there is a definable, measurable market.  One measure of there being a definable market is that there are at least 6 identifiable players who actually claim to offer a Case Management tool in the market. 

Many BPM vendors have launched CRM tools or acquired CRM companies.  It seems that these vendors may have an advantage when it comes to Case Management.  Furthermore, it seems that CRM vendors are in an ideal position to jump into the ACM game and finally “make the market.”  Let’s see what happens.

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