ACM: Feature or Paradigm

Anatoly Belychook asks the question: “is ACM a Paradigm or a Feature?” I could not resist responding because I like the post, and his logic is flawless, but it is based on false assumptions. I think there is a lesson here on why so many BPM experts feel the way he does.

First, his summary of Adaptive Case Management (ACM) is one of the best I have seen.  There is no doubt that Anatoly understand the motivations behind ACM.

What he does next is quite surprising; he analyzes whether ACM meets certain requirements of BPM.  That is the flaw in his thinking: there is no reason to believe that ACM should meet the requirements of BPM.  Many BPM experts  start with an assumption that ACM should have BPM-like features, and then move on to conclude that ACM is really just a type of BPM.  Those wanting to understand the subject should be wary.

We need to be very careful to isolate what is needed for ACM, from our assumptions abut BPM.  Both involve workers and information technology, but in an attempt to simplify, we tend to jump to the things we know well.  BPM experts usually jump to a BPM paradigm.  My goal below is to expose the unjustified assumptions, so we can see how intelligent people are being led to the wrong conclusion (IMHO).

Detailed Responses

Starting with the section titled “Concerns 2”, lets take the points one by one.

  • Process architecture – this is a BPM requirement that comes from the need to automate large complex processes.  A social worker, for instance, needs to decide whether to move a child from one foster home to another. I agree with the point that a business user is not going to set up a process architecture, but I am not seeing any proof that a process architecture is needed.  This is an unjustified assumption
  • Data architecture – Anatoly accurately states that proper data management / knowledge management is necessary to the knowledge worker, but he approaches it from a BPM point of view.
    • Knowledge workers will continue to use software applications of all sorts.  An ACM system will not replace such software.  Word processors will still be used to write reports.  Spreadsheets will still be used for other kinds of reports and possibly some calculations.  There will also be domain specific applications in use.  For example, our fictional Dr. House (or, more likely, his assistants) will keep patient records in a patient record system.  Police will still fill in “incident reports” into a custom system for the purpose.  Court lawyers will use systems that support the official records of the case.
    • Anatoly is correct in saying that these applications must not be designed by amateurs.  I think we all agree that the doctors and policemen will NOT be designing or creating these systems — but why would we even ask this question? The point is that in an ACM system, these applications are not designed as part of specifying the actions that people take.  The doctor will be able to design a unique course of treatment for a patient, without needing any expertise in data architecture.  The detective will design a unique course of investigation, without needing to be an expert in data architecture.
    • Dana Khoyi from Global 360 believes that an ACM system should have the ability to implement such “system of record” capabilities.  Is is a question of how much capability you bundle into a commercial offering.  Whether bundled or not, I agree that doctors and policemen will probably NOT be designing those business entities.  My point is that for an ACM system, the person who determines the course of action is not the person who designs these application.  BPM is exactly the opposite: the person who designs the processes needs to also design the data architecture.  It is simply unjustified to attribute this BPM requirement to ACM.
  • Integration with enterprise systems – once again, this is a BPM concept, not an ACM concept.  Much of what a knowledge worker needs is represented simply as documents & reports.  In other cases they need links to records systems.  Unlike BPM, there is no need to do any heavy lifting integration.  Yes, we agree this required professionals, but this is a BPM requirement, not an ACM requirement.
  • How many process management systems do we need? Anatoly is starting from the assumption that ACM is a process management system.  This over-simplified view then leads through reductionist reasoning to questioning whether both are needed.  This is like asking “Do we need both trains and planes, since they are both means of transportation?”  or “Do we need chicken and beef, since they are both kinds of meat?”  This logic flow from the prior assumption that they are the same.  Without the assumption you don’t reach this conclusion.
  • Artificial Intelligence – yes I agree knowledge workers will continue to use AI.  But it will not be integrated at a data level into the process.  AI applications will be provided outside of the ACM system, and the users will see not as part of the ACM system, but something that is accessed with the aid of the system, in the same way that they see word processing as somthing they access not as part of the ACM system, but rather accessed from with the aid of the system.

Concerns about Management

Coming back to the “Concerns 1” section, Anatoly asks whether the case manager makes things “better for whom – for the company or for themselves?”  This will always be a problem: did the doctor recommend surgery because you need it, or because he needs a new Porsche?  What I am really seeing is a desire to control the worker through process management, something we might call “Theory X Management ex machina“.  Automation will not solve the problem.  The decision itself must be made by an expert, and Drucker has written many times that knowledge workers need leaders, not managers.  In Creativity vs Structure,  John Seely Brown makes the point that too much structure prevents certain types of work.

Anatoly says “orientation to the customer doesn’t come automatically.” True, but knowledge workers have to be monitored and evaluated on the results of their work, not on the steps that were taken to produce those outcomes.  The steps are not repeatable and enforcible. That is why ACM takes a different approach from BPM.  You train them, evaluate them, reward them for doing the right thing, and fire them for doing the wrong.  Using the terminology of Francois Gosseaux, this is just “Human 1.0” and ACM does not change that.

BPM is guided by theories about managing workers who are doing repeatable work, while ACM is guided by theories about how to support knowledge workers.   You miss the point if you apply theories for BPM, to ACM.

Project Management: a feature of BPM, or a paradigm?

We must ask “why are people asking whether ACM is a part of BPM or not?”  ACM is really more like individual project management where a case manager coordinates the work of a group of people.  It is less formal than full project management, because it is aimed at less predictable things.  Project management is a kind of management of business processes, isn’t it?  Then why is project management a separate category?  If project management is for more predictable processes, isn’t this something that BPM could do as well?  Shouldn’t we be talking about how project management is just a feature of BPM?

Spreadsheet: a feature of BPM, or a paradigm?

We might keep on going.  A lot of people do work in spreadsheets, work that is part of a process.  If BPM is everything about processes, then aren’t spreadsheets really just a part of BPM?  Spreadsheets are used for integration, they and gather data, manipulate it, etc.  Spreadsheets are used for all sorts of reports that support decision making within a process.  How do you draw the line?  What constitutes a separate category, or the same category?

Anatoly argues (by way of Scott Francis) that BPM platforms are Turing-complete which means you could program anything.  Does that mean that they displace spreadsheets, word processors, Facebook, Twitter, etc?  Will all aspects of information technology now become a part of BPM simply because it is possible?  Certainly not.  Categories of software are defined by their usefulness and the users that use it, not what is technically possible.


I work hard to distinguish ACM capabilities from BPM capabilities, because there is a natural tendency for people to blur these together.  Especially BPM experts.  If you start from the assumption that ACM is a kind of BPM, it leads you to making the kinds of arguments that Anatoly does, based on unjustified assumptions, and leads to unjustified conclusions.

The capabilities discussion needs to be kept separate from the product packaging discussion.  Will vendors produce systems that include both capabilities?  Certainly they will.  But many BPM experts will misunderstand those capabilities if they believe they are just another kind of BPM.  And many vendors will implement a few features and call it ACM, further confusing things.  But let’s not get drawn into that game.  I have provided these points that BPM and ACM are different:

  • BPM needs process architecture, ACM has no such need
  • In BPM the person who designs the process needs to be a data architect, but in ACM these are different roles.  The person who designes the “process” does not need to be a data architect.
  • BPM needs strong capabilities for integration, but in ACM there is little or no need for field-level integration.  ACM can work well with documents,  reports, and links to other application user interface.

Isn’t that enough to say that they are distinct?

At least, we should be careful not to confuse others.  There are many people who will be confused by saying that ACM is a type of BPM.  If you believe that ACM is a kind of BPM, and if you believe that BPM needs a process architecture, then by deduction you conclude that ACM needs a process architecture.  The problem is that first assumption, that ACM is a kind of BPM.  You might say that it is a kind of BPM that is not at all like BPM.  Like those who argue that it is simply BPM where the process is undefined.  If that description helped people to understand ACM I could live with it, but it simply doesn’t help anyone understand.

Yes, I can imagine a system that supports both BPM and ACM — it is just such a statement does not help people understand ACM.

My prediction:

BPM systems will gain ACM-like features, but few doctors, policemen, and lawyers will use that.

Social Business Software like Jive, SharePoint, Quad, Chatter, and Connections will gain ACM-like features as well, and will be far more successful than the BPM systems, because those are systems that the doctors, policemen, and lawyers will use.

How funny.  I end up agreeing it is a feature of something, just not a feature of BPM.  🙂

15 thoughts on “ACM: Feature or Paradigm

  1. Thanks Keith for a great discussion!

    Some of your arguments do not correspond to my experience with collaborative and process-based applications. Attention, please – those applications were designed for clients (including international ones) based in Switzerland – maybe similar applications for the US-based clients should be different.



  2. Hi Keith – Enjoyed your post. You did a great job of deconstructing Anatoly’s argument and using it to differentiate Case Management in a clear/concise way. I didn’t see anything in your argument regarding the value of “Adaptive” Case in particular. There is an opportunity to draw another distinction from BPMS and ‘Continuous’ Process Improvement.

    As to ‘everything being a process’ school of thought, I thought the recent discussion related to Michael Poulin’s post (, including your linked post ( illuminated the divide quite well. In short, if there is no control logic between actions (no fixed flowchart or other policy driven device) it’s not a process.

    Once we can agree that not all work is process, then we can move on to more productive discussions of work as a range of structured and unstructured actions, and technologies providing capabilities to support one or the other, or both.


  3. Keith

    Thank you for detailed and thoughtfull analysis.

    I guess some of my arguments weren’t expressed good enough.

    1. I believe it’s inefficient to manage processes and cases separately because a) there are “things” that are semi-process/semi-cases like tech support example above and b) there are “things” that very likely will mutate from cases to processes when the company matured.

    2. In order to manage cases efficiently we must classify them. E.g. in tech support scenario there are tickets, bugs, builds, QA runs, releases, upgrades etc. This is what I call process architecture. If not treated with due respect, one will end up with a terrible mess of bugs inside tickets, different names for similar bug cases used by different users etc.

    3. About data architecture: of course there are corporate applications, databases etc. But anyway: as soon as one decided to manage cases (or processes) somewhere not within these systems, he will have to define case entities, their attributes and relations between entities. Probably there will be non-case entities, too. This is what I call data architecture. Without due respect, one will end up with duplicate data and other mess.

    Dana Khoyi writes at p.137 of “Mastering the Unpredictiable” in the section named “Building the Solution with ACM”: “Describe the business entities as the first step of setting up a solution with and ACM”. And later: “Describe the relations between the business entitites”.

    I agree totally: it must be done. But not by business users.

    • Fair enough. I really appreciate your original post, because it helped me get some of my ideas together.

      I think you make a very good case for ACM being a feature of BPM. If you have BPM processes, you will want to have ACM capabilities in there too. We are in agreement on this point.

      But, it would not be correct to say that ALL ACM situations have to be built on BPM. I see ACM capabilities being built into, for example, Twitter which will not need all that. It is the fact that ACM is not a subset of BPM, nor is BPM a subset of ACM, that motivates me to push for a clear definition. However, I did not mean to imply that they did not overlap.

      Yes, there will be some messiness. Do a search on Twitter for #acm and you find plenty of posts from Associazione Calcio Milan. The programmer in me want to set up a strict taxonomy and force everyone to have one meaning for every term — but that isn’t going to happen. We will continue to try in bounded domains where the work can be managed, but there will always be those on the unpredictable end who will simply have to deal with the messiness. I think your point is that there are real advantages when you have a strong architecture in place, and I don’t disagree, I am just saying there is also room for an ACM without those things, and we should not limit ourselves in those ways.

      So — don’t be boxed in by BPM thinking! I think this has been a really good exchange.

      • You are right: my view is confined – not by BPM probably but by enterprises needs and software meeting these needs (platforms and applications). Housewifes, hardcore gamers and teenage bloggers are beyond my scope – maybe ACM is applicable for their needs too but I don’t care.

        Thank you for making yourself clear, I have no objections now except one. Some of the readers of your book may believe that it’s that easy: fire analysts, forget about architecture, PDCA and Deming’s stuff. “Don’t worry – be happy”. ACM will save the believers.

        The fight against entropia (or mess) is the constant duty of every organization; those who desert shall be punished.

  4. Alexander,

    Thanks for the links and the discussion.

    You have provided some examples where the ACM capability needs to be well integrated into the BPM capability. The “Office de faillite” application is an example that needs all of the capabilities that you mention.

    There is no question that to implement such a system, having both BPM capabilities and ACM capabilities in a single system is not only convenient, it may be required. From this we can conclude that BPM Suites should acquire ACM capabilities, and we agree on this point.

    But can we also say that all applications that need ACM capabilities will also need BPM capabilities? You have shown some applications that need process architecture, but can you say for sure that all ACM applications need this? I think not. There are (some) applications for ACM that have no need for the requirements that Anatoly listed.

    My statements were not clear. When I said that ACM does not need process architecture, I should have said that ACM applications do not inherently need process architecture. Some applications need it, some do not; we can not say that all ACM applications need it.

    Just as you have given examples of applications that require data integration and stronger process management, I can also provide examples of applications that do not. For example, judging an essay contest, preparing for a working group meeting, responding to an emergency, etc. A simple “Google Group” with email lists and discussion forums would be sufficient in most cases. Yes, an expensive custom application would do a better job, but it would be a stretch to say it was required.

    Hopefully this clarifies my point: while ACM capabilities may be a feature of a BPMS, ACM in general is not JUST a feature of a BPMS. To say the latter would be misleading.


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  7. Keith, I think clearly given that ACM describes an “approach” rather than a technology, of course this is true that ACM can exist outside a BPMS. Likewise, BPM capabilities are not just a feature of a BPMS… I’d consider this a tautology (assuming I can spell it right).

    Anatoly: curious if this characterizes your exercise correctly:
    “Exploring whether ACM software will survive as a standalone / separate market, or whether it will be collapsed with BPM software as a market. (Thus, feature vs. paradigm)”
    Because this is an interesting question to me, and a different question than the question of “approach”.

      • Gentlemen

        It’s amazing: Peter Schoof raised the question at ebizQ forum today and I responded to his question in a very similar way: apart from theory or “approaches” there is a practical aspect of whether it makes sense to implement ACM outside BPMS.

        Then a notification came about your discussion here expressing the same concern.

        OK, I believe we should better go to ebizQ and look what others have to say on this.

  8. This question have been taken up for discussion by Peter Schoof at eBizQ: Is ACM a new paradigm or a BPM feature?

    I copied my response below —————————————————–

    This question is like a Rorschach test telling you more about the answerer’s internal mindset than it does about the technology. Every response will make assumptions about the problems that the approach will be put to. Like the old saying when you have a hammer, all problems start to look like nails.

    I know of several BPM systems that have ACM capabilities as well, so we know that it can be a feature of a BPMS. When you are solving problems that are sufficiently like BPM, the added measure of ACM provides flexibility, but also advantages of being integrated. Most arguments for integration cite these advantage. Some mistakenly take this argument too far, stating that all ACM capabilities will be present exclusively in BPM systems.

    What if you ask the question a different way: will ACM-capabilities ever be a feature of any kind of system other than BPMS? There are many people in the workplace who never use a BPMS and yet they still need to get work done. A good example is the executive suite: these people are making decisions and taking actions that were never modeled in a BPM system. Conference organizers have to deal with the myriad of unanticipated situations to resolve for putting an event on. There are many people who do not use a BPMS today, and still need these capabilities. Assuming they will go buy a BPMS to fill this need sounds more like wish-fulfillment for the BPM vendors.

    F. W. Tayor teaches us that work can be analyzed at a very detailed level, in order to make it entirely repeatable. Repeatable processes are like mass production factories: good for somethings, but not for others. The reason we wrote the book Mastering the Unpredictable was mainly to spread the word that not all procesess are pretictable and repeatable. Sigurd Rinde calls them “Barely Repeatable Processes.” People who deal primarily with BRPs will not purchase a BPM system in order to get ACM capabilities. Instead, they will buy an extension to email that does it. Or an extension to their Social Business System. Or an extension to their Project Management software. These other categories are shipped in far greater numbers than BPM systems, and it is reasonable to assume that more people will experience ACM capabilities from these systems, than from BPM systems.

    Within the BPM mindset, there is a dream that BPM systems will provide custom solutions for all lines of work. Thus we can have BPMS-based dental solutions, BPMS-based executive solutions, BPMS-based doggy daycare solutions, BPMS-based conference planning solutions, etc. Theoretically, these are all possible, but is this really practical? In practice few of these exist today: doctors, lawyers, CEOs, and daycare owners are not going to do the BPMS programming themselves, and they are not going to pay for a custom developed solution when the result is barely repeatable. Maybe someday every line of work will have their own specific BPMS solution, but in the mean time work has to proceed.

    Adaptive case management is an approach that can be used “out of the box” without a huge upfront investment. Action-Base is a good example; it is more of an extension to email than anything else. Enterprise Social Software is a category that is particularly hot right now, and promises to give workers with unpredictable processes a way to get things done without a huge up-front expense.

    Finally, a note of caution: this is a disruptive change. BPM vendors will claim they have been rearchitected into ACM capabilities while at the same time assuming that a consultant will develop a custom BPMS solution up front. The question for them will be: “Can I use the ACM capabilities without creating a single form, data structure, or process definition.” The answer for Social Business Software will be “yes”, but I think most BPM systems will have varying answers.

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