Case Managers are Artists

There is a lot of discussion about what ACM should be, often talking about what a “user” will want.  But there are many kinds of users who have many differing needs.  To break out of this trap, I don’t use the term “user”.  I use the term “case manager” or “knowledge worker” and when I say this, think of something like “artist”.   Like author Dan Pink says, knowledge workers are creative people like artists.

Discussion on what is required for ACM is often held by people with a lot of experience supporting work with BPM.  The discussion often falls into what I call the “process-analysis-trap”: analyze the work, find common sub-patterns, simplify, automate patterns, work to unify and consolidate automation.  This comes directly from the idea that there must be one right way to do something, and we just need to find it.  Then automate it because that would make it easier.  This all makes perfect sense depending upon what your definition of the “user” is.  In particular, it has nothing to do with knowledge workers.

It is helpful to think of a knowledge worker as an artist.  An Andy Goldsworthy who takes a bunch of sticks from a field and makes a wonderful pattern from them.  A Christo who unexpectedly wraps things up.  Painters like Dali, Picasso, Michelangelo, and Leonardo Da Vinci.  All different, all creative.  (Not all artists are famous like these, but in a public blog post I need to use famous names that we are all likely to have some knowledge of.)

I will use these the example of these artists to show that the process-analysis-trap leads us to entirely the wrong conclusion about how to support artists.  My goal is to show that the process-analysis-trap also leads us to the wrong conclusion on how to support knowledge workers.

Art-Kits 1

How would a bunch of process wonks define tools for artists?  We would define “art kits” that had paints,  paint brushes, paper, paint-by-number instructions, etc.  Only consider this: a real artist does not use a “paint-by-number art kit”.  Wouldn’t it be great if my paint-by-number could produce a work of art like Van Gogh’s Sunflowers.  I can arrogantly say that it never will.

That does not mean that art kits don’t exist, and there are certainly people who buy them.  There are a lot of people who have the job to put paint on canvas, and who are not artists.  For those people (whether hobby or profession) the paint-by-number approach is unquestionably easier to use. Ease of use is not necessarily the goal of the artist.

It is important not to get mixed up between the artist, and the person who paints for a living.  Similarly, we must not get mixed up between the knowledge worker, and the person who simply handles cases for a living — there are a lot of both out there.  If we attempt to draw conclusions without being sensitive to whether the person is really a knowledge worker, we will get invalid results. This is why in these discussions I obsess about “unpredictable” behavior.


Even the most creative artist does not start each day with a completely random action.  Do artists follow a pattern, a methodology?  Of course they do, that is the essence of their learning to become an artist in a particular school of art.  The method is what they bring to the table.  The method is what they learn from others and from doing the job. They practice the method.  The exercise themselves.

It is the same with knowledge workers. Their approach to a problem is their approach which has been learned from history and from others.

Enforcing a particular method would unacceptably constrain what a knowledge worker does.  ACM should not enforce any particular method.  The knowledge worker pours their own method into the system. Through use, the ACM system is adapted to the work, but each knowledge worker can define their own method, or decide to use any method from anyone else.

Art-Kits 2

Here is an irony: when I say that a true artist will never use a paint by number kit, I don’t really mean to say this.  The kit, after all, has paint and brushes, and it is possible for a true artist to make a real piece of art from such a kit … even when basically following the numbers.  Does this contradict my earlier statement about the Sunflowers?  Yes it does.  That is the process-analysis-trap we fall into by assuming that there is one true process.  In a certain sense, a true artist can use an art-kit just as well as anything else.

It is the same with knowledge workers.  A knowledge worker can use pre-defined processes, working with them or around them as needed, using email and telephone if necessary.  Pointing to a particular use of a pre-defined processes by knowledge workers is like pointing to a paint-by-number kit used by an artist.  It is not the construct that matters, but what the people do with it that it key.  We can say, however, that an art kit that prevented the artist from painting outside the lines would be too restrictive for an artist to use.  The key for ACM is the ability to ignore the rules when necessary, to redefine the process as needed, and to alter all aspects of the predefined structures.

Artist Supplies

Must artists start with their bare hands?  No.  There are art supplies in standardized forms.  For example, you can buy canvas that is already stretched over a frame in standardized sizes.  This both constrains the artist, and yet is a common enough pattern that it is useful.   The important thing to note is that the canvas stretched over a frame did not come from any smart analysis of what an artist might need, but instead as a result of artists over many years stretching their own canvas: the pattern emerged.

Once pre-built canvasses become available, they cease to be part of the job that the artist does.

As knowledge workers/case managers work, they will develop patterns, and those patterns will be codified into applications (process or otherwise).  When those become codified, they cease to be part of the work of the knowledge work: the knowledge work is just the stuff that is not automated, not formalized.

What did we learn?

The knowledge worker/case manager needs an environment to get work done, and to express any method they want to bring.  There are a set of capabilities that support re-use, but it is all completely under the control of the case manager.

Later, as patterns emerge, an IT department may take on the job of formalizing a part of the work, and producing a BPM application.  When the BPM application becomes available the knowledge worker may start to use it, but it is no longer knowledge work.  In a very real sense, the work has been taken out of the ACM system, and put into a BPM system. It is this last conclusion that makes me feel that ACM and BPM really are completely non-overlapping sets of capabilities.

It is not a different in the technology, but a difference in how you use it.  If the technology is optimized for self-adaptation by a knowledge worker with typical skills for that domain, then it us useful for ACM style work.  If the benefits require a specialist in any kind of skill that is not common in the domain, then this removes it from consideration as ACM.  Artists can use a surprising variety of things to make art.  Similarly, knowledge workers work in a wide variety of environment.  Today, 99% of the knowledge work is being done with email and documents.  Let stop falling into the process-analysis-trap, and focus instead on how to help creative knowledge workers do things their own way.

6 thoughts on “Case Managers are Artists

  1. Hi Keith,
    This is in response to your comment on and this post.

    I understand the reluctance to use the “knowledge process” since that goes against the grain of what the process community (at least the BPMS process community) thinks of as process. For me a routine process is one where the locus of control is the model, and users have minimal (if any) process modification capabilities. A knowledge process (sorry I’ll stick to my guns here) is a human process driven by the participants, and the model (if one exists) is at best a recommendation of how the process usually gets done.

    I think using the term adaptive case management as the way to describe the work that knowledge workers do has caused the BPMS community to latch on to the “case management” part – making cases, folders and data a first class object, and ignore the “adaptive” adjective – so we get various versions of traditional case management with some social niceties thrown in. I think that misses the point of ACM (at least for me).

    I believe ACM is (and should be) the BPMS community’s attempt to come up with a paradigm for tools to support and manage knowledge work. I see that as a worthy BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) for the industry (at IBM research we used less colorful “grand challenge” terminology). The term “Adaptive Case Management” seems to have shifted the focus from the BHAG of managing knowledge work, to routine of managing tradtional case work.

    That is why I thought maybe moving to the term “knowledge process” would be appropriate to describe the management tools that support the unpredictable processes that surround knowledge work.

    • Jacob, I am sure we are talking about the same concept, and I am sure at the end of the day any term will do as long as everyone understands it correctly.

      I like the point about the BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) and it is one, but for which community? This is a disruptive change. The process community will not want to abandon their current paradigms and their entrenched positions, because unpredicted processes looks like a step backwards to them. I changed the name of my blog to include “Social Business” because I believe THAT is the community that is both receptive and likely to adopt the structures to support knowledge work.

      When I talk to knowledge workers (or people who are trying to find technology for knowledge worker) they NEVER ask for BPM. We will talk about Jive, SharePoint, Twitter, Chatter, Tibbr, Yammer, BaseCamp, Huddle, etc. When I ask whether they want to consider BPM, and the universal response is no interest in BPM. The users are not fools.

      It reminds me a lot of the early 80’s and selling PC based software. Spreadsheets took off first on a PC, because the entrenched IT departments had a completely different concept for how business systems should be provided. The end users got fed up, bought a PC, because then they could put whatever they want on it, and spreadsheets suddenly became popular.

      Time will tell, and we will see whether the use of “Knowledge process” works to clarify discussions.

  2. Keith,
    Never thought about the fact that BPM practitioners would think about ACM as a step back. It is an interesting insight.

    I always thought that the more visionary ones would see it as a way to gain leadership in an unlimited market adjacent to theirs that might end up eating their lunch.

  3. Pingback: BPM Quotes of the week « Adam Deane

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