Research Challenges for Case Management

I describe in this blog entry research and innovation challenges for case management from a business and technical perspective. This blog entry complements my existing blog entries on case management: introduction & standards, what constitutes a case and system concepts.

This entry is relevant for managers, business analysts, enterprise architects, researchers and developers.

Business Challenges

I have explained before that case management is about dynamically evolving processes. We want to manage them in a structured way, because we expect an improved process execution in terms of quality, better cost management and enhanced innovation potential. To leverage these benefits, we need to determine the processes that should be subject to a case management approach and we need to be able to compare as well as integrate different cases.

I presented already in a previous blog guidelines for modeling cases, so that they can deliver a business benefit. However, it is still an open issue how benefits can be realized around the case lifecycle and what cases/processes are suitable for case management. A good starting point is the guide for business processes in [1]. Although it is about managing, deploying and monitoring more standardized business processes, it gives useful hints that are also valid for case management. This includes deployment, monitoring/optimization and learning aspects.

Obviously, some processes are more suitable for case management than other processes. For example, processes, which are always executed similarly and are highly standardized with predictable exceptions, should be managed using business process management techniques (e.g. workflow systems or six sigma). The issue here is that cases are not necessarily executed similarly, but we wish to be able to compare cases, so that we can learn from them and foster innovation. For example, Six Sigma cannot be transferred directly to case management. Furthermore, this is needed to enable quality and cost management.

Additionally, we may need to think about new roles governing the management of cases. I gave in a previous blog the example of a global business rule designer that ensures consistency of business rules among cases, but still allowing for individual case rules.

Nevertheless, it is still important to glue the outputs generated in different cases together to form the big picture of the enterprise and steer it into the right direction. Case management can offer here the right flexibility to act top-down and bottom-up. However, it is still unclear how different cases can and should be linked, especially on the inter-organizational level, where we have different rules, cultures and regulations of the involved organizations.

Another interesting aspect is the fact that case management offers also the new innovative models for paying employees. For instance, workers could be paid based on the complexity and approach they took to solve a case. This can be determined by manager and customer together. There is no requirement anymore to stay for a certain time in the office. Case workers can solve cases wherever they are and whenever they want. They can work as much as they require for satisfying their needs.

Finally, I expect that case management can be a building block of a solution for the management of personal processes, such as founding a company, buying a house or marriage.

Technical Aspects – Case Management Engine

The case management engine should enable the users to model, execute and monitor dynamically evolving processes in a structured manner. It supports the user to create case objects and define processes as well as rules for them. The created models can be verified by the engine for correctness, i.e. that the case could be executed without violating any rules or processes (see also [2]).

Rules and processes maybe enforced, but for dynamic processes it makes often more sense to detect deviations from rules and processes to evaluate their impact later (cf. [2]).

While a lot of rule and process formalisms are known (cf. [2] for an overview), it is still an open challenge, which one should be used and which one makes sense for a given case. Here, we need to evaluate and compare case management solutions in a real company setting.

Technical Aspects – Graphical User Interface/Visualizations/Pervasive Interactions

Another question is how the case workers and their enterprises can get the maximum benefit from case management. By following a structured approach, we expect that the case workers can make more sense out of cases and dynamically evolving processes, so that they can react better to a given environment. This requires new visualization techniques showing the case evolution, so that it is clear what has been done, what is currently going on and what are the next steps.

However, recent developments show that the workforce does not want and need to sit in an office all day long. They need to be at the customer site, doing sports, staying with their family or simply want to enjoy the world. This means that we have to support their contribution to cases wherever they are. Novel solutions need to be designed, so that they can provide their input to a dynamic case process at the right time, at the right place and using any device (e.g. screens, walls, voice or gestures). This also includes proactive recommendation of case objects to the case worker (e.g. based on expertise, skills or previous case executions). Appropriate recommendation algorithms considering also long-term aspects need to be invented.

Obviously, we need to integrate our existing collaboration and communication components (e.g. voice chat, collaborative text editing or version control management systems). I observe a lot of new development related to novel Web standards supporting this (e.g. OpenSocial or Web Intents). Nevertheless, there is still some research needed on how we can leverage these emerging standards.

Technical Aspects – Inter-organizational Distributed Level

I think the real challenge with case management is to support cross-organizational cases and dynamic processes. Business Process Management has terribly failed in this area – not only technically, but also from a business perspective. However, if we are able to manage it right then we can also expect a lot of benefits from it.

From a technical perspective, we need to consider that organizations working on one case cannot and do not have a complete overview on the case due to privacy, regulatory or strategic reasons. Furthermore, an inter-organizational case has to be embedded in the different environments (e.g. business goals or regulatory rules) of the organizations.

This also implies that a case is distributed over potentially several organizations that work on parts of it concurrently within their given environment consisting of business rules, artifacts, organizational structures and processes (e.g. an invoice is part a supplier and consumer case). Research in the area of distributed systems has shown that this can quickly lead to a diverging view on activities, artifacts, rules and data. Clearly, this is undesired, because it introduces coordination problems and cases management won’t deliver its benefits. Thus, case management systems have to provide a converging view, i.e. a common picture, on the inter-organizational cases. However, classical synchronization and transaction mechanisms in distributed systems do not scale well to this inter-organizational level and do not deliver what the users expect. Novel mechanisms need to be designed and tested (cf. also [2]).

Conclusion

I have presented in this blog entry several innovation and research challenges from a business as well as technical perspective. These challenges have not been solved yet adequately, but I see continuous improvement of these issues, so it can be expected that they will be addressed by consultancies and research organizations.

Stay tuned for my next blog entry where I analyze limitations of existing open source solutions with respect to case management.

References

[1] Becker, Jörg; Kugeler, Martin; Rosemann, Michael (Eds.): Process Management: A Guide for the Design of Business Processes, Springer, 2011, ISBN 978-3642151897

[2] Franke, Jörn: Coordination of Distributed Activities in Dynamic Situations. The Case of Inter-organizational Crisis Management, PhD Thesis (Computer Science), English, LORIA-INRIA-CNRS, Université de Nancy/Université Henri Poincaré, France, 2011.

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