Although the technology that's enabled the current wave of interest in business process management (BPM) has been around since the late 1990s, it's only over the past couple of years that BPM has become a real mainstream industry concern. Initially, BPM was really the preserve of a small number of very switched-on enterprises with senior executives that "got process religion".

Now though, just as BPM hits that tipping point, could it be that its days are numbered? A new kid on the block – case management, or more specifically a new group of variants of case management (at its heart, case management has been around for even longer than BPM technology) – is being promoted in some quarters as being a successor to BPM technology, which is itself positioned by some as being overly inflexible and unsuited to today's complex work environments.

Process – both blessing and curse

To explain why this might be the case, it's worth revisiting what the idea of 'process' is about and why it's useful. The concept of 'process' was first explored by people like F.W. Taylor in the early to mid-20th century: they popularised the idea that designing and formalising a set of procedures, based on scientific observation of day-to-day work, and then managing workers by monitoring their performance against those procedures, could help an enterprise improve efficiency and quality in what it produced. Thus, process – and management by process – was born. Management concepts like Six Sigma, Lean and Business Process Re-engineering (BPR) followed in the late 20th century – all focusing primarily on the idea of 'process' as a management construct and as a template for work which could be studied and optimised.

BPM introduces some really important technology-enabled innovations to these ideas, because it creates a platform for different groups to share ideas about processes and work and take those ideas into production, and also creates a platform for creating visibility of work performance – which can then be used to more quickly and easily uncover opportunities for further improvement. BPM technology and practice innovations have massively improved enterprises' process management agility: but there is a separate issue that isn't necessarily addressed through these innovations, and that's to do with enabling flexibility in how work gets done on the front line.

Is BPM just hype, or a window of opportunity?

If you look at the kinds of work where the idea of 'process' first became popular – first, industrial manufacturing work; and then, rote administrative work – then it's clear that having a structured template for work makes sense. In this kind of activity, it is possible to specify what quality looks like; and delivering a quality result means executing a well engineered detailed plan repeatedly.

However the business improvement focus for many companies now goes well beyond these scenarios, into more 'value adding' types of administrative and knowledge work. Let's consider something like complaint handling. Here, quality is not as easy to define as it might immediately appear. A simplistic view would suggest that delivering high quality is about resolving all complaints to the full satisfaction of every customer; but the reality is that from the point of view of the enterprise, not every complaint can be or should be treated equally. In this context, delivering quality is actually about dynamically trading off the effort and cost of dealing with any individual complaint against the enterprise's market and customer management strategy. Delivering quality might mean doing something very different from one complaint to the next.

It should be clear that in a scenario like this, constraining work patterns according to rigid process definitions can be very counter-productive.

Welcome (back) case management!

This is where the new kid on the block comes into the picture. Some vendors talk about "adaptive case management"; others talk about "advanced case management" or "dynamic case management". This is an emerging area where there different vendors are jostling for position and seeking to carve niches for themselves. But all three of these variants of case management start from the most elementary premise of BPM – which is about providing an environment in which work can be effectively managed and a platform on which work can be improved – and rather than putting the idea of "process" at the centre of management, enable individual workers get work done in a managed environment that plays less of an enforcement role while still retaining the concepts of goals, outcomes, service levels and so on.

Adaptive/advanced/dynamic case management platforms create a software environment in which work is coordinated and monitored (just as is the case with BPM software); but it's architected to empower workers at the level of individual cases. Rather than a process model dictating how work flows to whom and when, the flow of work and information is shaped less strictly – by a set of related goals, constraints, guidelines and policies. Some of these things are formalised in the case management platform itself, in the form of automated rules.

The Workflow Management Coalition (WfMC) is a venerable industry forum that's particularly behind the concept of Adaptive Case Management (ACM), and it is clear in its initial work that ACM and BPM technology are suitable for different scenarios. So – if the focus of business improvement is moving to types of work that less naturally fit highly structured process environments, does that mean that BPM is set to be an evolutionary dead-end – and that ACM is the homo erectus of this particular branch of the software innovation tree?

Not as far as I can tell. After looking at this in quite a lot of detail for some months, I've come to the conclusion that the truth is actually much more nuanced. For one thing, many of the technology vendors that have historically offered BPM platforms that are most suited to managing structured work have added increasing numbers of features that enable customers to specify dynamic behaviours that allow certain types of unpredictability to be managed within the context of a broader structured process. But perhaps the larger trend affecting this picture is the rapid injection of collaboration and social technologies into BPM and case management platforms across the marketplace. Some integrations are more elegant than others, but the trend is clear: by providing capabilities to link expertise, knowledge and resources dynamically into the operation of tasks as they unfold using social collaboration tools, platforms across the marketplace are starting to be able to support ever wider sections of the work spectrum.

BPM allows CIOs to take control of their destiny

What does this mean for you? The short-term confusion I'm seeing about "BPM vs XYZ Case Management" certainly should not tempt you to put off any projects you might be considering. Instead, my advice is to take time to analyse the kinds of work in your organisation that teams might be looking to improve with technology, and make sure you're evaluating all the options and all the relevant vendors properly before making a big commitment. As ever: make sure that you prioritise the work contexts of individuals, as well as the integration contexts of systems, when you make your technology decisions.