Conversation with industry veteran reveals how case management can help enterprises get the most from the latest technology trends like “Big Data,” mobile and social

For this month’s article in my ACM series, I decided it was time to “get a little help from my friends.” I sat down with my colleague Steve Russell, SVP Research & Development for OpenText BPM, to get his perspective on case management.

Steve has spent over 25 years in the technology industry analyzing and developing solutions for process and case management that enable organizations to better manage and grow their business. And, I think you will agree with me that he has some very interesting views and useful advice on how case management can help enterprises get the most from the latest technology trends like “Big Data,” mobile and social.

Deb Miller: We know that dynamic case management puts data in context and orchestrates work to help knowledge workers make better decisions. What are you seeing as best practices for work orchestration these days?

Steve Russell: One strategy is to match the work to the people in a much more sophisticated way. In a manual environment, matching work to people tends to be pretty simplistic. There might be a team to handle a certain type of customer transaction, but it is challenging to make those qualifiers very complex simply because no one has the time to figure it out for each task and then determine who to assign the task.

A good example of applying this strategy is the underwriting team that helps process loan applications. That team may have smaller sub-teams that deal with different types of loans. But that is usually about as granular as it gets. But with case management, we can tag the loan package work with more helpful pieces of data. For example, the size of the loan, foreign language skills that might be required, expertise in the type of business that is requesting the loan, geographic location, etc. By leveraging the data that we capture about each loan request we now have more information to base our match on. And once that same set of information is used to describe the people performing the tasks, we now have a simple framework for better orchestrating work.

DM: That’s a great example and a very interesting use of data tagging with case management. Of course another kind of data -- “big data” -- is all the buzz these days, and I see a real and growing demand for technology that can sift through massive amounts of data to help companies make better decisions. It seems that there could be a strong connection and opportunity for case management and “big data” to work together?

SR: Yes, I think we’re seeing more activity coming forward around “big data,” especially with disparate sources for data, and how to be able to pull it into the context of a case or a process. The starting point is to create a more sophisticated infrastructure that can gather and process data and put it into some type of warehouse.

Most people are moving beyond just plain old relational reporting, but that requires some way to be able to view and make sense of all that data. And, oftentimes the data that you get in the warehouse doesn’t provide the full picture that you need to make the kinds of decisions you want.

We’re seeing a lot of interest and activity where people are incorporating more “machine” data, in other words, data that is generated by other systems and doesn’t have the structure to it that traditional reports are based on. An example is web analytics. And there are a lot of products out there now, some of them in the open source community, which allow you to extend that and be able to take process and utilize that within the context of a case.

The web analytics data can provide insight into how users are accessing information or buying products. When you mix that case data with all these other types of sources and feeds of information coming in, you now can create much more robust set of information that in turn enable better decisions.

DM: I think the sheer scale of “big data” is impressive -- measured in terabytes and beyond, and doubling or more in volume every two years. Plus the types of data can be just as challenging with combinations of relational data, unstructured data such as text, images, video and every other variation. So is there an opportunity here to become more real-time in dealing with this data to make decisions while in work moments?

SR: Yes, this is an important opportunity. Some of the sources that we think are most valuable right now are chat communications and other social extensions to processes and cases. Now you have information that is wildly unstructured but contains a lot of pretty important stuff. 

As an example, I may be making a decision in a case and I want to know if anybody else dealt with this or not? I don’t want just a list of the names. It would be nice to be able to bring up those threads and see the ones that have positive outcomes and get all that other type of information incorporated.

So I see moving beyond a structured notion of data through the ability to pull the unstructured data into something that’s going to be much more sophisticated and deal with all sorts of data. It represents a big step forward in what you can do with case management.

DM: That leads us to the importance of delivering a 360-degree view of information, tasks and more for all the process participants. How should that work with case management?

SR: The feedback we get from both managers and users is that the data means nothing unless they see it when they’re actually trying to perform a task for the customer or act on the customer’s behalf. Not only do they want to see what their peers are doing from a social perspective, but they also want to see information specific to the customer when they’re actually doing the work.

Customers want to be treated in a more personalized way nowadays. If you want to give them that experience when you’re working with them, and you also want to give them a specialized experience in the context of other customers that are like them, you want to be able to present information in the moment of need for the user in a way that they can actually digest it or use it.

With case management, knowledge workers can see all of the information they need when they’re performing a task for a customer or acting on a customer’s behalf, such as opening a new account

DM: The ability to engage the business on behalf of the customer is so critical. What does it mean then to empower agents to make the right decisions in the moment, and how do we make the leap to more dynamic processes that move towards the business outcome without necessarily following a script? Part of this is certainly culture and organization, but is there a technology answer for this?

SR: I do think there’s a technology piece to it. We’ve lived through an approach where people tried to build out systems that had very prescriptive processes as the way to do business. They went out and found who the experts are that do this, how they do it, and then codified that and delivered it. This works with some highly repetitive work areas, but raised challenges when used as an approach to more unstructured knowledge work.

The current wave of what’s going on out there is, “wait a minute, why don’t we put in more of what represents the business as usual and we’ll just let the stakeholder community run with it.” So we focus around how to provide the right level of restraints, audit ability, compliance, and things like that so the process part of it becomes much simpler. You just define what are going to be the most commonly done or required steps, and then give everything else to the user to be able to pick and choose in terms of what they need to do, or give them the ability to add to it. You create a more fluid, more dynamic, more user-driven way to be able to get the business done, but all the while, you’re gathering all that data around it so you can monitor it, and you’re implementing rules and constraints to ensure you’re not breaking compliance guidelines.

I think the technology piece provides the ability to build a simple process, but deliver all these user-driven ways to extend it and take control of it. And that really does need to be reflected in the product capability itself and the technology that provides the analytics so that over time new patterns can be identified and highlighted for everyone. This is very difficult if not impossible to do with a traditional workflow or BPM platform.

Case management technology provides the ability to build a simple process while also delivering user-driven ways to extend it and take control of it

DM: Let’s consider another much talked about topic these days -- mobile. We have this concept of a persistent connection with the customer, the fact that we’re never closed for business. Our customers can reach us, one way or the other, all the time. And increasingly that’s through mobile devices. The question is then how is mobile impacting what you’re doing with case management?

SR: Mobile is a pretty big element. We’re getting a lot of demand. People want to have a more continuous and easily assessable way to stay on top of things. How much work is outstanding? How am I doing against my goals? Right down to the level of a really important customer who has got some work that’s outstanding. I want to know the status of that, and I want to be able to follow it.

A lot of what we’re doing around mobile is being able to allow that kind of untethered access and do it on a much simpler interface for the mobile device as opposed to having to look at a complex dashboard. This should allow more people to be able to interact with it in meaningful ways.

Case management technology enables untethered access to information, displayed through a simple interface designed for mobile devices

DM: How does this relate to self-service requirements and a self-directing type of customer?

SR: There is a strong connection. The other area we’re seeing a lot of interest around mobile in our work has to do with extending processes or opening those processes up to the end customer. Self-service can be a big benefit to people who are leveraging some of the social and mobile capabilities that are out there right now.

For example, the ability for me to go in -- anytime, anywhere -- and add something so my loan request continues smoothly through the process, and to be able to do that in a very simple way from a mobile device and not have to interact with a call center representative. It makes the call center more productive by accelerating the work, and it allows those self-directing customers to have a much better experience.

DM: So is mobile about efficiency and cost effectiveness, or is there a brand building element?

SR: All of the above. A lot of our customers are viewing it not just as an efficiency thing. They view it as a high-value approach and a loyalty touch point. Whenever there is that customer interaction, your brand is at stake. So there’s a lot of investment we’re seeing within our customer base to be able to do more and more around customer engagement via mobile devices.

DM: This whole discussion of mobile really follows the trend line of the consumerization of technology. It’s no longer the centralized IT that’s setting the pace and setting the expectations for users. Increasingly, those expectations are being set by what they’re buying at the App Store or somewhere else. Is consumerization affecting what you’re doing with case management?

SR: Definitely. The consumerization of software has had tremendous impact around enterprise software. It has made it a requirement for enterprise software to be simple and intuitive, and has made it critical that my first experience with the software be productive. I shouldn’t have to go through extensive training. This creates a significant design challenge to construct interfaces and applications that can do very complex things in a simple and productive way.

DM: How have you met that user-centric design challenge and how do you effectively pull the customer into that thinking?

SR: I think we came to a realization that the only way to do that is to have a much more active engagement process with the people who are using the software. We hired an outside firm that specializes in just this. We spent about six months with them, focused on onsite interviews and videotaping how people were using the software, looking at where they were getting information and documents, asking about what they would rather see, what’s difficult to do, what’s easy to do and those kinds of things. And then synthesizing all that down is a bit of an art, and we have experts that can do that. The outcome, oftentimes, is completely different than what you were originally thinking about as a product or an implementation.

Taking time upfront and going through the design process with the people who are actually going to be using the product can be invaluable. This not only creates a better product but saves money and lets us deliver faster because the implementation is much more focused. What we found for example, of the 200 features we were considering, they really only cared about 75 or 80. So, because of the consumerization trend, this kind of approach is something you just have to do. And it requires a structured design methodology and experts who know how to do it.

DM: So as case management gains more and more attention and interest, the inevitable question arises, “How do I get started with case management? Is it just like traditional BPM?“

SR: I think it is different. It starts with two questions -- what is the information and what are the tools somebody needs to get their work done? It does not narrowly focus on the process that the person is going to participate in. When you start with the people, what they need and how you get that information to them, and then you “model” that out, the process really becomes nothing more than ways to support the user. I think that mindset reversal in terms of how business process analysis has traditionally been done is a pretty significant change, but at the same time it is one that can yield a whole new class of applications for your business.

Editor's Note: You may also be interested in reading this article by Deb Miller:

The Best Way to Improve Business Performance