What is a case?

I read a great post yesterday by Alan Pelz-Sharpe “The Case for Case Management – and  Business Intelligence.”  One phrase however leapt off the page that I think is critical for those of us with ECM backgrounds. Alan says.

Essentially Case Management means applying rules (either automatically or manually) to documents to ensure that they recognize their relationship with one another, as well as with the people who use them and any associated business processes.

At the risk of over analyzing this is not “essentially” what case management is. Stepping into the case management world means subjugating the idea of documents to the concept of cases. The case needs to be managed otherwise it is just case “file” management. We cannot fall into a document centric pattern as we think about the coming generation of case management applications and be successful.

So this begs the question – what is a case?

To be fair, Alan states it this way because later in the post he addresses the instance of customers with preexisting case and content management systems. He is spot on with his observations on the developing importance of analytics, especially in bridging the divide between existing case and content systems.

The quote does call out the key concept even if it does in my opinion place undue weight on both document and rules. At the heart of case management is relationships. Patient to condition to doctor. Officer to crime to suspect to victim. Complaint to customer to store. Cases are containers for relationships. Cases though are core entities unto themselves and must be addressed as such from the beginning. It is not enough to relegate them to basic navigational roles or simple metadata classification of the documents they contain.

These containers establish the boundaries for the relationships they contain. Boundaries first in time but also in terms of scope. For example a civil court case comes into existence when a complaint is filed. The case contains the relationships between the plaintiff and the defendant. Between the attorneys and the litigants. If new complaints are made then they are by default outside the scope of the original case unless the a process is initiated to allow it to be added. Otherwise it is a new case.

Closure of the case establishes the point in time where the relevance of the container is diminished and responsibility for the application of rules shifts to records management where the discrete components are maintained until disposition.This is admittedly a bit of an idealistic view but the vision for case management in a content enabled world should not be constrained by the documents the cases contain. The whole is indeed greater than the sum of the parts.

Two functions around the container stand out. The control of relationships between both structured and unstructured data entities and the progression of that container through a  lifecycle. Many ECM products have rich tools and API’s for representing different types of relationships. Countless customer implementations have modeled case management scenarios using these existing content oriented platforms. What is emerging now is the productization of the API’s and services that support this rich relationship management combined with the new tooling to make implementation easier and more supportable.

It is important to point out that there are just as many BPM vendors who promote case management from a process centric view that are pursuing these same customers.  These vendors and the integrators that implement them run the risk of emphasizing process over relationship management in just the same way as ECM vendors and SI’s do with documents. As trite as the saying is it is still true. Everything is not a nail just because we have a hammer. We need a bigger toolbox.

To sum up – my working albeit academic definition of case as managed by a system is “a time-bound container of relationships between a defined set of object types that establishes the scope for the application of rules through the lifecycle of the container.”

or you could just call it a folder 🙂

Please comment with your definition.

18 thoughts on “What is a case?

  1. While I fully agree on the description, you lost me on the second part of the definition “…establishes the scope of the application of rules…”.
    I would go for “a container summing up relations and other entities, following lifecycle rules”.
    Not such academic.
    Please, don’t call it a folder or virtual document… it needs to have specific display perspectives at least.

  2. I prefer Alan’s definition although I would refer to “documents” in a larger sense,
    Documents and data – both structured and unstructured
    Interaction, event, process, and decision artifacts
    Relationship links

  3. Lee, nice post.

    This is my thinking: a case is a representation of a business transaction (or related transactions), referencing and/or containing all of the activities, documents, information, messages and context within the business processes that feed into the completion of that transaction. How an individual person sees that case depends on the person’s attributes and the current state of the case.

    I feel strongly that context and relationships between cases are important, as from a user’s standpoint, relationships give the case additional meaning so that the user can make decisions; and context allows us to generate meaningful records of the transaction at the end of the case.

    You can say a case has a life-cycle, or it falls into a business process (or multiple processes), though for me a case is more than a division of ECM versus BPM.

    If you’re interested, here is my slightly process-centric view of case management: http://blog.consected.com/2009/11/case-management-follow-bouncing-ball.html


  4. thanks all for the comments – good thoughts all. After reading this again – I don’t like the term lifecycles so much. (I hate it when I disagree with myself)

    Cases transition within a fixed set of defined states- typically this is linear but not necessarily so. I have always been of the opinion that state transition and process are not equivalent so I still lean to ECM over BPM as persistence of state is better managed as a object repository feature which adds weight to Phil’s alignment of case mgmt with ECM.

    also Phil – thanks for the link – the bouncing ball is a good illustration

  5. lopataru – couldn’t agree more – cases DEMAND their own display perspectives.

  6. There is a saying that “you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.” Human beings have a tendency to stereotype and categorize things superficially. It is a natural thing to do because pigeon-holing allows us to quickly sort through the huge amount of information we encounter each day. The problem with that is that sometimes one wants to put lipstick on a pig, knowing full well that it is still a pig. It depends on what you want to use the pig for. If you are entering her in a beauty pageant for pigs, she would need lipstick, but lipstick is a silly idea if your intent is to consume it as feast for your hog heaven. Some may say “You can put Case Management on Documentum, but it’s still Documentum.” Surely, it is the Documentum framework that enables popular use cases such as Case Management. EMC’s Case Management has nothing to do with lipstick on a pig, per se. Rather, it accommodates and productizes one of the most popular use cases to be readily marketable to the specific verticals. A lot of projects fail because they struggle to develop or contain this very use case in a timely manner. Simply put, EMC identifies Case Management as one of the most popular use cases in the go-to-market. For the long term, however, EMC may need to employ a better, more workable and innovative platform such as Cloud Computing that could effectively enable dynamic deployment of products and use cases. EMC is one of the key players among Private Cloud providers that enable these very solutions and EMC’s content products can ultimately take advantage of the new paradigm.

  7. Hey Brian – its been too long

    I couldn’t agree more re:cloud – there is a lot of work to be done there. I wish I knew more about specifics but I really don’t. Cloud is really the end result of the commodotization of the underlying storage layer first (think Atmos) – beyond that composite applications from cloud based services logically follow. I certainly buy into the concept but I mainly have questions about the business model. I personally don’t know enough to confidently describe how businesses will make money on creating the services long term and (more importantly) how companies will fund it given the history of treating important development like this as capital investments – probably another post in that.

  8. Brian and Lee,

    I agree with both of you in that Case Management is logical extension of the Documentum architecture (from a sales & marketing perspective). I too wish that EMC put more effort in making Documentum run on the cloud. Unfortunately, updates to infrastructure doesnt sell to business users, maybe to IT. Business customers are buying solutions (not individual products and/or platform plays). This is where xCP is being marketed. I sometimes wonder if EMC might be more successful if they marketed xCP as development tool rather than a solution.


  9. Hi Lee,

    It’s been almost a decade passed since our Delta days. I value your strategy on content space since your predictions and educated guesses are nearly always right on the bull’s-eye. Although I don’t always concur with you, to my knowledge, your strategy and evaluation are much more interesting than others out there as far as content is concerned. That said, I cannot agree more about Private Cloud since it’s more of a strategy or a concept yet to be tested at this point. But, I believe, CC or PC is not only applicable to storage space, but to just about everything including OS, Internet, programs, mashups, or who-knows-what ultimately. There seem to be some developments for moving on from web browser technology as we know it right now, although the browser will stay with us in one form or another for long time to come. Telco’s tiny apps as being demonstrated by Apple and Google lately could become the next new kids on the block which may fit well with the up-and-coming Cloud Computing. I believe if EMC cannot or won’t implement its own document product portfolios onto the Cloud, the very space including Documentum would not be able to sustain its niche at EMC because it can’t compete effectively with others like SharePoint. I guess the time will tell, indeed. Good conversing with you as well.


    PS: Johnny – I agree that the customer might not be interested in buying infrastructure or platform for content products as of yet. Ironically, however, the same customers are buying SharePoint because it is tightly coupled with platform and infrastructure. I understand that’s because Microsoft is one of the huge incumbents of the current infrastructure in spite of SharePoint’s shortcomings. I may be wrong, but, I believe the new Cloud Computing paradigm could potentially be just the one that could replace Microsoft’s incumbency.

  10. excellent post Keith – you call out a concept that I think requires more expansion. The difference between process and lifecycle of the case. Case management does not lend itself to fixed processes but rather is supported by a loose collection of activities that are applicable if certain conditions apply but do not necessarily occur in the same order and only operate while the case is in a particular state. looks like process. Same building blocks but assembled in a new shape every time. I think I see the idea for my ext post on the subject.

  11. Lee,

    Great commentary on case management. To your point, a case is more about relationships than just managing the collection of docments associated with them.

    One point I’d consider is that while in the extreme, case management problems “don’t lend themselves to fixed processes,” most of the problems that the average enterprise will try to solve with case management do have elements of structured processes. Take a look at something like mortgage origination. When you look at certain stages of this problem, especially the underwriting stage, there is indeed a lot of value to a more flexible, unstructured approach to managing the work. We need to give the underwriters guidelines (can’t approve without sufficient proof of income, etc.), but we don’t want to overly constrain them to the point where they aren’t able to use their best judgement and experience. With that in mind, there are certainly points where we can automate some of the non-value-add steps like generating documents, obtaining credit scores, or setting the applicant up in a back-end system. Here’s where we get value in leveraging the structured process capabilities we often see in BPMS.

    This dovetails nicely with your statement about building blocks assembled in a new shape every time. The key is to pre-assemble the parts that make sense, but make sure to give the users the flexibility to deal with work as it happens.

  12. When you look at certain stages of this problem, especially the underwriting stage, there is indeed a lot of value to a more flexible, unstructured approach to managing the work. We need to give the underwriters guidelines (can’t approve without sufficient proof of income, etc.), but we don’t want to overly constrain them to the point where they aren’t able to use their best judgement and experience. I believe the new Cloud Computing paradigm could potentially be just the one that could replace Microsoft’s incumbency.

  13. Great post on case management Lee. We’ve been doing this with Laserfiche for years. Laserfiche has an exception workflow module that complements the ECM portion of the suite, so whether you want to approach the problem from a document-centric or workflow-centric view we can work either way.

    You can see more on our blog at http://blow.aisww.com


  14. A lot of people are wondering about what Case Management really is and why Documentum is involved in developing it. It’s quite simple: there are a lot of discussions about whether a vendor would be engaged in a specific application development rather than providing a foundation to support such an application. These arguments have always been there. IBM didn’t originally think it was such a good idea to develop boiler-plate applications such as SAP. But now look, SAP is almost big as IBM. If IBM would have been open to the idea in the first place, they could have had the corner on that market, but they lost the opportunity because they weren’t visionary. What is Microsoft Office Suite? Isn’t that developed by OS vendor Microsoft? They make more money by selling the Office Suite than selling OS now! It’s all about Horizontal or Vertical approach of developing the software according to specific circumstance an opportunities at the moment. Before Sharepoint, Documentum could afford sit back and just do the framework. Not so much now. They need have a reason to sustain their customer base. The Case Management is a good application they can dabble in just to do that. I personally don’t care what Case Management would do as long as it does deal with the DOCUMENTS. If documents were not involved, SAP would have built it 10 years ago already and could make a lot of money considering the new healthcare initiative never mind the legal and insurance industries. Besides, one need not worry whether if they will have opportunities to customize such a system like Case Management as long as a vendor produces it. You don’t need to worry too much about that because, even for SAP modules/verticals, there are huge armies of developers and configurators working full time to customize the applications to specific settings and environments.

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