When Does a Case Become a Project

I have been struggling with this question lately. What is the real difference between a Case and a Project? I have a certain set of conditioned responses that made me immediately assume they are of course very different but the more I look the more blurry the lines become. I’ll admit it is late and I have been working fourteen hour days but I now hold the opinion that a least from the perspective of the data,  there is no difference at all. The project is in the eye of the beholder.

In one conversation on this topic recently I was challenged that projects are single occurrences whereas cases are repetitive.  Several hours later someone else made the exact same argument but in reverse. I fully expect the PMI crowd to storm the Bastille and pummel me with Gantt charts but hear me out. What do they have in common?

Image via Wikipedia

Both are really time bound containers having fixed starting points and a linear progression to an end state. (think open to close and start to finish) Cases don’t appear to  follow ordered progression but I am referring to STATE of the container not the flow of task execution.

Both contain tasks that can contain predecessors, dependencies, resources and there are common elements like calendar, events and milestones. I know you might say that cases don’t necessarily have these things. My argument is that they do – we just chose not to identify or manage them all the time.

The debate becomes oddly reminiscent to me of the structured vs unstructured data distinction I despise. Both are data but one confines the data to a rigid rectilinear construct while the other does not. Similarly projects might simply be thought of as cases where the entities managed are limited to those required to support the work break down structure and allocation of resources to task. I have a hard time though imagining a case management system where I would not want the option of applying these capabilities to every case.

There has been much conversation around the intersections of BPM, Case and Content Management and how the vendors bleed over into the others spaces. Maybe I just haven’t been asking the question in the right places but I don’t see project management coming up in conversation. The PM software space is comparatively mature but there are clearly basic project management capabilities that would enrich a case management if they were pervasive within the platforms.

Tell me what you think – Cases and Project – is there a difference or not?

10 thoughts on “When Does a Case Become a Project

  1. Differences will always exist for anyone who tries enough to find them. I myself have the same feeling as you do and I like to leave it that way.
    CM solutions bring people and information together for reaching a clear goal. Projects are quite similar.
    It should be no surprise, since it’s how you fulfill the business needs that ultimately matter for customers, not how you call the solution.

  2. Definitely a subject I’ve noodled before. Project/Case – I tend to use the two terms interchangeably depending on the point of reference of my audience, mostly for simplicity sake since ‘case management’ still gets me blank stares from most anyone I speak to outside of the ECM/BPM worlds. But I’m generally using ‘project’ as a noun – a container or wrapper around all the moving parts – and that seems to resonate and make things less abstract than ‘case’.
    I see more difference between the two terms start to emerge when you look at the discipline of project management as defined today vs. that of the evolving scope of case management. Project Management is really about keeping things on track and in scope – helping people to deliver on the desired outcome on-time, & within budget – circumventing the roadblocks before they happen. Are those also goals of managing a case? They sure should be but there’s something missing. What about the collection of IP related to the completion of that project? And about re-using that knowledge to solve similar problems faster and with better results in the future? Growing a ‘smarter process’ seems of less concern, at least formally, in project management than case management.
    Something else that strikes me is the human element of cases. The discipline of Case Management seems to consider the impact of the work being done on others more so than Project Management. Not only is there focus on increased end-customer satisfaction as a measurable in a case, but also the goal of better serving the internal customers – helping those participating in the progression of the case to work more effectively, share information more readily and ultimately increase their job satisfaction (and continue the cycle of improved service to end-customer).
    Regardless … yes, agreed the line between the terms is blurry and there’s definitely something to gain from taking the best from both worlds and blurring it further.

  3. We’ll have to debate at AIIM this week but…

    A Case is repetitive. It is also core to our business. There is no ROI because it is the point of why we are in business.

    A project is either a one-off or something that isn’t core to our business. Implementing a website is a project, not a case. You may do it again, but it is just a new project.

    This gets fuzzy in consulting where projects are the core business. The thing is, at least in the consulting projects that I have been involved with, while I may implement multiple CMSs, each one is a project. There is no single “case worker” and each scope is unique. If I package an assessment as a “solution”, then you might argue that it is a case, but that is the one-off.

    Just my annoying 2 cents.


  4. you are only applying project from an IT / software development mindset. There are many efforts managed as projects that are repetitive. They often have wildly variable components but the structure, milestones,et.al. are the same.

    Examples – a construction firm building a subdivision.

    Another – Maintenance repair and overhaul of large complex things like airplanes and naval vessels. These in particular are aggregations of thousands of smaller projects – often generated from the identification of unique conditions(cases) of damage etc.

    I am settling on the idea that project is a type of case.

    Rather than looking at it from an execution perspective – think of it in terms of the analytics that might be applied. Again the metrics important for project seem to me to be just as important when looking at cases.

  5. reread Allison’s comments
    so – the more you know (systematically, organizationally, historically) about a case the more it looks like a project.

  6. There are too many projects that are not cases. If anything, a case is a type of project.


  7. Lee, I really like your idea of thinking project as a part/type of case. Case has less stringently structured requirements than project. For example, in law office, every new client becomes part of a new case. But, if the clients share a common interest to litigate against an entity, it may become a huge class action lawsuit project. Although project tends to be more structured than case and to be a bigger size than case, fundamentally project is part of a case. The project can be effectively managed by PMP because it is well structured whereas case is not. We really need case managers and tools to manage the cases in law offices as well.

  8. My question is where are objects other than “Project” derived from “Case? There are things all around us that are a lot bigger than “Projects” and derived from “Projects” or “Cases”. Oracle, Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook, Dell, or EMC are all started with a small case concept or projects in a tiny garage and became huge businesses, software, hardware, or hybrid companies that we can’t live without… Not to mention, the country we are enjoying now and live in started with a case called Boston Tea Partiers! These days, even Google maintains internal projects called incubators that foster organic entrepreneurism and fresh ideas within from company. Then, do we need to create CMP (Case/Company Management Professionals) for this? Don’t worry, we have a plenty of professionals coined with 3 letter acronyms that perform various duties for companies (CEO, COO, CTO, or C$$). We just need those in the Case concept. Project Management is matured as touted, but it is rather clumsy and bloated to transfer effectively or efficiently into the Case paradigm. We need a strip down, increase the agility of, and downsize the Project Management tool so it can be applied to the Case Management paradigm, which frequently uses a lot of various unstructured documents.

  9. Cool topic. Here’s my thoughts.

    While Project and Cases can have similar fields and workflows their scope comes into play. We use the two terms mostly to create some order in our lives so that we don’t have all of the little Cases cluttering up our big picture projects. We could easily lump them together and have a ‘Type’ drop down for Case/Project and then use a filter to show just Cases or just Projects.

    What’s a Case?

    Case = User Sally can’t print. We fix her problem by telling her to power cycle the printer. It worked. Cased Closed.

    Project = Upgrade the printer(s). We keep getting to many Cases from the old printers that have to be restarted.
    We Purchase, Schedule and Install. Project Closed.

    Key words that indicate something is a project include; upgrade, install, replace, purchase, etc..

    Key words for cases would be fix, repair, discard, move (hmm, move might be a project depending on the scope! :))

    Case’s can definitely spawn projects. For instance, Case = User Sally can’t print. Fixing the printer is a case. Replacing it is a project.

    Projects can definitely spawn projects. Project = Replace all printers.
    After the printers are replaced Cases are created to deal with the problems caused by the Project. 🙂


Comments are closed.

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: