The Difference between ACM and BPM

In forum discussions and during the ACM tweetjam the suggestion came up multiple times that Adaptive Case Management has to do with controlled anarchy and chaos. I disagree with anarchy as it describes a state of lawlessness in a group of individual agents. That might be correct for  SOCIAL, but ACM must include authorization. Empowerment is not decisionmaking for everyone about everything. Chaos in systems relates to a sensitivity to initial conditions and that seems to be applicable for many processes, which makes them impossible to analyze and model them with BPM means.  Adaptive processes, despite lacking a predictable and repeatable progression, go nevertheless from a less ordered to a more ordered state through (knowledgable) user action. Order means here a well defined pattern of entity relationships and states, which are the prerequisite for rules to be applicable and those describing the desired outcome or goal.

A few subjects to be discussed:
1) Are unpredictable business processes an aberration that ought to be resolved by a more thorough process analysis?
Those who promote BPM, do clearly say that all business activities must be formed into a hierarchy of process flows to achieve a higher state of manageability. All the dynamics and unpredictability are considered to be caused by lack of analysis, unidentified waste, necessary variations and unavoidable exceptions. That is however an assumption and the key fallacy of BPM. EVERY real-world process is in principle unpredictable until it is REDUCED and ENFORCED to be predictable. You might say that this is the point of BPM, so why do I bemoan it? If it is a manufacturing process that has to match many work pieces you better make sure that it is. All other processes that involve human interactions do not fall into those requirements. Some are outright impossible to define this way, such as claims handling, social benefits, processing, court cases, medical treatment, purchse-to-pay clearing, business strategy planning, and even budgeting. Those processes are continuously changing and evolving because of new entities, artifacts, rules and participants. Many of these processes also require actor knowledge that is simply not encodable! So maybe they shouldn’t be process controlled? These actors do need all the relevant information to use their knowledge and their co-actors ought to have access to the same information, as far as allowable by their authorization. So it can’t be social chit-chat, but must be a well controlled environment that supports business data and content. Adaptive, knowledge-based processes link data and content into the right context and consolidate analysis, planning and execution into a homogeneous structure. Therefore adaptive processes have one more key distinction to BPM: they create, collect and preserve NEW knowledge and user experience. That includes the creation of new models, rules and patterns and that is only possible with the use of a user-enabled metadata repository.

2) Can existing BPM systems fulfill the needs of adaptive processes if they are enhanced with social networking, semantic search, ad-hoc processes and content?
This will be yours to answer but I very strongly doubt it. As just said, new knowledge requires the creation of new data, new content, new rules, new goals, new user interfaces and new roles by the business users. Only a meta-data repository (not a content repository, meaning archive) can provide such capability. Simply adding TODO or task lists, enabling message threads, or offering data or content access does not provide ‘actionable knowledge’. Business user empowerment must be linked to a common GOAL oriented approach as business users don’t understand complex gateways in 2D BPMN flows. They do understand a list of alternatives task-sets that fulfill business goals. That empowers management to define the goals to reach and the actors to add the tasks that achieve them. More alternatives can be added at any point in time. I would recommend that architects support the business in creating those ontologies. The ontology modeling as defined above is essential to make such an effort user adaptive as otherwise the model builds on some assumptions that can’t change except if someone reprograms the software (as with a BPM system!). One has to distinguish however the semantic ontology approach as for example defined by Frommholz (2007) that is used to perform more accurate searches across the knowledge space. The difference in the ontology is subtle, in terms of use it is substantial.

Source: Frommholz (2007) – Knowledge Intensive Processes (Duisburg University)

Also an adaptive process system needs an enterprise, information and domain ontology to function, but in difference it maps all its defined terms in an executable model and allows to classify real-world data patterns to match its definitions. The domain ontology would be the term definition for content classification. To make this accessible for the business user he must be able to formulate business rules for ontology terms and map them to data and content. That could include a user-defined ‘Folksonomy’ mapping. The enterprise ontology further provides the authorization hierarchy mapped to business and process goals. This way empowerment in terms of goals, authority, and means can be achieved by means of technology!

3) What is the difference between a BPM flowchart and an adaptive knowledge work template?
The core difference is: WHERE and HOW can a business user formulate the ACTIONS that he wants to take on data or content to reach a GOAL? He must be able to do that at runtime or use that definition to add it to a template for future execution. For a BPM appraoch that is heresy, because how could a user be allowed to change a process or worse, actually create one? But if the process fulfills the management defined goals and is totally transparent in execution and expense, where is the problem? The other criticism is that a user defined process would not ensure compliance to regulation or business principles. That is also not true, because management or legal can create global business rules that would be triggered by certain events in any process and either limit user actions or simply add a compliance goal to the process/case. In adaptive processes it is further possible to add a management or user RATING that prioritizes preferable task-lists higher. How about enabling a customer rating right at the end of that process? Who would still need CRM data mining to fiddle with irrelevant past data? We are talking real-time here and a customer marking ‘unsatisfactory completion’, simply does not close the process, but leads to an ‘improvement goal’. That is the true power of adaptive processes that is not achievable with rigid BPM analysis.


  1. Knowledge-driven processes are not just unpredictable, but can be chaotic and very sensitive to initial conditions, but empowering business users to deal with that is not anarchy.
  2. Complex knowledge work is unpredictable as are the majority of processes and using goal orientation allows them to be user-defined and -coordinated.
  3. Orthodox BPM, even those with added rules, linked social features, and semantic searches lack the meta-data repository for a definable ontology as a prerequisite for adaptive processes.

PS: I am not against process management. I oppose the concept that human business interactions are improved by flowcharting them or that human knowledge can be encoded. So I am all for a new kind of BPM that is adaptive and empowers business people.


About Max J. Pucher

I am the founder and Chief Technology Officer of Papyrus Software, a medium size software company offering solutions in communications and process management around the globe. I am also the owner and CEO of MJP Racing, a motorsports company focused on Rallycross or RX, a form of circuit racing on mixed surfaces that has been around for 40 years. I hold 8 national and international championship titles in RX. My team participates in the World Championship along Petter Solberg, Sebastian Loeb and Ken Block.
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