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Review of Mastering the Unpredictable

April 4, 2011

I want to continue my series of posts on advanced (or adaptive) case management (ACM) with a book review. On the advice of a colleague, Mike Nishiki, a few weeks ago I picked up Mastering the Unpredictable, a collection of ACM essays edited by Keith D. Swenson, VP of R&D for Fujitsu.

I’ll begin by saying that as far as I know this is the only book on ACM out there–so there’s nothing to compare it to. Given the relatively recent emergence of ACM as a domain, this isn’t surprising. But it does present two challenges for a reviewer…

First, it means that this book is by default a must read for folks wanting to learn more about ACM, because there’s nowhere else to go! Yes, there are white papers and blog posts out there, but the former are mostly written by (or at the behest of) vendors (enough said) and the latter are by their very nature going to offer lighter-weight treatments of ACM than you can get in a book-length offering.

Second, it means that there isn’t anything to compare it to, so a review can’t speak to the book’s merits relative to other works on the subject–it’s by default the best (or worst) book out there!

With these two caveats in mind, let’s dive in…

As a primer on ACM, the book is definitely a success. If someone who knew nothing about ACM, BPM, and the whole raging debate around the two read this book, they’d be well armed to make up their own mind about the issue.

Beyond that, the book has all the strengths and weaknesses you’d expect from a collection of essays. On the plus side, it tackles ACM from a range of perspectives: from private sector to public sector, from insurance and financial services to manufacturing and health care, from SMB to global F500 organizations, the authors show us ACM in many different contexts. Also on the plus side, each chapter is self-contained, so readers can dip in and out of the text in whatever order to get what they need, which makes the work very practical to use.

On the down side, there’s a real uneveness here between authors, both in terms of the quality of their writing and the way they treat their subject matter. You expect some of this from a collection of essays, but to me it’s a bit more extreme here than I would have liked–at times it seems more like a loose aggregation of conference papers than a polished book. Also on the down side, the material can get a bit repetitive if you read it from start to finish. It’s the flip side of having each chapter be stand-alone, but it does make it a little challenging to read the book cover to cover.

For those of you looking to target individual chapters, here are the ones I found most useful as stand-alone offerings:

  • Chapter 1: The Nature of Knowledge Work, Keith D. Swenson
  • Chapter 2: What to Do When Modeling Doesn’t Work, Jacob P. Ukelson
  • Chapter 4: Technology for Case Management, John T. Mathias
  • Chapter 5: The Elements of Adaptive Case Management, Max J. Pucher
  • Chapter 8: Healthcare, David Hollingsworth
  • Chapter 9: Improving Knowledge Work, Frank Michael Kraft
  • Chapter 13: Historical Perspective, Keith D. Swenson

The final word

All in all, this is a solid work on ACM. Given the how recently the domain has emerged into general consciousness, the book is an important contribution to the field and will be of great use to folks inside and outside BPM.

As the domain matures, and as proven technology solutions emerge to address ACM, this work (or another) will need to deal with ACM technology in a more tangible way, i.e., by discussing actual systems and solutions rather than hypothetical ones. But for now, there’s not much proven technology out there, so this evolution will need to wait on the market.

That’s my two cents. I’d love to hear from folks out there who read the book to find out what they thought of it–jump in, and let’s get the conversation started!

6 Comments leave one →
  1. April 4, 2011 1:52 pm

    As far as I can tell, all the authors of this book work for product vendors that are (or are planning to) offering ACM products or capabilities. Not sure, then, whether this is much different to the white papers and blogs you refer to…
    It’s not a bad book, but the inherent biases are worth keeping in mind.

    • April 4, 2011 2:01 pm


      You’re right that most of these folks work for SW vendors, but I think this book stands apart from vendor-sponsored white papers in that it isn’t being presented from the perspective of any one vendor. Admittedly, they all feel that SW of some sort will address the ACM problem, so that is a certain kind of bias…but their take on ACM is not from any single vendor perspective–a real plus for me.

      Anyway, thanks for diving in and getting the conversation started…I appreciate it!



  2. April 6, 2011 12:12 am

    Thanks for the review! Well done.

    It is true that most of the authors come from vendors. A couple notably don’t. Nathaniel Palmer and Frank Michael Kraft works as a consultants, and John Matthias comes from the National Center for the State Courts. In many ways John was the initial motivation for the book because he came to the WfMC complaining the BPM software was just not doing the job for the state courts which have, among other things, such unpredictable courses of events. He had written a couple of papers presented at Legal conferences describing the kind of system he would like to see, and that is the essence of chapter 4 in Mastering the Unpredictable.

    There is, as you point out, a diverse set of views. We knew that a new category of technology was needed, and we also knew that the category would need some time to breath before it was placed into a well defined box. Had we attempted to come to a fully unified vision of exactly what was in and what was out of ACM, I felt that the end result would fall short of the real potential, due to the dynamics of “design by committee”. Instead, I encouraged a variety of opinions to form a sort of discussion through which the reader could understand the true potential. A visionary’s path is never concrete.

    Hopefully we have at least opened your eyes to some aspect of ACM that you did not previously know. This would be the success we were looking for.

    • April 6, 2011 6:27 am


      It’s a real honor to have you take the time to jump in and join the conversation!

      Thanks for the clarification on the author/vendor question, because, as I said in my reply to Neil, this doesn’t at all feel like a vendor white paper.

      And I would also second your thought that, “a visionary’s path is never concrete”–you and your co-authors have tackled an emerging, murky, and contentious domain that’s incredibly important to how organizations function. It’s a real boon to have such a wide variety of perspectives and approaches between two covers…so thanks again for leading us on these first steps down that path…



  3. April 20, 2015 6:29 am

    Thanks for giving the information. It will help me lot.


  1. Review from Agile Ramblings « Mastering The Unpredictable

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