Knowledge-Centered Support: Not Just for IT Anymore


by Steve McMillan


The University of Phoenix’s Technical Assistance Center (TAC) handles more than 1.6 million student and faculty contacts per year, including incidents, service requests, and urgent “how-to” training opportunities. In 2010, the TAC was looking for an effective way to guide the knowledge management process for an incredibly fast-paced support center and ultimately improve the student and faculty experience.

To help the TAC manage information in our constantly changing and evolving environment, we decide to implement the Knowledge-Centered Support (KCS) methodology. KCS allows for real-time knowledge management and provides a continuous feedback loop, features that are essential for successfully maintaining the information we use and need.

Most importantly, KCS emphasizes the capture, structure, reuse, and improvement of knowledge by the very people that need it and use it the most: the frontline agents who support customers every day. Rather than populate a knowledge base with information that developers, engineers, or managers think is important, KCS puts the responsibility for content creation, change, and retirement directly into the hands of the agents. The opportunity to both contribute information and participate in the management of KCS can be tremendously empowering for frontline agents.

Our KCS Success Story

By early 2012, KCS was ingrained in the TAC culture: almost all of the TAC’s 170+ agents were licensed in a KCS role: Candidate, Contributor, Publisher, Coach, or Knowledge Domain Expert. Managers attributed the 15-percent decrease in training time to the availability of real-time knowledge, while directors celebrated statistics that showed that some knowledge articles had solved more than 100,000 student issues via self-service. KCS was then, and is now, considered a massive success.

Based on its success in the TAC, KCS soon gained attention in other areas of the business. As just one example, the Contact Centers (CC), responsible for handling inbound and outbound student queries, adopted KCS, with a few modifications, to help it more effectively serve its customers.

Although the TAC and the CC are both parts of the University’s operations, these departments have different focuses and unique cultures. While the TAC is responsible for student and faculty support, the CC focuses on student services and routing. With this in mind, the CC took the TAC’s feedback and lessons learned and redefined its primary work packages, in some cases shortening them and in other areas increased them, based on past experience.

The CC had little experience with real time-knowledge, but they were eager to bridge the service gap. The results speak for themselves: in less than one year, the CC had a high percentage of staff licensed in the KCS methodology, more than 2,300 articles had been written and approved, and there was a 60-percent increase in knowledge article views compared to legacy routing tables.

Best Practices for Success in KCS

Based on the University’s experience, here are some recommendations for successfully implementing KCS. 

  1. Leadership buy-in: KCS requires time, commitment, and a change in the way people work to be fully successful. Unexpected surprises, such as the sudden departure of a single sponsor, can derail any project, and KCS is no exception. Buy-in from the executive level down is required to keep any program on track.

    How we did it: The formula was simple: pilot the process in a target environment (the TAC), then solicit and receive approval from VP-level management in that environment. Based on its success with KCS, the TAC conducted “roadshows” to demonstrate the value to other internal business areas. As time passed and the program’s reputation grew, more managers began to seek approval to implement KCS in other business areas. With additional success in non-IT business units, KCS is rapidly becoming the official knowledge management methodology of the University of Phoenix. 
  2. Make reporting a priority: Executive buy-in is usually based on meeting or exceeding certain expectations, such as a reduced time to resolution, increased customer satisfaction, or decreased cost of an area as a percentage of overall revenue. To demonstrate success with KCS, it’s essential to baseline these key performance indicators (KPIs) and report against them. It’s important to note that progress can be easily measured against established baselines, as long as the you choose the right KPIs.

    How we did it: By piloting KCS in the TAC, we took advantage of the standard contact center reporting and expectations that were already in place. Industry-standard metrics, such as handle time, cost per contact, abandoned rate, and customer satisfaction data from transactional surveys, were already ingrained in the operation. 
  3. Align your metrics with the new KCS world: Established contact center and support metrics are often not “fit for purpose” in the post-KCS world. Ensure your metrics account for this fundamental change in support behaviors and not the old standards that are swiftly becoming meaningless.

    How we did it: Cost per case is the primary KPI in our organization, but if we relied on that metric alone, KCS would have been judged a failure. Why? As staff-created knowledge content is added to self-service portals and begins to deflect easily-resolved customer issues, self-service adoption increases. The number of incidents presented to a business unit will then decrease, leaving agents with more time to focus on difficult issues. The resulting costs per case will climb, and increased costs can be misleading, giving observers the impression that KCS has failed. To align our metrics with KCS, we replaced cost per case with the cost of support as a percentage of revenue, though we continue to monitor cost per case. 
  4. Get the training team involved: KCS changes the way an organization works, and it requires an organization to have change agents at every level—particularly among the trainers themselves. Make them part of the process from the beginning; don’t just hand them a manual and give them minutes to prepare, because your success hinges on how well trained your knowledge workers are, whether they’re frontline agents, managers, directors, or even executives.

    How we did it: KCS training has become a key part of the adoption process. The training team has built custom training packages that can be tailored to each new business unit, as well as created operational training processes for new employees using legacy KCS programs. 
  5. Choose the right coaches: KCS Coaches, or those frontline staff certified in coaching, are critical to identifying and reinforcing the appropriate knowledge behaviors. To ensure success, fill these roles with individuals that have strong people skills.

    How we did it: When conducting our search for the right KCS Coach candidates, we established a set of primary objectives for the role: 
    • Encourage KCS adoption and model good knowledge management best practices for peers and the target audience. 
    • Mentor knowledge-workers on the KCS path to help them reach the next level of competency and contribution. 
    • Work with other Coaches, Knowledge Domain Experts, and management to identify improvement opportunities for the overall lifecycle of the KCS process. 
    • Rewards and recognition: Many organizations fail when it comes to rewarding the appropriate behaviors in any area. Rewards and recognition are not necessarily about money; rather, they’re about praising employees, both publicly and privately, for making a program a success. KCS is no different.

      How we did it: One great low-cost incentive we used was certificates, delivered with much fanfare, that indicated an agent’s level of KCS proficiency. Also, the TAC hung posters featuring KCS Superheroes, cartoons created by technically-minded, game-savvy employees, that celebrate agent success and reflect our vision for KCS; those posters still adorn the walls of the TAC and continue to inspire the agents who work there.

    What’s Next?

    The positive results with KCS in both the Technical Assistance Center and the Contact Centers have prompted several non-IT KCS projects at the University of Phoenix. Large departments, including Student Services and Human Resources, are already using KCS to help them better serve their clients, and we will continue to help other areas of the organization evaluate the benefits of KCS and implement the methodology to address their unique challenges.

     

    Steve McMillan is the director of enterprise knowledge management for the University of Phoenix. Steve and his team are responsible for designing, building, and maintaining standardized knowledge management methodologies and supporting technologies for UoPX, and with working with subsidiaries of the Apollo Education Group to implement knowledge management. Prior to assuming his current role at the University of Phoenix, Steve served as the director of the internal IT Service Desk, director of the Student IT Help Desk, and lead director of IT Infrastructure Operations.

    Tag(s): KCS, trends, case study

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