Knowledge management is a hot topic in our industry, with more and more organizations making it a priority each year. And as with any enterprise initiative, such as ITIL, outsourcing, or any number of equally dynamic implementations, it’s success depends on the participation and buy-in of the C-level down to the front line. Research, planning, preparation, flexibility, and executive support: these are all key components of successful knowledge management initiatives.
But, what exactly is knowledge management? What kind of ROI can it provide? And, how do we get started?
At the most fundamental level, knowledge management is capturing, developing, sharing, and effectively using organizational knowledge. Knowledge has been shared since humans were living in caves (literal tribal knowledge), but for the purposes of this discussion we’re concerned with knowledge in the context of the support organization and the enterprise (non-IT business units, like HR, facilities, finance, etc.), which is a more recent trend.
Knowledge and computing have gone hand in hand since the first mainframes were rolled out. Those early decades were primitive though, IT’s caveman period: hard copies, binders, notes taped on monitors. There were few, if any, formal processes for capturing and evolving knowledge.
Fast forward several decades and you’ll see a distinct evolution. Businesses and institutions began creating proprietary knowledge bases, stored on internal networks, with very limited focus and target audiences. In time, software companies began developing software that would allow those same businesses and institutions to capture, develop (or evolve), share, and use organizational knowledge in a much more structured way. These knowledge solutions were hyped as cure-alls for a plethora of issues, from increasing first call resolution and self-service to lowering average handle time. However, a tool is never the only solution, and many, if not most, knowledge tools implemented in this early period were defunct within a year or two, three-letter footnotes in the company’s history.
Then, in the early 1990s, the Consortium for Service Innovation, a nonprofit alliance of support organizations, initiated the development of a methodology and formal set of processes for knowledge management, which became known as Knowledge-Centered Support (KCS). With the input and support of industry heavyweights like Oracle, Compaq, 3Com, Novell, Verisign, and BlackBerry, KCS became the industry standard for knowledge management.
The four pillars of KCS are:
- Create content as a by-product of solving problems
- Evolve content based on demand and usage
- Develop a knowledge base to serve as a repository for an organization’s collective experience
- Reward learning, collaborating, sharing, and improving
While these may seem simplistic, for some organizations they’re revolutionary. And, looking at each item, we can see why they should be intuitive for any organization.
Create content as a by-product of solving problems
As a support manager, I’ve seen countless technicians, and a large number of my peers, fall victim to the fallacy that documentation is something you do after everything is resolved, usually on Friday afternoons when we had free time, unless we forgot or ran out of time...
The problem is, knowledge is needed right away—not next week or whenever you can get around to it. Embracing the first KCS component addresses the immediate need for documented solutions. It encourages analysts and technicians to document and publish their solutions as they solve issues, making it available when it is needed most, and to the widest possible audience.
But, how do you know a solution is valid? In other words, how can you trust that your analysts and technicians are drafting documentation that’s worthy of being published/shared? KCS recommends organizations create several KCS-specific roles, with individuals receiving training on formats, templates, appropriate verbiage, etc., and acquiring more authority and access to the knowledge system as they move from role to role. These roles include:
KCS Candidate: A basic user of the knowledge base, familiar with capture and search techniques and the basic concepts of KCS.
KCS Contributor: Creates, modifies, and reviews KCS articles for a defined audience (usually internal users only).
KCS Publisher: Empowered to publish material to an external audience.
KCS Coach: A change agent and KCS practice expert who supports the development of KCS competencies and the progression of staff through the KCS roles.
Even with the support of all four roles, documentation can be messy. After all, knowledge is messy! The reality of technical service and support is that even thoroughly tested software and systems will have issues (that’s why we exist), and the people in the best position to capture and document the issues and the solutions are the analysts and technicians working on the front lines. The reward for all the effort that goes into creating pristine knowledge articles is higher first level resolution, higher self-service usage rates, and lower handle times.
Of course, once the process has been defined and implemented, and staff have been trained, your tools must be configured and customized to facilitate and encourage authoring knowledge “in the flow” of the incident. More and more organizations are investing in “one-click” knowledge, dedicating time and resources to ensure that as few steps as possible are required to document, search, and use knowledge, which pays off in time savings, employee satisfaction, and customer satisfaction.
Evolve content based on demand and usage
With KCS, there’s no need to vet each and every solution and article. If an issue occurs one time and one time only, there’s no need to spend any additional time making the article “perfect.”
As the technical teams (and, via self-service, the customers) interact with the knowledge base, repeat issues will draw attention to any articles that need to be addressed. If, in the course of following the steps in the solution, it becomes clear that an article needs to be edited or updated, the right people will do so.
The upside of this second KCS component is that, while perfectionism can be hard to shake (some people will have a hard time resisting fixing grammar and style errors), as the organization moves forward with spot editing, the savings in time and effort will win over the holdouts.
Develop a knowledge base to serve as a repository for an organization’s collective experience
Two heads really are better than one—imagine how much better fifty heads could be! KCS embraces the idea that pooling the collective knowledge and experience of a group of people can yield greater results than one person, sitting alone in a cubicle, cranking our knowledge articles in a vacuum.
You may have to address the concerns of individuals who worry that sharing their knowledge may mean giving up their job security. One way to handling these concerns is by acknowledging the contributions of seasoned employees, rewarding them for embracing knowledge management and recognizing them as thought leaders and valuable assets to the company.
Reward learning, collaborating, sharing, and improving
Knowledge management initiatives require much more than purchasing a tool, or one day of training, or a decree from the top levels of the organization. The organization’s culture must change. Individuals must be valued for the knowledge they contribute that enables the organization to be more effective and efficient.
Companies are increasingly turning to gamification as a means of recognizing and rewarding employees. When properly planned and executed, gamification draws participants in by rewarding desired behavior. For example, when an individual creates his or her first knowledge article, a badge or button is immediately displayed on their profile within the knowledge base or CRM system (ideally, the two systems should be linked). With each new action or contribution, individuals can earn new badges and accumulate points. Some examples of progressive awards include: first article linked to an incident, ten articles linked to incidents, all articles in one week linked to incidents, first article edited, three articles edited, first article authored, etc.
By using game design and mechanics to engage and incentivize individuals to create, edit, and use knowledge, organizations are finding that recognition stimulates adoption, and, in fact, creates a snowball effect within the organization.
Enterprise Knowledge Management
Once the principles of knowledge management are entrenched in one area of the organization (such as IT), organizations have realized that there are substantial benefits to be gained from expanding knowledge management to non-IT business units. By applying the same core concepts, companies are seeing the same payoff in HR, training, finance, etc. These departments are moving away from bloated intranets toward streamlined self-service portals, often by using the same tools and processes that were successfully implemented by IT.
In the near future, companies will have to start dealing with Grey2K, or the retirement of seasoned employees with decades of experience. When they leave, they’ll take the information stored in their heads with them. A strategic, enterprise-wide knowledge management initiative will enable companies to capture that information before it walks out the door.
Brandon Caudle is a seasoned service and support industry practitioner and consultant, with more than twenty years of experience working in and with Fortune 500 companies. Brandon was previously the service desk senior manager for one of the world’s largest insurance providers, where he drove ITIL and knowledge initiatives across multiple companies and countries. Today, Brandon uses his KCS expertise and experience to assess, implement, and evolve knowledge and CRM solutions throughout the technical service and support industry.