Last year I traveled the world and talked about defining an organizational culture that is great for service excellence. These discussions were not about a particular culture, but about the importance of considering culture when implementing new working methods, specifically, when exploring knowledge-centered support (KCS).
From this journey and other reading, I began to wonder how vital the company culture is to these methods.
What is company culture?
Geert Hofstede, the late Dutch social psychologist, IBM employee, and professor emeritus of organizational anthropology and international management at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, is best known for developing one of the earliest and most popular frameworks for measuring cultural dimensions in a global perspective. He pioneered research on cross-cultural groups and organizations, and was excellent at comparing different countries and their cultures based on his pioneered six-dimensional cultural category scale.
But Hofstede also created a model to describe a culture in general. This model can be used for defining the company and even departmental culture. Culture is most often described as the shared ethos of an organization. It's the way people feel about the work they do, the values they possess, where they see the company going, and what they're doing to get it there.
Culture is like an iceberg. Only the top is visible. What lies below the surface is the foundation of each organization’s culture. The culture below the surface is usually unknown, vague, or intangible. Hofstede’s model is perfect to explain the parts of the culture that is above and below the surface. It is an onion model, one you can peel off different layers to expose the interior.
The importance of values
At the core of the onion are values. Values are defined, slow to change, and influenced by the history of the organization's people. Values are ideas that tell what in life is considered necessary. Describing or discussing them can be difficult, and outsiders cannot directly see them.
A strong organizational culture keeps your company’s core values front and center in all aspects of its day-to-day operations and organizational structure. The value of doing so is incalculable. People find out that culture becomes more and more critical in the strategy for success.
A thriving organizational culture brings together the people at your company and keeps them aligned. When your culture is transparent, different perspectives can gather behind it with a common purpose. Your organization's culture sets expectations for how people behave and work together and how they function as a team. In this way, culture can break down the boundaries between siloed teams, guide decision-making, and improve workflow overall.
Organizational culture is essential, but you need to be aware of your own culture, its values, and unlock the core of the organization or department.
Now let’s cover KCS a bit. Remember, this is an example of the importance of culture in implementation. This could easily count for agile or a new helpdesk system, but knowledge management is a great way to work through this work.
Knowledge-centered service is not just about support anymore. Helpdesk employees spend a lot of time every day repeatedly answering the same questions. When an operator doesn't have the answer at hand, it's not always easy to find it there and then. Knowledge-centered service then is a creative way of sharing and reusing your team’s expertise. For example, your support staff creates a knowledge base using answers to customer questions, which they can share with end users.
These knowledge items are also available to other operators, helping them efficiently answer the same questions. And if the solution provided is insufficient, the operator can adjust the knowledge item or create a new one. Knowledge-centered service is an easy way to make your services smart, quick, and scalable.
KCS centralizes the management of knowledge. This will lead to a shift left movement, where information is brought closer to the end user, which benefits both employees and customers. Rolling out KCS is easy. KCS is a well-thought-out process, it doesn’t require difficult skills to participate in, and anyone in the organization can do it. KCS is process change.
So why isn’t every organization that implements it successful? That’s because KCS can’t be just a process change; it must be embedded into a company's culture. Yet understanding culture is challenging and demands some research.
I can’t emphasize enough the value of understanding the cultural baseline” and nuances of departments and teams or knowing what the core is and what drives the employees to success. Identifying ways for KCS to work within those cultural norms is vital. Some behaviors may need to change completely; others may need to be modified to include KCS. The flexibility is crucial, without compromising the basic KCS practices required for success.
In a KCS case study I once read, I found the following quote: “KCS is a journey, not a destination; it’s an adoption, not an implementation.” Cheesy but true. KCS doesn't have a clear ending; therefore, embedding it is crucial.
You need to understand and examine your organization’s culture to understand how knowledge sharing can be a part of it. In the same case study that I read containing the cheesy quote, I also read the following: “By fostering a knowledge-sharing culture, we’ve dedicated our organization to getting the right answers to the right people when they need it, not a moment later.”
It’s easy to tell people they need to use, flag, fix, and add knowledge to their organizations, but if you don’t talk about why organizations are doing something, they likely won’t stay engaged. Therefore, you need to figure out what makes a department tick, what they find valuable, and discover an organization's core values.
Not All or Nothing
KCS does not need to be an all-or-nothing proposition; it has to work within your cultural framework. Our organization elected to only partially implement KCS because implementing it fully did not match who we were as a department or company; it sometimes did not align fully with our three core values - trust, freedom, and responsibility.
Let me explain why a bit more fully.
Let's take our first core value: responsibility. Here, our value was a perfect match with KCS. The responsibility for making sure that a knowledge item is up-to-date and complete lies with the person who last used the item. This means that every single person at a support helpdesk has the same responsibility.
That even includes the employees that just started. It doesn’t matter if you worked here for six years, months, or days, at TOPdesk, it is a match because when we explain the value of responsibility, we mean feeling responsibility for each team, each branch, and the company itself. The reason for this value is to help all of us, individually, share in the sense of success and failure. Additionally, taking responsibility for your life: Control is in your power.
This means you can start making a difference as soon as you start working at TOPdesk. Motivation: an individual’s drive for results comes internally. Teamwork results in a feeling of responsibility for each other and knowing that others' results depend on your ability to get things done.
For us, it was remarkable that the new generation of employees quickly adapted to the KCS way of working. There was, however, a group of golden oldies that hesitated during this transformation. A group of four people responsible for the implementation created specific training for this group. During this training, they showed the added value of KCS and highlighted their responsibility for getting correct knowledge items. In that training, we linked back to one of our core values that everyone knows - trust.
In our case, we describe trust as: you’re expected to do your best and to take the initiative. You’re trusted to do what’s best by the organization as much as possible. Be honest about your weaknesses. Trust provides a feeling of comfort for those working in the organization: it's good to know that no one feels you should be continuously micromanaged.
The responsibility you give to everyone can't work without a fair amount of trust. Full and strict adoption of KCS means that someone who approves the knowledge items before they go live. This is where we steered away a bit. In our opinion, we determined that anyone who becomes a happy employee while going through many selections of new and adjusted knowledge items wasn’t a good fit. When an organization is less hierarchical, this approvement seems to be an inefficient way. If you take away that approval step in the process, trust becomes an essential element. Besides, adjusting some incorrect knowledge items afterward saves more time than checking and approving them all upfront.
You need to make sure that you can trust the team and that they trust each other. KCS is part of the evaluation of teams and individuals. But in a trusted environment, you don't use the exact amount of created knowledge items for appraisals. However, you can use the linking percentage between knowledge items and incidents as a starting point of a qualitative conversation with individuals.
Freedom is an outcome made possible by trust and responsibility together: If people are responsible and trusted, they get our third core value - freedom. Freedom is when you find ways to add value to the company and take the business forward. If you’re a free member of a team, you’re empowered, know that your opinion counts, and can speak your mind. You have the freedom to find your methods.
Some excellent outcomes are agility and flexibility, including a hands-on approach, relatively few set processes, and internal documentation. Diverse outcomes with many new initiatives mean some blossom into unexpected, exciting projects. Confidence, likewise, is knowing you can think for yourself and suggest ideas however unorthodox they might be.
But for us, KCS is not meant to be a strict process. It is an organic way to manage knowledge. We used small bits of guidance for help. Giving employees the freedom to decide themselves which experience best serves their needs is the best portrait of an item that gets them to take action sooner is best for us. Ensure that users know that knowledge feedback doesn't need to be top-notch; instead, users should be encouraged to provide even small bits of information or even a couple of bullet points or screenshots, which can add value to the service delivery for others.
In the first phase of implementing KCS, you need a team that is responsible for actually undertaking the task. Once done with this initial phase, it's usually better to downscale that group’s effort to the point where there are only one or two people who are the go-to resource for knowledge management.
However, even after implementation, there are always improvements made to your processes. For example, encourage everyone to experience the freedom of initiating an improvement. Form a group to spearhead and lead specific improvements that adds value to the business.
KCS benefits many organizations with varying cultures in a lot of different ways. Understanding your culture helps with implementing new ways of working.
Ron van Haasteren has a pragmatic way in working on a strategic level across the globe, always taking the organization culture in mind. He is the global culture strategist for TOPdesk worldwide. As a passionate promotor, Ron strives to inspire service management professionals to focus on how cultural alignment adds value to the business. Ron has over eight years of experience in service management, communication, organizational culture, and employee engagement. On these topics, Ron is also a public speaker for many industry leading events in Europe and North America.