Anyone with experience in IT support knows the importance of knowledge in reducing resolution time. Anyone with math skills can extrapolate business value from rapid resolution. Despite its obvious benefits, Knowledge Management (KM) remains a frustration for a vast majority of enterprises. Why?
Because organizations continue to approach KM as a monolithic publication effort with ancillary inputs from Incident and Problem Management.
By combining principles from Knowledge Centered Support (KCS) with the ITIL framework and a few basic workflows, an enterprise with the right cultural mindset can make KM work with far less effort.
The Objective of IT Knowledge Management
IT’s need for Knowledge Management is not complex. Although ITIL lists five objectives to KM and KCS and boils it down to the “creation, use and evolution of knowledge”, this article, because of its focus on IT support, is more specific:
The objective of IT Knowledge Management is to create, maintain and make available concise and actionable information to users and IT support groups in order to resolve service disruptions quickly and respond to customer queries satisfactorily.
The challenge is to collect, maintain, and make that knowledge accessible.
Flailing and Failing
How well are IT organizations managing their knowledge? Do support agents have rapid access to current knowledge for a vast majority of customer contacts?
Does the enterprise require waves of knowledge initiatives to address a stagnant knowledge lifecycle? Is there a group of knowledge authors scrambling to review and update solutions? Are stale solutions common?
Gone are the days of separate knowledge applications run by a core team of authors. The monolithic approach to KM works no better today than it did 10 years ago but many organizations continue to flail about in an attempt to write the definitive support encyclopedia.
For organizations to achieve the objectives of KM, they must move toward distributed, open-source authorship.
If solution content originates at the point of problem support, where should authorship take place? This past weekend, I spent hours on the phone with a satellite TV provider trying to fix a problem on a secondary satellite receiver. After two hours, I noticed that the coax cable had a little red device on it and mentioned it to the support agent. “Oh my Gosh!”, she cried. “That device blocks the receiver from communicating with the parent receiver. The instructions should have had me check that right away”. When I asked how hard it was to update the solution, she replied that she was already doing it. This is how to make KM effective.
One must drive content to the lowest possible level and implement a flexible, role-based approval mechanism that deploys the updated solution with minimal fuss.
Knowledge Management is Integral, Not Additional
Most organizations have implemented one or more repositories of “solutions” and most of those organizations struggle to encourage adoption by users and authors. The ineffectiveness of Knowledge Management derives from just a few basic misunderstandings:
- Centralized authorship simply does not work.
- If we look at Incident and Problem Management as recipes, Knowledge Management must be a primary ingredient rather than a garnish.
- Because the Service Desk is the face of IT and depends so heavily on an effective Knowledge Base, agent input must be dynamic and empowered.
- The Knowledge Management workflow must be flexible to support distributed authorship and review.
- Authorship and article utilization deserve meaningful rewards as an incentive for adoption.
To address these issues, one needs to employ a mixture of wisdom from several sources. There are a number of standards for Knowledge Management.
So Many Knowledge Management Standards
Knowledge Management does not make standardization easy. While this article discusses IT Knowledge Management, a standard cannot ignore the management of content and documents across the enterprise. In general, the standards with broader scope will offer less prescriptive guidance for IT managers.
(ITIL) – ISO/IEC 20000 – ITIL’s approach to Knowledge Management is academic. Though the inputs from Problem Management and Incident Management are clearly defined, ITIL is tentative in demanding the required participation and ITIL provides scant guidance in establishing a workflow.
Knowledge Centered Support – though not an official standard, KCS is comprehensive and its approach maps best to the real world. KCS emphasizes that KM must be incorporated into the process flows of both Incident and Problem Management. This paper draws heavily on KCS.
Though this article focuses on ITIL and KCS, there are other standards worthy of mention:
Standards Australia International is Australia’s non-government standards body and is a member of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). The SAI publishes “AS 5037-2005 Knowledge Management – A Guide”.
European Committee for Standardization has published standard “CWA-14924″ in five parts. Part 1 lays out a framework and basic KM steps (Identify, Create, Store, Share, Use) but is weak on workflow guidance. There is considerable guidance on project management.
British Standards Institute publishes “PAS2001:2001 Knowledge Management”, a high-level document with limited value for process design and implementation.
KCS Plus ITIL
Though ITIL is weak in Knowledge Management guidance, the overall framework encourages integration. As the document “KCS Overview” states, “KCS is not something a support organization does in addition to solving problems, KCS becomes the process for solving problems.” While ITIL talks about inputs and outputs, KCS incorporates Knowledge Management into the processes used for solving problems. When organizations “implement” ITIL, Knowledge Management is often a separate implementation driven by the Service Desk. As for Incident and Problem Management, the processes and tools may allow integration but typically act as feeds to the monolithic Knowledge Management team.
Because the typical implementation of Knowledge Management relies heavily on one or a few core teams of authors to generate content, the process flow includes numerous points of review and approval. Each point represents a bottleneck.
When Knowledge Management drives rather than follows the problem resolution process, it transforms itself and its dependent processes into an elegantly simple and self-sustaining engine for efficiency.
Below is the simplified workflow for solution creation (with KCS states noted):
This simplified flow relies heavily on issue responders (i.e. Service Desk, technical support) to initiate and update the “solution”. For this to succeed, the tools and processes of the responders must efficiently enable contribution. Furthermore, the organization must meaningfully reward such contribution.
This approach is in stark contrast to the monolithic Knowledge Management group where a small number of “authors” provide solutions to issue responders. One need only tour the Service Desk of such an organization to gauge the success of such an effort. Support personnel maintain their own notes with yellow stickies, notebooks, and heterogeneous repositories. Hop rates (call transfers) are high. FCR (first contact resolution) is low. Customer satisfaction suffers.
Knowledge Creation Baked into Incident and Problem Management
In the “Knowledge Article Creation” diagram, steps 4 and 5 are pivotal. Within these steps, the agent must have a quick way to create or update solutions. A single tool should allow the agent to respond to calls, create incident records, search knowledge solutions and update those knowledge solutions. The approval process should be simple while allowing for variation of depth.
In figure 2, many organizations are concerned that step 8 (Document Solution) will encumber the responder, thereby increasing service costs. In the absence of prudent guidelines, such concern is well founded. One can address this concern by limiting input in step 8 to simple solutions and updates. Anything more should be deferred to a sub-process for Solution Review (step 10). Step 10 can be distributed across numerous organizational units, allowing the responder’s department to update the solutions upon which they depend. Basically, step 8 only works if the workflow and toolset enable the responder to complete the task very quickly.
Solution Creation Reward System
Rewards, an important contributor to Knowledge Management success, are based on Key Performance Indicators such as those listed below:
- Most articles created/updated in past 30 days.
- Highest average user rating in past 30 days.
- Total articles deemed “useful” by at least 90% of users in past year.
- Most articles used to solve a problem in past 30 days.
For a reward to have meaning, it must be deemed of high value. This does not mean that it must be expensive. Although, recognition is a major component of any reward, the organization can budget for gifts such as gift certificates, parking space, cash, merchandise, CIO lunch, group outing, etc. Be creative and make it desirable for employees.
Solution Creation and the Challenge of Outsourcing
By asking support personnel to create and update solutions, some organizations introduce a conflict. When an enterprise measures the value of an agent by call volume, what incentive does the agent have to take the time to produce solutions?
There are three parts to this answer:
- First, it may be necessary, especially for service desk agents, to limit the time spent on each solution.
- Second, the organization can use both call volume and solution updates as measures.
- Third, keep the solutions simple. The “KCS Practices Guide” provides excellent guidelines on article composition. More importantly, the KCS approach relies on both “Solve” and “Evolve” to maintain article health. Thus, an agent can start the article lifecycle with a quick but readable note and later, others can enhance the article with updates.
Let’s look at two examples:
- Quick Solution Update – an agent deals with an incident where the solution is correct but the steps are slightly out of order. Without delaying the resolution for the customer, the agent has already begun the update. The call ends and the agent spends less than five minutes to complete the update. Next call.
- New Solution – an agent cannot find a knowledge solution for the incident but is able to resolve the incident with quick input from another source. Recognizing that the issue is likely to recur, the agent take five additional minutes (after the call) to document the steps taken during the call and submit the solution for review. If the solution is incomplete, the reviewer can prevail upon the agent or another SME to enhance it. For the agent, such work would have no impact on call volume measurement.
Solution creation becomes more complex when suppliers are involved. Although the execution remains under supplier control, the client company should provide contractual incentives (and penalties) for knowledge participation based on KPIs. From past experience, it would be prudent to measure both knowledge contribution and knowledge quality while also reviewing the supplier’s workflow to ensure capability. This arrangement often requires an additional approval mechanism at the supplier level.
This is very broad guidance. For more detailed instructions on KM project management, I have found CWA-14924 (mentioned above) to be comprehensive.
- Find the Right Partner – clearly, an organization needs more than a librarian and a tool. Consider partnering with an experienced service company. Your partner should have wisdom in the areas of ITSM strategy, solution taxonomy, Service Catalog, workflow design, Knowledge Centered Support, and ITIL Service Transition. Ideally, the partner can also provide deep technical expertise for implementation.
- Establish a Value Proposition – yes, this should probably be number one but, frankly, the right partner makes this much simpler and will often include such assistance as part of pre-sales. The point is to build an Initial Business Case. This is not terribly complex as it is often based on call center efficiency – an area where organizations typically maintain lots of measurement data. Again, the partner should assist with supportable expectations for improvement.
- Build a Coalition – combined with Knowledge Management thought leadership, present the Business Case to key decision makers and stakeholders in order to build a coalition for the initiative. Although the audience will participate in further planning, the overall initiative depends heavily on the enthusiasm generated here.
- Design a Knowledge Management Strategy – this is an opportunity to strengthen the coalition and spread the good news. If there is consensus that Knowledge Management is crucial to effective IT support, then any strategy will address the inclusion of Incident Management, Problem Management, and Service Desk in the Knowledge Management strategy. The strategy will address taxonomy (Service Catalog, Request Fulfillment and CMDB involvement), integration and task prioritization (roadmap).
- Toolset Review (optional) – the KM strategy may have identified issues around the current toolset(s). Which tools support the integration with (or perhaps subordination of) Incident and Problem Management? Which tools provide a flexible workflow? Does the business case support the replacement of current tools? How will tool replacement impact outsourcing arrangements? If called for, evaluate and select replacement software.
- KM Implementation– This step deserves its own separate article. Aside from the usual and extensive project management advice, the following points are worth noting:
- Develop a comprehensive Communication Plan to market KM.The KCS requires a cultural shift to a distributed and empowered communication model.
- Provide meaningful rewards for solution creation, update, and utilization.
- The key to success may well be the changes in Incident/Problem Management.
- Be wary of timelines greater than 4-6 months. If that seems incredibly short, either the scope or the supplier is off track.
- This project is well suited to an “agile” approach (iterations rather than a big push).
Niels Bohr, Nobel physicist, philosopher and unheralded hero, wrote:
“An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made in a very narrow field.”
As I never seem to exhaust my capacity for error, I doubt that I am an expert in much of anything. Still, this article is an attempt to share a response to a series of missteps in Knowledge Management. If you have not already done so, I advise that you at least read the “KCS Overview”. If, as I maintain, we have been wrong-headed in our KM struggles, this may help set you on a more reasoned path. We should, in light of today’s emphasis on social media, understand that knowledge increases in value as the number of synapses (contributors) increase. In essence, I entreat you to spread the word!