You have to admit that knowledge management (KM) is hard — it’s hard to explain, hard to implement, hard to do right. It’s not just technology. It is a combination of organizational realignment, process change, and technology combined in the right recipe that is needed to make KM successful. And when it is successful, it delivers real results — reduced handle times, increased agent productivity and first closure rates, better agent consistency, increased customer satisfaction. Check out the case studies on any of the KM vendors' sites to see real statistics. Yet despite these success stories, and despite there being commercially viable KM solutions on the market for over 10 years, I am unsure whether KM really ever crossed the chasm.  

Why is it then that we are seeing renewed interest in KM in 2011? I believe it’s attributed to listening (and acting on) the voice of agents and customers, coupled with loosening the strings of tightly controlled content that has breathed new life into KM. Most common trends include:

  • Using more flexible authoring workflows. In the past, knowledge was authored by editors who were not on the frontlines of customer service, who foreshadowed questions that they thought customers would ask, and who used language that was not consistent with customer-speak. Authored content would go through a review cycle, finally being published days after it was initially authored. Today, many companies are implementing “just-in-time” authoring where agents fielding questions from customers, not backroom editors, create content that is immediately available in draft form to other agents. Content is then evolved based on usage, and most frequently, used content is published to a customer site, making knowledge leaner and more relevant to real-life situations.
  • Letting customers and agents contribute to knowledge. Customers are able to interact with knowledge, flagging knowledge that is incomplete or inaccurate and recommending changes to it. Agents with authoring privileges can make updates on the fly to correct inaccuracies and push updates out instantly.
  • Adopting a reputation model for contributors and content. Many companies now allow content to be rated. Agents can also be identified with, for example, a five-star reputation model, as can customers who recommend knowledge. Highly ranked customers can be given limited authoring rights to the knowledge base. A reputation model exposes the best content and contributors and also unintentionally puts a collective responsibility on a  customer service organization, pushing them to do the best job that they are able to.
  • Using a folksonomy. Customers don’t always think in the language that a company uses. Companies are now allowing their content to be tagged so that customers can find content not only by navigating the company-driven taxonomy but by also using a tag cloud.
  • Using multimedia. Sometimes words don’t adequately describe a problem, and it is better to see or to hear the problem. Multimedia content is becoming more prevalent in knowledge bases, helping with usability. Multimedia content can also be extracted from the KB and posted on YouTube or support sites so that it can be accessed by users on sites that they actively engage in.
  • Adopting social media tools to broadcast changes. Companies, like VMware (@VMwarekb), are using Twitter to broadcast changes to knowledge base content to their followers, proactively pushing out workarounds, new tips and tricks and new content to customers before they encounter issues, and as a result, they are able to deflect calls from their contact center.
  • Making your knowledge base a step in the support cycle, not a dead end. Customers want to help themselves and interact with peers sometimes even before interacting with a company. Companies are enabling this behavior by offering forums tightly integrated to their web self-service site. Customers searching for answers can view forum threads and knowledge base content in search results. And if they are unable to find what they are looking for, they can escalate to assisted channels like email, chat, or voice and have their session history passed to the agent.

Not all industries can adopt these trends, but all industries can adopt some form of feedback system to gauge the effectiveness of content and use agent and customer impressions to fine-tune the content that is delivered to users.