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Customer Relationship Management
May 2002


Tap Into The Power Of Knowledge Collaboration

By Warren Karlenzig, Dimension Data

It's no longer news that the 'new economy' bubble has burst, but it's also clear that the Internet has irreversibly altered the world's competitive landscape. Whether you call it the 'knowledge economy' or attach some other label to it, this new environment is defined by the way the Internet liberates knowledge in organizations by reducing the costs of storing and distributing data. This 'new economics of information' places increasing emphasis on the ways that companies employ information and is a fundamental tool in their struggles to compete and create value. For example, if you compare the valuation and balance sheets of the Fortune 500 today with 10 years ago, you will find that intangible assets (often another term for knowledge) play a significantly more important role than they ever did before.

To take full advantage of their intangible assets, companies are increasingly seeking out knowledge collaboration solutions that combine customer knowledge and widespread innovation in products and markets with sustained improvement of core capabilities and associated business processes, leading to the ultimate competitive advantage.

Knowledge collaboration is a strategic organizational approach that dynamically builds upon internal and external systems, business processes, technology and relationships (communities, customers, partners, suppliers) to maximize business performance. Knowledge collaboration demonstrates the extent to which a corporation has institutionalized processes for knowledge creation, capture, sharing and reuse as a fundamental means of creating value. These capabilities produce the greatest value when they are embedded in the fabric of an organization's culture, values, processes and reward systems. Corporations that want to succeed in the networked economy need to master knowledge collaboration.

Unfortunately, most knowledge workers engage in daily work processes that have not yet changed to reflect the imperatives and opportunities of the new environment. To remain competitive, organizations are turning to knowledge collaboration systems to develop new roles, structures, processes and systems for knowledge creation, capture and reuse. Large organizations have the most to gain from instituting knowledge collaboration programs, as they share best practices and competitive skill sets across previously siloed lines of business and departments. However, knowledge collaboration should not be confined within the walls of a single corporation. At its most effective, knowledge collaboration reaches out across the extended enterprise's web, maximizing partner channel revenues and supply chain efficiencies. Companies that successfully maximize their extended enterprise value webs follow an approach that dynamically builds upon internal and external communities, business processes, technology and customer relationships.

Like any new technology endeavor, strong leadership is crucial to the success of knowledge collaboration initiatives. The leadership ' both at the executive and in-the-trenches levels ' creates the organizational structures and professionals that are necessary in developing companywide and departmental initiatives. Only when senior executives become and remain champions of knowledge collaboration can it spread quickly and continue to provide the enterprise with the greatest returns.

While buy-in and support from senior executives is key, knowledge sharing also needs to be nurtured by small internal groups led by people who have direct access to senior management. These small groups provide strategic direction, are detail-driven and regularly interact with all departments. Employees may be initially suspicious of knowledge collaboration initiatives, but as they begin to see internal innovators and leaders tapping into the power of knowledge management (KM) tools, they will be drawn to the system, and momentum for the system's use will build.

One of the key responsibilities of any KM team is to support the work of both internal and external communities of practice. Informal but powerful, internal communities of practice form the connective tissue of the internetworked company by gathering together experts and enthusiasts based on particular themes, functions or experience. Extra-corporate communities of practice can include partners, buyers, suppliers, customers and other members of the value web. Online communities, which were originally established as a means to make Web sites stickier, have emerged as informal communities of practice and are now considered important strategic feedback tools.

Knowledge collaboration programs can prevent costly duplication of effort. While 'knowing what you know' is not a new corporate priority, today's Web-based applications better enable companies to capture and share best practices by aggregating documents in various digital formats, funneling them to a single repository and categorizing them according to appropriate taxonomies. Best practices programs can yield significant returns.

Today's knowledge collaboration systems combine the latest Internet technologies with search and customization tools to aggregate qualitative and quantitative information. The most effective of these active systems take into consideration the likelihood or necessity of users interacting with and building upon knowledge bases. The most common categories of tools for knowledge collaboration are:

  • Online knowledge databases,
  • Portals,
  • Web-based conferencing,
  • Collaborative project spaces,
  • Private exchanges, and
  • Expertise profiling tools.

An online knowledge database provides the backbone for most knowledge sharing initiatives. Serving as the most readily accessible form of the 'corporate memory,' a company's knowledge database provides global employees with around-the-clock access to a wide range of information and experiences. This shared access to material ' which is best facilitated through secure Internet access from any computer or handheld device ' breaks down the walls between people who are working on related projects, issues or customers in different time zones and countries. Knowledge databases also help make it possible to reconstruct intellectual capital that has been lost as a result of employee turnover.

In general, a portal ' be it corporate, customer or b-to-b trading community ' provides a single entry point to all necessary disparate systems, applications and databases. Its interface presents a common experience for all users regardless of their activities and is highly customizable to each user's needs. For example, highly mobile sales employees often require anytime, anywhere access capabilities, whereas research and development professionals usually require tools that provide fast access to large quantities of detailed information.

Another tool for knowledge collaboration is Web-based conferencing. Web-based conferencing services enable employees to share documents and applications, to participate in video and teleconferences, to conduct live polls and surveys and to send instant messages and work on virtual whiteboards. These tools are most commonly used to work through presentations and to plan and forecast. Web-based conferencing is particularly useful for supply chain collaboration.

If not properly connected, geographically dispersed workforces impede time-to-market efforts. Collaborative project spaces cut through geographic discontinuity by providing shared access to documents, blueprints and threaded discussions for product and project development. Collaborative project space typically includes synchronous (real-time) functions such as real-time chat, instant messaging and screen sharing, as well as asynchronous functions such as threaded discussion and document sharing.

Private exchanges are one-to-many marketplaces that connect a single company to its supply chain. Originally designed for commerce, private exchanges today serve as platforms for robust collaboration among all members of the supply chain. Private exchanges maximize efficiencies, from planning to fulfillment, by enhancing the transactional layer with personalization, Web conferencing and decision support.

In many companies it is difficult to find out who knows what. Employees waste time re-researching topics or making decisions that are not based on the company's best thinking. Expertise profiling tools catalog each employee's skills and experiences and enable other users to quickly identify the most knowledgeable person via a subject query. Users are also able to ask the system a specific question that is routed to those users who are most likely to know the answer. The question is sent via a Web browser and individuals reply directly.

Today there exists an array of tools and technologies that both use and amplify people's expertise, experience and judgment. While these tools are part of the foundation for knowledge collaboration, it should be stressed that knowledge collaboration is a dynamic process directly dependent on the company's culture, leadership and incentives. Our experience suggests that after complaining about the need for better tools for knowledge collaboration, many employee bases are often initially suspicious of knowledge collaboration efforts. However, as internal innovators and leaders start tapping into the power of their new set of tools, the 'sneakernet,' or word of mouth among employees, will make the success of your knowledge collaboration efforts gain an unstoppable momentum.

Warren Karlenzig leads the Knowledge Services Practice for Dimension Data. He is responsible for the company's strategy on knowledge management and collaboration-related engagements, including corporate/enterprise portals, Intranets, Extranets, communities and collaboration systems. He was formerly the editor-in-chief and a founding editor of Knowledge Management magazine.

[ Return To The May 2002 Table Of Contents ]

Choosing Knowledge Base Management Technology

By Josh Patrick, Stream International

Customers want to help themselves. You see it with self-service gas stations, self-service check- out lines and the proliferation of ATM machines on every corner from Boston to Boise. But now more than ever, you are seeing it online with self-service technical support and customer care. The Internet has made customers fiercely independent by exposing them to the knowledge necessary to fix their cameras, map to their printers or format their databases. The question being asked now is how best to manage that knowledge and make it useful and accessible to customers.

Whether you do it yourself or decide to outsource, the value of your knowledge base management solution will be based on three fundamental elements: the quality of the knowledge, the systems you use to manage that knowledge and the processes used to deliver knowledge to customers. Also keep in mind that what you use internally may not be user friendly enough for your customers.

Just as important as purchasing the technology is implementing a comprehensive methodology for capturing, refining, publishing and reusing the technical knowledge that you create every day. Once that methodology is in place, you can then focus on integrating the knowledge base with delivery channels such as telephone, live chat and e-mail-based support. A fully integrated system offers a framework for collecting, organizing and refining information while providing a reliable, cross-channel solution for your customers.

Choosing The Right Solution
Knowledge base management technology has been around for more than 20 years, though without much practical application. It was not until the Internet revolution in the late 1990s that knowledge base management technology had been used to its full capacity. The explosion of Web-based self-help applications has extended knowledge base technology directly to the consumer. Where as before it was thought of only as a tool for customer service representatives (CSRs) to use in handling customer inquires more efficiently, today the technology serves as a first line of service for customers eager to answer their own questions.

The technology, however, does have limitations. Even the most advanced knowledge base solution is only as good as the data it contains. Successful knowledge base solutions require extensive data, organization and a high-quality authoring process. Once the data are compiled, it is also necessary to provide frequent updates and ongoing maintenance to ensure that the knowledge stays fresh.

Given these limitations, it is paramount that companies not just invest in a self-help solution, but also maintain an integrated multichannel service offering for customers, so that if or when the knowledge base does not provide an adequate solution to the customer, there are other channels available to serve as a backup for service delivery.

As new knowledge base management solutions emerge, choosing the right one can seem daunting. Traditional stand-alone knowledge base management vendors offer systems that are more mature and filled with the bells and whistles that bring added value to the product. These come with features such as publishing and editing capabilities and natural language processing, but they also often come with integration issues and a greater expense. Web-based vendors tout their products as being easy to use, easy to implement and less expensive. However, they are often more spartan, with fewer features than some of the more traditional stand-alone knowledge base management systems on the market.

Before implementation, important decisions need to be made with regard to the type of knowledge base management technology being deployed.

Should you implement a system that runs off of a statistical-based or rules-based engine? What about knowledge base engines that offer natural language processing? How extensively does the engine need to be pre-loaded and how often does it need to be updated? Companies looking to implement a system must understand the demographics and support profiles of their customers to be able to deliver a solution that cost-effectively meets their needs. Also important is the adaptability of the system that is chosen, because no matter what application you decide to implement, it will have to be modified, integrated and kept current with your company's customer care strategy to provide long-term value.

Where Is The ROI?
Knowledge base solution providers will tell you that implementing a Web-based self-help solution will increase quality and cut costs by delivering an alternative delivery channel to customers who wish to help themselves. This is true. As everyone knows, it's less expensive to have customers solve their issues through self-help than with CSRs. However, that is not the only benefit. An even greater return may exist in how effectively the knowledge base solution is helping CSRs resolve customer inquires on the first call and reduce the average handle times of calls overall. Remember, a knowledge base solution is useful not just for customers in a self-help form, but for CSRs as well.

Should I Outsource?
Prior to choosing a knowledge base management solution, it is vital to look at how robust your existing data resources are. A knowledge base management solution is only as good as the data you put in. Also ask yourself if the necessary resources are available to integrate the knowledge base with other delivery channels and manage it effectively. You might find that the costs involved with doing it all in-house are too prohibitive and take too many resources away from your core competency. Finally, understand all of the processes involved with implementing and maintaining the knowledge base management solution.

Traditionally, outsourcing customer care meant choosing a contact center partner to handle telephone and e-mail-based support. But now many customer care outsourcers are developing knowledge base management solutions that pair the knowledge management technology with processes and methodologies to integrate with contact center operations?

Outsourcing can give you the robust, feature-rich knowledge base solution, without the headaches and cost involved with developing a fully integrated system that works for your customer and your CSRs. An outsourced solution also provides you with inherent scalability. Should you need to fill your knowledge base with new information while trying to ramp up additional CSRs in anticipation of a new product launch, having an outsourced solution in place to handle that task can save you costs across the board, from operations and IT to human resources and training.

People are more willing than ever to use the Internet for self-help, but their expectations are high. Choose your system carefully. There is a wealth of products to choose from when looking for an integrated self-service application.

Finding a differentiator is not easy in today's market, but one way to stand out in a crowd is to offer topnotch service through a variety of channels. The key to maintaining consistent high-quality customer satisfaction is not in the bells and whistles of your knowledge base management solution, it is the integrity of the information and the processes used to maintain and deliver that information. Regardless of which technology you choose, in-house, outsourced, Web-based or stand-alone, efficient management of your overall knowledge base solution will keep your costs down and your customers coming back for more.

Josh Patrick is the senior manager of Stream International's knowledge solutions group, which focuses on developing and implementing knowledge base support solutions to meet the needs of the enterprise market.

[ Return To The May 2002 Table Of Contents ]

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