10:11:33 pm on September 25, 2009 |
All Content is NOT Created (or used) Equally!
Back when I started in support at Lotus in the late 80’s “content” was pretty easily understood and identified. You had software packages that shipped with user manuals, there might be a Q&A document and some technical notes one had access to, and if you were really into it you might buy a book or two about using the product or platform. That was it. In support we stored most things in great blue binders, we had internal text retrieval knowledge bases that stored all the bug reports or KB articles. Even that information was finite – I published the entire knowledge base on one CD-ROM each month, a few thousand articles covered all Lotus products. One could actually KNOW all there was that was published and known about a product. Managing it required a few simple fields and a text retrieval engine. It was a simpler, gentler age for knowledge management.
Then came the Internet followed by Social Media.
Today information is passed across all kinds of channels and formats, in sizes great and small, from the shortest text messages to lengthy PDF files, videos and everything in between. Web pages, documents, emails, chats, forum posts, blogs, infinite databases and content repositories. There’s more people providing more input into the data stream than we ever could have imagined back then. We can get answers and ideas from almost anywhere. This is a great boon to the concept of knowledge sharing, but also presents some fundamental challenges to organizations trying to manage some sort of quality information transfer to interested parties (especially SUPPORT & SERVICE!) The result of this information blitz has impacted some of the key principles that are necessary to actually drive services through knowledge, such as:
- Ownership: it’s harder to tell where some piece of information came from, the source and credibility of it
- Scope of Application: personal opinions or advice may or may not apply outside of the situation in which they were used initially
- Quality and Style: ALL manner of authoring detail, style, consistency and completeness can exist, even within one channel of one community
- Accuracy: Who’s to say which content is the most valid? What does “content version” mean any more?
The proliferation of channels also means organizations must be able to format and re-purpose critical information on different delivery channels. A lengthy technical document is useless as an email, conversely the back and forth of forum or chat threads is almost impossible to read outside those mediums. Yet the answers are coming from all these places, and need to travel to these places, in formats and quantities appropriate for each channel.
What’s a knowledge manager to do?
I contend it’s back to first principles – at the end of every one of these interactions people want the same thing they did 20 years ago – clear, complete, actionable answers to their specific question or knowledge request. Aside from the other interesting dynamics introduced by social media (aspects like reputation, collaboration, swarming, etc.) an answer is still an answer. As such many if not most of the same principles of good knowledge management apply:
- Recognizable Context – the subject matter needs to be presented within the scope where it can be easily found on the channel its on. Subject matter, products or topics, authors, date, all the parameters necessary to find information are still important for users to quickly search for and evaluate what’s most relevant to their request.
- Fit to task – the information provided has to meet the specific ability of the requestor to actually DO the thing required.
- Quality – good information is still readable, audience-appropriate, up to date, accurate and complete.
- Efficiency – results have to be achievable in predictable ways. The user has to have a clear idea of how to navigate quickly and accurately to the best answers.
Of course, a lot of interesting questions arise in this new open-ended knowledge sharing world, such as:
How do you give context to something as small as a chat thread?
How do you assure stylistic compliance in an open community?
Who’s to say what’s most accurate, credible or relevant?
A lot of the answers to managing social media come from insights into the dynamics of each specific collaborative group. In the early 2000’s the Consortium for Service Innovation did some research towards proposing a collaborative model for knowledge sharing. We called it the “Adaptive Organization”. The interesting thing that emerged from this work pertaining to managing collaborative assets was that the same dynamics that drive collaboration, sharing, and overall quality of effort in any community are fundamental to a well-functioning community.
The CSI’s initial KM strategy, KCS (Knowledge-Centered Support) focused on creating collaborative internal communities of support agents sharing knowledge actively and dynamically. The same principles of joint ownership, transparency, reputation and knowledge-focused behavior extend to external communities as well. So the basic rule of thumb in managing collaborative knowledge is to help define the frameworks for collaboration, stimulate flexible but standard knowledge models, and coach participants to quality through examples of effective knowledge sharing. It IS possible to manage knowledge in community, one just has to stay focused on getting the community to manage it’s knowledge (!)
There are many challenges emerging in truly managing a multi-channel, multi-mode knowledge exchange environment. The world of our children will look even more different than the world we see today, I’m certain of it. My 18 year old expects the entire world to appear to him on demand from the browser window on his phone. To him a “knowledge base” is a quaint artifact of prehistory. The companies that can seem to be meeting HIM where he already is, with the information he requires as he requires, it, will earn his loyalty and repeat business. The idea of a tech support phone call is already a running joke in his generation – an admission of failure and lack of capability by the company one has to call.
The winners in the knowledge delivery game will be those who can master this fragmented, multi-channel approach to knowledge delivery in a way that leverages core knowledge while simultaneously achieving effective dynamic, multi-channel distribution. In many respects THIS is the new frontier of KM!
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