Field Service KM: Web 2.0 to the Rescue!

I had an interesting conversation this week regarding the practical limits to knowledge management. The discussion concerned how utility companies could employ KM practices to optimize their capabilities. The utilities services industry is aging; in the UK, for example, an estimated 45% of the work force will retire within the next 5 years. This work force has years of experience and tacit knowledge pertaining to their industry. It’s critical that utilities evolve a capability to reuse knowledge effectively. Yet the maintenance of power equipment has core practices that are inherently unfriendly to KM:

1. The majority of work is done in the field, and requires use of schemas, specs and other materials not easily delivered via online technologies

2. The critical knowledge needed onsite is largely tacit: it relies on experience and judgment of the specifics of the equipment and service area involved.

3. There is a minimal central knowledge building capability – many utility organizations are primarily operationally oriented, handling customer service dispatch and routing.

Given these challenges it might seem that there is minimal potential to leverage reusable knowledge. Many services organizations have similar characteristics. Is it possible that there are environments where KM is just not feasible or useful?

These issues challenge us to examine what’s truly critical in leveraging knowledge for service. Let’s break down the fundamental requirements for knowledge re-use:

1. WHAT knowledge is actually critical and re-usable?

2. WHEN is that knowledge needed to be effective?

3. HOW can it be delivered at the point of use?

If we examine the utilities example from this perspective we can generate some creative ideas about how to leverage knowledge. If the goal is to empower support agents and reduce the amount of experience required to service equipment, then the key is to provide mechanisms for that experience to be shared. Further, if tacit knowledge is critical to service success, then the point of sharing must be in the context of each use. Finally, assuming that this type of field service cannot accommodate online tools, there must be a mechanism to field and address questions asynchronously. The requirements for knowledge delivery, then, are that it transfer experience in context of each issue, provided offline of the service activity itself.

Sound impossible? Actually it’s a common support scenario, provided in most places by online forums, wikis and communities. The strengths of these environments directly address these needs: forums can allow participants to post questions offline of their activities, engage in threaded dialogue with experts to refine the context of their issues, and participate asynchronously in contributing and using the information. Newer agents can learn and apply best practices more quickly and over time a wiki can be formed from these interactions. Web 2.0 to the rescue!

Thus field-focused operations can consider new ways to develop reusable knowledge, share experience as the workforce shifts, and benefit from the best answers from the most experienced people.

By examining what, when and how knowledge is delivered KM can be employed in situations that would not be immediately obvious or even considered.