Customer Contact and Knowledge Management
The customer contact organization is highly dependent on knowledge. And yet much of the knowledge walks out of the call center on a regular basis because the employee turnover in a call center can range from 20 to 100 percent annually.
This industry has been struggling with how to implement viable knowledge management (KM) solutions for years. In the early years we designated teams of people as “experts” who would handle the customer inquiries that were too complex for the first line agent. We asked people to memorize vast amounts of data so they could have any answer at a moment’s notice. We then tried to embed static FAQs and Help into the agent technology but the answers were too rigid for the ever increasing complexity of customer requests. An agent trying to find an answer took too long for a customer to wait. Knowledge management systems were built that were a little more intuitive but companies failed to assign knowledge managers and so agents found incorrect answers more often than right answers. The answer had changed (and was not updated) since its last use. Agents stopped using the systems and went back to depending on their own memorization schemes.
So how do we implement a successful knowledge management solution in the contact center today?
Knowledge Management and Culture
A knowledge management solution is not only about finding the right information and technology – it is also about creating the right culture. Hurley and Green (2005) state:
“A broader view looks at KM requirements from three perspectives: a) Information-based; b) technology-based; and c) culture-based. The last of these perspectives highlights the importance of organizational culture in the KM process. Not all KM processes require high investment in technology. More importantly, successful use of the technology is often dependent on the incorporation of KM behavior into the organizational culture.”
Karlsen & Gottschalk (2004) view culture as important because it shapes assumptions about what knowledge is worth exchanging; it defines relationships between individual and organizational knowledge; it creates the context for social interaction that determines how knowledge will be shared in particular situations; and it shapes the processes by which new knowledge is created, legitimated, and distributed in organizations.
Hurley and Green (2005) believe that “Traditionally, KM has been perceived as a theory that is derived from and relies on high levels of technology. However, in most instances, the necessary cultural shift is more difficult to accomplish and often overlooked.”
Investing in Knowledge Management Culture
To create a KM culture in the customer contact organization we must take a look at the agent’s job and redefine it in terms of characteristics that encourage and simplify the creation and transfer of knowledge. We must recognize that agents gain tacit knowledge when interacting with customers (i.e. learning-by-doing) and as they gain experience they internalize that knowledge so that it becomes explicit (i.e., so they can share it with others). Once this knowledge is ready, the stage is set for the agent to share this knowledge through structured systems.
We have to rethink how we structure our contact center organization to encourage and simplify the creation and transfer of knowledge. While we have been slow to adopt a decentralized approach, it is this very organizational structure that facilitates the sharing of explicit knowledge. The fact that a decentralized organization structure emphasizes empowerment and information sharing allows agents to more readily give their knowledge to other employees.
Agents must also be rewarded. The reward must be structured such that it effectively influences the agents’ decision about investing in knowledge creation and transfer (versus knowledge hoarding). Hall (2001) identifies intrinsic rewards as important in motivating knowledge management activity. These include rewards like access to information and knowledge, reputation enhancement, and personal satisfaction. Therefore, rewards should focus on intrinsic rewards and individual motivation. Through the individual's motivation to create and transfer knowledge, a KM culture can be established.
Technology can enhance a KM culture in the call center by facilitating the creation and transfer of knowledge. Alavi and Leidner (2001) identify three common applications of IT to organizational knowledge management initiatives the:
1. coding and sharing of best practices,
2. creation of corporate knowledge directories, and
3. creation of knowledge networks.
Examples of IT tools that can facilitate these functions are e-mail, corporate intranets, databases, document management, electronic bulletin boards, and discussion groups (Alavi & Leidner, 2001).
The customer contact organization is perfectly positioned to prove that the successful implementation of a knowledge management system requires an investment in creating a KM culture.
Alavi, M., & Leidner, D. E. (2001). Review: Knowledge Management and Knowledge Management Systems: Conceptual Foundations and Research Issues. MIS Quarterly, 25(1), 107-136.
Hall, H. (2001). Input-friendliness: Motivating Knowledge Sharing Across Intranets. Journal of Information Science, 27(2), 139-146.
Hurley, T.A., Green, C.W. (2005). Creating a knowledge management culture: the role of task, structure, technology and people in encouraging knowledge creation and transfer [Electronic Version]. Retrieve June 8, 2008, from Mid West Academy Web site: http://188.8.131.52/search?q=cache:3bHjmNR6-rwJ:www.midwestacademy.org/Proceedings/2005/papers/HurleyGreen%2520revision
Karlsen, J. T. & Gottschalk, P. (2004). Factors Affecting Knowledge Transfer in IT Projects. Engineering Management Journal, 16(1), 3-10.