Know-It-Alls

As Breit anticipated, implementing KnowledgeBase has changed the agents' roles. Level 1 agents, for example, now do more in-depth troubleshooting because they have more information available at their fingertips. In fact, they solve twice as many calls themselves (50 per cent instead of 25 per cent) in a shorter time (10 minutes versus 30 minutes). Since Level 1 agents can handle more calls, this group has doubled in size during the past two years.

The transition wasn't quite as painless, however, for the Level 2 and Level 3 agents. Indeed, their roles changed significantly. "Rather than simply submitting HTML pages to Tactics Online, they were now asked to analyse the problems in a very procedural way and create diagnostic 'trees'," says Breit. "That's a more analytical way to think through a problem. Most of these guys had thought in terms of 'what is the fastest way to solve a problem' rather than 'what is the most efficient way to solve a problem'."

With hundreds of people submitting solutions, Marconi tended to get a lot of wheel reinvention. "There can be five or six ways to solve the [same] problem, but there's one way that's most efficient," Breit says. To unearth and disseminate the most efficient solutions, agents were required to flowchart each of their solutions for the first three months following KnowledgeBase's launch. "It's amazing how many [agents] were unconscious of their own methodologies," says Breit. "It was somewhat painful, but they eventually felt they benefited because they understood how they solve problems."

As a result, agents now create technical solutions for customers in the most efficient - and logical - way possible instead of simply offering a "quick and dirty" solution. Think of the difference between simply being told what keys to strike on your PC and being taught how your software works and the logic behind executing a certain sequence of keystrokes. Once you actually understand how the product works, you can use the software more effectively and resolve more problems yourself.

Agents also had to change the way they present the solutions to customers. "We wanted to provide a collaboration tool for employees and a library source for our customers," says Demiral. "Engineers wanted to provide a lot of detailed information yet we needed a degree of simplicity for customers. Most of the time, the immediate focus is on what a great collaboration tool this is and how it overcomes geographical distance among agents. Then I have to remind [agents] that this is a tool that we want customers to use and that they'll have to organise, write and present the content with customers in mind."

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A new KM system rewards employees for spilling their guts.

Companies large and small are littered with the remains of technology projects that failed because employees just didn't use them, and knowledge management systems are well represented on the corporate dust heap. That's because more than any other technology, KM systems create internal conflict for the employee. If people are rewarded for what they know, why would they dilute their worth by sharing precisely what makes them valuable?

Getting employees to share knowledge rather than hoard it is a major problem. David Brett, CEO of Knexa Enterprises, a Vancouver-based KM consultancy and software developer, believes his company has come up with a solution. IntraKnexa is a Web-based knowledge exchange that encourages employees to share their knowledge and provide feedback by incorporating rewards and recognition into the submission process.

Here's how IntraKnexa works. Employees publish their knowledge on the company intranet. Once the knowledge is online, the author's name is displayed and the feedback process begins. This sounds basic, but what makes it different, Brett says, is that organisational knowledge is given an economic value. For IntraKnexa to work, an organisation needs to assign points to both the knowledge submitted and the feedback provided. The points are then redeemable.

For example, submitting a PowerPoint sales presentation could be worth 10 points to the author. Once online, peers review the presentation and award it their own points. (Reviewers also get points based on their input.) After accumulating 1000 points, the author could redeem them for a PalmPilot; 10,000 points could buy a weekend at the company condo or earn a couple of comp days.

Nick Bontis, Knexa.com's CKO, likens the points and redemption system to the airline industry's frequent flier programs. The hope, he says, is that by linking knowledge sharing with rewards or recognition, companies will also promote employee loyalty. But in order to accomplish this, HR has to be actively involved by designating the incentives and rewards for the behaviour the company wants to promote. "Your company can have the best IT system, but if you don't have a culture that promotes knowledge sharing, the system will be empty," Bontis says. By automating the rewards process, he says, IntraKnexa aims to solicit the participation of HR from the start.

Like so much that surrounds KM, the value of a system like IntraKnexa is hard to nail down. Discussions with prospective clients, Brett says, have revealed that many recognise the inherent worth of rewarding and recognising knowledge sharing activities. In such a case, the rewards program that IntraKnexa facilitates is viewed like other employee perks, such as referral bonuses or onsite childcare. The goal of IntraKnexa, says Brett, is to provide companies with new metrics so that they can link knowledge sharing to the bottom line. For those companies that are sceptical of KM in general, Brett admits that he has a hard sell on his hands.

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Tactics Online complements the new system. "The data stored in KnowledgeBase are specific troubleshooting tips and hints on our various product lines," says Zehra Demiral, manager of knowledge management systems. "Tactics Online, on the other hand, is more of a doorway for customers to come into our customer support organisation. From there, customers can access KnowledgeBase or their service requests or our online training manuals."

Technical support agents now rely on KnowledgeBase for the latest solutions to customers' product and systems problems. Level 1 agents answer all incoming calls, solve customers' problems when possible, record the calls in the company's CRM system and transfer the more difficult calls up the line to Level 2 agents. Level 2 agents, meanwhile, are the heart of the organisation, composing about 70 per cent of the technical support organisation. They handle the more difficult calls and troubleshoot and diagnose equipment and network problems. "They're the majority of our knowledge users and contributors," says Breit. "They write up a synopsis of the call and feed it into KnowledgeBase [on an ongoing basis] so that other agents can refer to the solution later."

After Level 2 agents submit their knowledge "raw" to a holding queue, Level 3 agents confirm the accuracy of the information, make any necessary changes and then submit the document to Demiral. (Level 3 agents also act as consultants, helping Level 2 agents solve problems and serving as intermediaries between the agents and the company's engineering departments.) The entire process of updating the KnowledgeBase system with a new solution typically takes between three days and two weeks.

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Demiral spent a lot of time working with the Level 3 agents to make their solutions less complex and streamline the review process. "We had to go through two iterations of how to organise and present the content," Demiral says. "Customers tend to think in terms of the product and then the problem. But engineers often think about the problem first and then the product."

The result: customers often wouldn't fully understand the solution. At the same time, Marconi had to work at easing Level 3 agents' concerns that making them responsible for reviewing solution content would suddenly turn them into technical writers.

Marconi confronted cultural issues as well. "Business needs are different in different parts of the world," says Demiral. "What may be normal business practice for Americans may not be common elsewhere." In Europe, for example, the value of the KnowledgeBase system was not readily accepted. But once employees there saw that customers could use the system to solve some of their own problems, they got on board. Such an experience has been incorporated into how Marconi approaches KM. "We sometimes have to introduce the idea of knowledge management over time, validate it, and then move forward," Demiral says.

To ensure that agents continue contributing new knowledge to KnowledgeBase, Marconi uses rewards. Besides bonuses, knowledge contributors receive recognition during meetings and in a newsletter. "Rewards help feed this culture," Breit says. "Peer pressure also plays a role. Everyone wants to contribute because it's the right thing to do. You also have to make sure that the system works well and that employees use it long enough to see it work. It has to be embedded in training and fully integrated into daily operations so that it just becomes part of how you do business."

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When Marconi began evaluating knowledge management technologies in the spring of 1998, the concept of sharing knowledge among agents was nothing new. Agents were already accustomed to working in teams of three or four people, gathering in war room fashion to solve customers' technical issues. And a year earlier, Marconi had started basing a percentage of agents' quarterly bonuses on the amount of knowledge they submitted to Tactics Online as well as their involvement with mentoring and training other agents. "Each agent was expected to teach two training classes and write 10 FAQs to earn their full bonus," says Breit. "When we brought new companies online, the new agents received the same bonus plan. This approach allowed us to build a very open knowledge-sharing environment."

To augment Tactics Online, Marconi chose software from ServiceWare Technologies, in part because its technology would integrate easily with the company's Remedy CRM system, which agents use to log incoming calls from customers and track other customer interactions. In addition, says Breit, Marconi wanted its agents to populate its existing Oracle database of product information.

Breit's division spent six months implementing the new system and training agents. The system - dubbed KnowledgeBase - is linked to the company's CRM system and is powered by the Oracle database. The integrated view of Marconi's customers and products provides agents with a comprehensive history of interactions. Technical support agents can, for example, put markers in the database and immediately pick up at the point where the customer last spoke with another agent.

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COMPANY: Marconi, a London-based global telecommunications provider.

REVENUES:$9 billion.

EMPLOYEES:45,000 worldwide.

KM PROBLEM:How can a company create a knowledge management system that ensures its technical support agents have the latest, most accurate product information for troubleshooting customers' problems?

The Players

DAVE BREIT - Director of Technology and RD for Managed Services.

ZEHRA DEMIRAL - Manager of Knowledge Management Systems.

CASE ANALYST: TOM DAVENPORT - Director of the Accenture Institute for Strategic Change.

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If there's a no-brainer idea within the realm of knowledge management, it's to focus on customer service. You want business value? It's available in spades, with the prospect of more customer enquiries served with substantially fewer humans. Seeking engaged users? There's no more knowledge-hungry employee than a service rep with a customer on the line and a perplexing problem. The Marconi situation described in this case is a great illustration of the logic behind applying knowledge management to the service process.

It's also a great picture of some of the difficulties involved. If you're compiling an internal repository of best practices or lessons learned, you can assemble it in a slapdash fashion, and few will be the wiser. But a knowledge repository for customer service is the knowledge equivalent of an online-transaction processing system. Service representatives have to find the right piece of knowledge in real time, while the customer waits. Asking the customer to hold while you browse 3462 documents in a typical intranet search won't do. The key to success with these systems is a good architecture and strong content-management discipline. These factors are even more critical when a company allows customers direct access to parts of the system, as Marconi does.

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