Breakthrough Knowledge Management: A Conversation with David Kay

While as a services technology analyst I cover lots of different types of tools, there is no denying my real passion is knowledge management. Early in my career as a support manager, a KM implementation revolutionized the way we did business, and I’ve been hooked ever since. I’ve worked for knowledgebase vendors, I’ve been a product manager for KM products, and I’ve implemented KM in the field for dozens of companies. As an analyst, I’ve been answering KM questions and making product recommendations for IT and service professionals since 2001. And one thing is very clear: while this may be maturing technology, with oceans of best practices and now recognized industry standards for KM in ITIL and Knowledge Centered Support, very few companies have it all figured out.

One person who does have it all figured out is David Kay, principal at DB Kay & Associates, and a longtime friend and partner of the TSIA. David is my go-to guy when I don’t have the answer, and he always has great insight and examples from the real world. David will be leading a professional development course, “Breakthrough Knowledge Management: An Introduction to KCS,” at our upcoming Technology Services World Conference in Santa Clara, CA on May 2nd. I had a chance last week to chat with David about current KM trends and his course on KCS. Here are some highlights.

John Ragsdale: For the uninitiated, could you give a brief overview of Knowledge Centered Support (KCS)?

David Kay: Sure! KCS is the industry best practice for capturing, structuring, reusing, and improving knowledge while delivering service and support. KCS has been around for nearly two decades, and many TSIA members including IBM, Cisco, Intuit, Yahoo!, and Symantec have contributed to making it as mature as it is today.

The big difference with KCS is that knowledge management is integrated into the job, so the knowledgebase is created and maintained as a byproduct of doing the things that people are already doing. Over time, without extra effort, the knowledgebase becomes a valuable repository of the organization’s collective experience.

Ragsdale: Over the last couple of years I know you have done KCS workshops with many TSIA members. Do you have a feel for the adoption of KCS in the high tech industry? It seems to have become a recognized standard.

Kay: Oh, it really has. When I started this eight-plus years ago, things were so different. The key premise of KCS, the fact that the people actually solving customer issues are the best people to capture their resolutions in a knowledgebase, was actually very controversial. People assumed you needed knowledge specialists or English majors or something. And the dirty secret was that some organizations didn’t really trust their own people to solve problems correctly. (In which case, we might ask, why were they putting them on the phones?)

It’s very different now. I remember at a recent TSW workshop, I asked people “how many of you are doing KCS?” and almost the whole room raised their hands. I was shocked! It’s silly, but I was somehow under the impression that I should have known at least some of them if they were all doing KCS. But it is really so much bigger than any one person or organization can keep track of now. It really has become the standard.

So perhaps the question to ask today isn’t whether you’re doing KCS or not, but how effectively are you doing KCS?

Ragsdale: I’m seeing more CRM/multi-channel/knowledgebase solutions being designated as KCS compliant. If you buy a KCS compliant product, what can you expect? What are some of the requirements for support platforms to be KCS compliant?

Kay: The Consortium for Service Innovation has a KCS v4 Verified program for technologies (and consultants like us). Details are here, but you’re right about the high-level goals.

To support KCS well, technologies must
– integrate knowledge capture into the case-answering process, avoiding duplicate effort
– make it easy to improve content in the workflow
– search effectively
– track how knowledge is reused when resolving cases
– support solution approval and publication without formal review queues
– report on knowledge activities and quality, as well as business outcomes

Beyond that, we’ve found that tools really need to keep things simple for the users. I expect you have the same reaction I do when watching some tool demonstrations with complex feature after feature…who has time for all that? So, as the KCS Practices Guide says, “tools must function at the speed of conversation.”

Ragsdale: In your course description, you talk about having the right culture for KM success. I’ve had 2 inquiries just this week from members who are having a hard time getting new support techs to fully document incident notes or create new knowledge articles. Could you talk about making a cultural shift to value—and participate in—a KM program?

Kay: I’m glad you asked about this, because this is tremendously important…and why starting a KM initiative without executive support is nearly impossible.

It all starts with the question, “why does our organization exist?” Sometimes when I ask that, people laugh a little bit and describe themselves as a “necessary evil,” or just shrug and say their product isn’t perfect. But mostly, especially at a senior level, they realize that the point of their organization is to help customers receive and perceive value — to make customers successful, to create loyalty, to drive repeat business, referrals, and deeper relationships. In short, they realize they exist for precisely the reasons that J.B. Wood wrote about in Complexity Avalanche, and that you and TSIA have been researching for years.

We’re all fixated on closing cases, getting to the next call, and reducing backlog. And closing cases is important. But viewed from the bigger perspective of customer success, closing cases is just one means to that end. Sharing knowledge on the web can help ten times as many customers–or more. Knowledge reuse can drive product improvements, pre-empting customer problems. And sharing knowledge internally can make every case go smoother, faster, more consistently, at first contact–all the things that delight customers. Viewed in that light, what could possibly be a more important job for support techs than capturing and sharing what they learn?

Leaders must articulate what the organization’s mission is, and why knowledge is central to that mission. Couple that with including knowledge into job descriptions, making knowledge part of the employee review process, communicating effectively, and recognizing contributions, and what we’ve seen is that the culture change is unstoppable.

Ragsdale: I’m working on a report right now about how many KM programs fail because there is no ongoing maintenance of content, project champions move on and efforts stall, and project staff get moved to something new 6 months later. Could you talk about the importance of ongoing maintenance to the success of a KM program? Does KCS include recommendations for content maintenance?

Kay: Hey, anyone can start a knowledgebase. The trick is keeping it up to date.

The traditional approach to this is to make knowledgebase maintenance someone’s job. Expire content every 365 days and, boom!, it ends up in their inbox to review for currency. But this is completely non-scalable. Who can keep up with the hundreds of articles that “expire” every day? Who has that breadth of expertise? What happens when they leave or get reassigned? Do we really want to wait a year to check to see if everything’s up to date? And who honestly wants to do this job, anyhow?

KCS recommends the only practical approach I can think of, which is to make every use of knowledge a review. If I’m working on a customer issue and I find a relevant article, if I use it as is, I’m effectively saying “This article is just fine.” If I see that it needs to be updated–it needs clarification, or it applies to a new software release, or maybe I’ve just learned a better way to solve the issue, it’s my job to do the update. Assuming I’m certified, I make the change then and there. Otherwise, I flag it with a comment for someone else to change.

The beauty of this is, the more frequently knowledge is used, the more often it’s “reviewed.” And besides, who’s in a better position to review content than someone who’s actually trying to use it to solve a real customer issue?

Ragsdale: Could you give an overview of how your professional development course is structured? How will attendees spend their day?

Kay: We’ll stay busy! We’ll set a little context by exploring what knowledge really is, and how shared knowledge is so powerful. We’ll look at the details of the KCS practices, many of which your questions touched on today. We’ll dig in to the structure, format, and style of content, which ends up being really important–we keep it really simple, because we don’t want people to think they need to become technical writers to contribute.

Perhaps the most enlightening section is our conversation about measures. Many KM initiatives fail because managers focus on numbers, rather than on behavior and outcomes. (Exhibit A: how many of us have made the mistake of setting quotas on how many articles everyone has to contribute to the knowledgebase?) We work through a scenario to show which metrics to track, but more importantly, we explore how to use those metrics.

We’ll close with the practical steps to go back to the office and actually roll out KCS. One of the things that has made me feel the best about TSW Professional Development Workshops is the fact that attendees have gone home and successfully implemented KCS, in many cases with no further help from me. That lets me know our time together was well spent.

People who want a five-minute preview can check out (which I made for our last TSW conference in Las Vegas.)

Ragsdale: Great to talk to you David!

Kay: Thanks for the opportunity! I’m looking forward to seeing you, and many TSIA members, in Santa Clara.


We’re going to have some great KM content at the TSW event, including case studies from VM Ware and IBM/Netezza, a session from Avaya (2 time STAR Award winner for best knowledge management practices), and more. I hope to see you there. And as always, thanks for reading!

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8 Comments on “Breakthrough Knowledge Management: A Conversation with David Kay”

  1. Hey Guys:

    I see no mention of the importance of a reputation engine built into the KB to measure and motivate sustainable contributions from internal and external stakeholders to create new AND evolve existing KB content. Why is that?

    Old school KBs that do not have these metrics available through a reputation engine built directly into a KB (and extended across other relevant content) will likely become a thing of the past since they just won’t evolve sufficiently using relevant stakeholder insights to provide sustainable value. People want brands to stand behind some content, but they also want the content to reflect relevant real-world usage.

    We also believe the metrics used need to be granular down to specific subject matters. This notion of “GURU” badges across an entire KB or online community provides marginal value when specific expertise is required.

    If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it…certainly true for getting desired participation to evolve any KBs.

    Chuck Van Court
    CEO FuzeDigital

  2. jragsdale Says:

    Hi Chuck;
    I know the importance of reputation ratings in new media (like forums). The problem with using user ratings on KB articles currently is the response rate is less than 1% for most companies, so there really isn’t enough input to be actionable. Hopefully this is changing.

    KCS definitely suggests incorporating article feedback into maintenance activities, but I think most of the feedback comes from employees, not customers.

    As the knowledge worlds of KBs and communities begin to merge, as in your solution, hopefully we’ll see more input on static articles instead of just forum conversations.

    David may have more input.


  3. Hi John:

    Similar to engagement around online community content, we believe that comments about KB content should be viewable and ratable by all. Relevant KB publishers then need to encourage discussion around the KB content they have responsibility and update the KB article itself using suggestions for changes as appropriate and after going through editorial controls warranted based on who is using the particular content and for what purpose.

    This “Community KB” approach not only recognizes and motivates people to create new AND improve existing KB content; it also identifies and allows demonstrated subject matter expertise on specific topics to be leveraged. This approach also allows stakeholders to see free flowing and unedited comments from people with practical, real-world experience along with the ever evolving editorially controlled KB article that the brand can stand behind. Truth be told, I am not sure why anyone other than an occasional staff would take the time to submit feedback on KB content using the current model where comments and contribution are not exposed and recognized.

    We recently completed an online demo of our community KB if interested in seeing how we have put the community in the KB. It’s like the third search result in our InfoCenter and accessible from several pages in our site.

    Knowledge bases don’t have to be old school.

    Cheers, Chuck

  4. Dbkayanda Says:

    Chuck –

    Reputation–in one form or another–is absolutely a vital part of all successful knowledge management implementations. A big WIIFM for contributors is the fact that their contributions happen in public (whether that’s truly public, within the customer base, or even just within the support organization.)

    Your example of public comments (“discussion pages” from the wiki world) is an excellent example of a simple technology that provides transparency and ties in to recognition and reputation. Shoot, even if we could make all contributors’ names or handles visible in the KB, that would be a great start.

    As you know from earlier exchanges, I’m fairly skeptical about computable reputation and reputation engines today, although I’m pleased that people like your organization and Dr. Wu at Lithium and many others are doing thoughtful work in the area. The reality is, humans are great at sussing out reputation — we all have one! — and I’m a big fan of technologies that provide us with the kind of visibility that allow us to use our innate reputation-assessing skills effectively.

    (This comments page probably isn’t the right forum to convince me I’m wrong about computable reputation today, but I’m happy to grab a cup of coffee at TSW. So many of the existing examples like Klout and eBay reputation are so seriously flawed despite being worked on by smart people with good intent.)

  5. Hey David:

    Thanks for responding!

    I totally agree that reputations are really tough to compute and can be easily gamed. In fact, I think that vendors will end up making more money by allowing people to game their “Klout” reputations than companies like Klout will ever make computing the reputation.

    What’s more, what makes things really tough for creating a reputation engine is that we must make it easy for people contributing to understand how and why they earn “points” without giving them a playbook for gaming the system.

    However, with hidden controls in place, I believe that reputation engines can result in relative rankings that are reasonable and provide valuable measurements toward effective knowledge exchange around knowledge base content. It will never be perfect, but what is?

    I think we should create some bumper stickers that advocate “saving the knowledge base.”

    Unfortunately I will not be attending the upcoming conference, but I am always available to chat via phone, if interested.

    Bests, Chuck

  6. Peggy Roberts Says:

    I have been living this life and trying to help assess the ability of SAP CRM hooked up to Moxie Software KB for 6 months, so I find this information very useful. Thanks

  7. Great conversation David, Chuck, and John! It’s great to hear the viewpoints of three visionaries in this area of customer support!

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    I visited several web sites but the audio quality for audio songs existing at this web page is truly excellent.

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