The Wonderful World of Knowledge-Centered Service (KCS)

Written by Mark Hillyard

Knowledge-Centered Service (KCS) is a methodology for creating, managing, and improving knowledge within a service organization. This concept is based on a process of continual improvement, utilizing the experience of knowledge workers (responders) and patterns of reuse of existing knowledge within a knowledge base. While traditional knowledge management is based on the approach of static creation of knowledge articles by just a few subject matter experts, KCS believes in a many-to-many model, where the collective experience of an entire organization contributes to a dynamic, collaborative framework.

Its power lies in a shift in perception and expectation around a knowledge management system. Most organizations look at a knowledge base and believe that it is absolute, validated by experts with 100% confidence in its contents. The reality is that no knowledge base meets this criteria. KCS takes a more pragmatic approach, defining the attributes of knowledge within an organization like this:

  • Knowledge is gained through interaction and experience.
  • Knowledge is constantly changing (we never stop learning).
  • Knowledge is never 100% complete, nor is it 100% accurate.
  • Knowledge is validated through use, experience, and interaction (not by subject matter experts).

These concepts may appear very foreign, but they more accurately represent our knowledge experience in the real world. By acknowledging that no single expert is able to validate knowledge 100%, and accepting that learning is never 100% complete, organizations shed the false ideal of creating perfect knowledge and they can focus on continual improvement of organizational knowledge.

There are three primary categories of benefits that KCS delivers: Operational Efficiency, Self-Service Success, and Organizational Learning and Improvement.

Operational Efficiency

This may be the most obvious benefit from any well-developed knowledge management practice. As a knowledge base expands and is refined, it allows workers to quickly and accurately solve more and more issues. When the KCS methodology is applied, there are some additional benefits that should be considered. Workers are not only reusing existing knowledge, they are continuously contributing new knowledge, as well as improving knowledge articles. Because of its collaborative nature, everyone is encouraged and motivated to contribute new or changed ways of working that can truly transform the way the organization approaches many of its issues. These feedback loops can even influence leadership to make better decisions surrounding operational governance and overall service management.

This benefit may manifest in a number of ways. For example, the increased speed and accuracy with which a knowledge worker can solve well-known issues will allow him/her to spend additional time learning additional skills, providing assistance to less experienced colleagues, or simply giving the end user a more personal customer experience – leading to higher satisfaction rates. Overall, the integration of the knowledge base into every operational workflow enables new knowledge workers to ramp up more quickly, requiring less formal training and contributing to value co-creation with consumers sooner. Organizations that have adopted KCS report that they have a 70% improved time to proficiency for new workers. This is very significant, considering that industry-wide estimates on this metric land anywhere from 3 months to 2 years, on average!

Self-Service Success

Every organization envisions a self-service experience for its consumers that reduces calls and e-mails to the service desk to practically zero. Most spend a great deal of time trying to automate as many workflows as possible. And new technology continues to emerge that eliminates the need for human intervention. Things like AIOps and machine learning platforms now promise automated incident resolution. All this automation is truly a wondrous thing to behold. Having spent decades in systems administration and operational roles, I marvel at the advances that seemed like science fiction just a few short years ago. However, all the automation in the world won’t help a consumer that isn’t entirely sure how to describe his/her issue. If the end user cannot easily find the service or category that fits their need, he/she is going to dial the service desk. Self-service has failed to live up to its promise. The phone is ringing, and a human being better be available to pick it up and help the consumer immediately.

This is where the KCS concept of ‘context over content’ shifts into high gear. Because KCS encourages knowledge workers to describe issues and requests from the consumer’s point of view, rather than to inject technical jargon, product specific terminology, and even personal observation, most KCS articles contain plain language with easy-for-a-non-technical-user-to-understand descriptions. So, when that same user goes searching for knowledge about an issue that he/she cannot define in technical terms, the chances of finding something are substantially higher with the KCS article format. Now the phone doesn’t ring. The user has found the answer and is solving the issue on his/her own.

Organizational Learning and Improvement

The third, and likely most vital, benefit category for KCS adoption is that of Organizational Learning and Improvement. This benefit is something that comes with time. The culture shift that is required to make KCS effective opens leadership up to new ways of thinking and making decisions. The trends that develop expose areas where the organization can improve. The captured experience can inform decisions on policies, processes, and even those products and services we choose to offer to consumers. Rather than just banging our collective heads against the wall, performing the same tasks to fix the same issues over and over, KCS provides a collaborative way for everyone—at all levels—to contribute to the overall success of our service organization.

Feeding the experience of the operational staff back to leadership provides invaluable metrics and measurements that can be transformed into organizational improvement initiatives. Because the organization no longer seeks siloed experts to preach knowledge as if from sacred stones, everyone has a stake in its creation, care, and improvement. KCS can eliminate the barriers that have kept knowledge at arm’s length, establishing a truly collaborative, transparent practice that can adapt to the changing goals and strategies of the organization at-large.

Double Loop Process

The KCS Double Loop Process is based primarily on the concept of double loop learning, detailed by Chris Argyris and Donald Schön in a 1978 paper entitled Organizational Learning: A Theory of Action Perspective. As opposed to what they termed “single loop learning,” double loop learning allows an organization to shift the way in which strategies and consequences are framed.

In a 1977 Harvard Business Review article, Argyris suggested the following analogy:

Single loop learning can be compared with a thermostat that learns when it is too hot or too cold and then turns the heat on or off. The thermostat is able to perform this task because it can receive information (the temperature of the room) and therefore take corrective action.

If the thermostat could question itself about whether it should be set at 68 degrees, it would be capable not only of detecting error, but of questioning the underlying policies and goals – as well as its own program. That is a second and more comprehensive inquiry; hence, it might be called double loop learning.

The KCS model for this is called the Double Loop Process, and it involves two distinct loops: the Solve Loop and the Evolve loop. Each of these loops contain operational activities that make up the KCS system. These activities are known as the 8 Practices of KCS.

Knowledge Centered Service

The Solve Loop

This loop contains the first 4 Practices of KCS: Capture, Structure, Reuse, and Improve. These activities represent the operational responsibilities of responders when they handle a requestor’s issue. This loop is reactive and transactional.

This is the request-response workflow. In the first practice, Capture, the knowledge worker records the consumer’s needs, using their words and plain language, along with his/her own knowledge. This tacit knowledge along with the user’s context is then added to the article. This makes the article easier to find for both other knowledge workers as well as future consumers.

The second practice, known as Structure, ensures that a consistent format (using simple templates and procedures) is present in every article. This allows for easier readability, and it makes identification of existing knowledge articles faster. This reduces resolution times and helps to create new articles based on existing knowledge.

Third, there is the Reuse practice. This practice involves preserving words and phrases used to search knowledge (this can be useful for both provider and consumer), and when an article does not exist, this context can serve as the basis for a new article. This greatly reduces rework, as existing solutions are more easily found through plain language searches, drawing on the collective experience of the entire organization.

Finally, the fourth practice is called Improve. As its name suggests, every article should be reviewed for completeness and correctness (insofar as we know). If there is something wrong, or something that is not understood, the article needs to be flagged or fixed by the individual. Flagging an article generally means that a knowledge worker is either not confident in the change, or they do not have the appropriate level of access to make the change. In this case, the article is referred to someone who can enact the improvement. In cases where the worker does have this access, he/she should take action to fix the article immediately.

The Evolve Loop

This loop takes the output of the Solve Loop (articles and task output) and analyzes the patterns that emerge. This is meant to be handled at an organizational level, and it is dependent on the tasks from the Solve Loop being done correctly. The Evolve Loop is a systemic view that defines higher level organizational practices, defines metrics and measures for the health of each practice, provides continual improvement processes for both the Solve Loop and the knowledge base itself, identifies other improvement opportunities, and root cause analysis to inform improvement initiatives for policies, products and services.

Like the Solve Loop, the Evolve Loop consists of four practices: Content Health, Process Integration, Performance Assessment, and Leadership & Communication.

Content Health

This practice ensures that the content that is being produced and used is following the best practices as laid out by KCS. This has a lot to do with structure and format, how the knowledge is captured (both practices in the Solve Loop), and ensuring there is collective ownership—a Core Concept of KCS. Additionally, this is where highly reused articles are analyzed and can be used as the basis for Evolve Loop articles.

Process Integration

The purpose of this practice is to create seamless integration between the Solve Loop practices, the Configuration Management System (CMS), and the knowledge management tool. The challenge is to provide a customer experience where these diverse systems work as one, providing a truly cohesive outcome that will prove valuable to the customer. Both from the provider’s standpoint and the customer’s, the road from demand to value should appear to be a single stream of steps, simple yet powerful. It is unlikely that this sort of integration is available in the early stages of KCS adoption, and that is OK. Just like knowledge, tools and technology are dynamic, and an organization should always be moving toward continual improvement, with the goal of a frictionless knowledge management experience.

Performance Assessment

As with any holistic shift in organizational culture, it is critical to measure the progress of adoption, alignment, and improvement. This practice provides guidance on what to measure, the roles and responsibilities within the methodology, how to assess the creation of value, and the key performance indicators that help the organization course correct and realign with business goals, as necessary.

Leadership and Communication

This is by far the most strategic practice in KCS. Its purpose is to provide an overarching vision for the methodology, a strategic framework for adoption and implementation of KCS, and maintaining organizational collaboration and transparency. As with any improvement initiative, gaining buy-in and prioritization must come from the top. Leadership is tasked with ensuring that the vision, policies and procedures, and communication plans are aligned and followed, while the operational knowledge workers provide the content standards and workflow. This practice draws heavily on the previous practice, Performance Assessment, to constantly realign the system with organizational goals.

Conclusion

Knowledge-Centered Service provides a practical, collaborative, and holistic methodology for capturing, managing, and using knowledge. But it goes a step further, breaking down silos and challenging the status quo by asking deeper questions beyond the common break-fix articles most service organizations are used to seeing. Instead, KCS seeks to transform an organization’s thinking when it comes to delivering value to its customers. It leverages collective experience, rigorous collection/recording of organizational knowledge, and feedback loops that inform leadership when practices, policies, products, and services need to be reviewed and possibly changed to enhance the overall customer experience. It requires a shift in culture and a collaborative and transparent mentality at all levels to truly be effective, and it provides a self-correcting framework to maximize the capabilities throughout your organization.

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Originally published February 02 2020, updated May 05 2020