Is KM a Noun or a Verb?
Making the Case for a Technology Component

There has always been a partisan divide among proponents, and critics, of know-ledge management. On one side of the aisle, there’s a primarily vendor-driven insistence that "knowledge management" is the sum of a series of technologies, somehow mashed up and desktopped in such a way that the management of corporate know-how is "automated," and the result is the seamless transfer of information in all its forms among the minions that trudge through the door every morning.

On the other side are the intellectual snobs who insist "knowledge cannot be managed." They’ll concede that certain content management and analytics tools might smooth the pathway for "information management," but steadfastly refuse to accept that knowledge can be harnessed by anything as mundane as a business enterprise, and should remain in the textbooks, grad-student projects and snooty conferences they wear their bow ties to.

Me... I don’t know. I guess I lean toward the former. From a pragmatic viewpoint, it’s hard to argue with a corporation that wants to make it easier for employees to collaborate, access information and make better decisions. But I get the other side, too; there probably is a difference between "information" and "knowledge," and I don’t have the mental weight to prove it otherwise. So I’ll let smarter heads prevail.

Like Chris Hall. Chris is the marketing VP at InQuira. InQuira self-identifies mainly as a customer-service vendor, but, as you’ll soon learn, they resist being labeled into an easy pigeonhole like that. I can confirm that InQuira says in its literature that it focuses on increasing customer satisfaction and loyalty through Web self-service, agent-assisted contact centers and enterprise knowledge management.

Knowledge management, eh? Well, let’s see what he has to say about that!

"As a software vendor, you have to determine whether you want to label yourself as knowledge management," Chris began. "You guys at the magazine must sense the same issue." (No, never, I lied). "It really depends on the market served. For information-based industries, where the problems are ‘break/fix’ and the products are technically complex and the Web is the mainstream channel for support—high-tech and software companies—KM is a known mantra. They get it. They know the lingo. They understand knowledgebases, search analytics, ontologies, etc. They understand their goal is reducing time-to-answer, and fostering customer self-sufficiency." KM OK.

Chris followed up, though: "Unfortunately transactional-based industries—banking, insurance, healthcare—look at BPM or content management. Their problems are not break/fix... they’re procedural. They don’t care about putting things into a knowledgebase; they just want a repository for policies and procedures. They want to know at step 7 of this transaction, what’s the procedure to move to step 8? If you try to talk KM to this type of customer, you’ll be thrown out the door." KM not OK. "So, we adjust. Rather than stand under the umbrella of KM, we just say ‘we connect people to answers.’"

But Chris acknowledged that people DO get confused about which are the right technologies to deliver those answers. Which begged my main question: Is KM a noun or a verb? Is it something you buy? Or is it something you do?

"If it’s a noun, that puts us into an ambiguous category. People understand what know-ledge is, but putting the two terms together can be confusing. If you consider it a verb, that’s a little better, but it still leaves the action—whatever it is—up for interpretation," Chris explained. "We believe KM is essential for any company that cares about the understanding, development and delivery of answers, regardless of their industry, or department or delivery channel...Web, phone, email, chat," said Chris. "But that’s a very difficult set of circumstances to get right. So KM has to be a combination of essential technologies, methodologies and experience."

Chris wanted to make a point here: "Here’s the difference between a piece of content and an answer: an answer is actionable. And in order to provide an answer that can be acted on, you have to understand the question," Chris continued. "Your wife, your kids and your buddies all speak to you differently (you’re telling me! I said), but they might mean the same thing (I doubt it! said I)."

Ignoring my stupid interruptions, Chris continued: "It takes experience to get to that level of interpretation. Experienced customer service representatives pretty much understand 80% of the inquiries coming in to them. Those are ‘the knowns.’ What we do is package up all these known top questions, along with the many ways in which these questions are asked. We call these ‘intents.’ What did the person intend to ask with that query or question...?"

What about the 20% that are not "knowns," I wondered? Chris was realistic and frank: "If you can be effective at 80% of the questions coming into your contact center, that’s darned good! And even with staff turnover and financial stress affecting service levels, it’s not that hard to get repetitively better at answering common questions," he insisted. Chris thinks it’s not that different than the contact center of the past. "It’s always been done through training, coaching, system monitoring... we’re just now taking all that training and bringing it down to a search string. We expect the level of technology today to say: ‘You said that, but you probably meant this.’"

Chris is unequivocal and unapologetic that KM sometimes requires a "massive" (his word) amount of technology. Many people I talk to try to diminish the technology component, preferring the softer, more "people+process" approach. Chris is the first to admit that because of the large technology component, his company has been focused on larger organizations. So to widen the net, they are implementing a SaaS model so that smaller companies can take advantage of the solution.

That marketplace—on-demand KM, rented services, whatever you want to call it—IS seeing a lot of action right now, mainly expressed through acquisition and partnerships between really big players (Oracles and Siebels) and specialized service providers. "That should take the COST element out of it for smaller companies," said Chris. "But the NEED situation comes down to whether you are currently giving your customers the answers they need. If you are already, with your current staffing etc., then you don’t need KM. I don’t know if that puts you in the minority or the majority, but if you’re able to provide customer answers, and you don’t have a lot of turnover and you don’t have a complex portfolio of products, then kudos to you."

But I get the feeling he thinks that is a rare animal indeed.

Which side of the aisle you sit on will determine the way in which you interpret the following articles. But be assured: there IS some level of KM in your company. The trick is not so much determining how, but why?

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