Access to essential information and the ability to apply it with full knowledge of its implications are essential to all services. Knowledge management has long been a bane of services. What does one have to do to keep the information flowing?
The European Committee for Standardization suggests the definition: “Knowledge is the combination of data and information, to which is added expert opinion, skills and experience, to result in a valuable asset which can be used to aid decision making.” [Ref 1]
Why It Matters
Knowledge Management has particular effects and value in:
Innovation – The original, new and important creation of value frequently draws on the combination of previously discrete sets of knowledge. It arises from conversation, reading around and the testing of assumptions. It can be transformative and colossally valuable, yet is illusive and hard to pin down.
Vendor Relationship – The interpersonal, financial and commercial management of a supplier-customer relationship relies extensively on knowledge of the contract, waivers, change and agreements.
Technical Discovery – Any change, large or small, requires a knowledge of the current state and why it has been configured that way so that the effects and interactions of change may be accurately assessed. This is also called upon in fault-fix, capacity and availability management amongst others.
Transition – The transfer of responsibility between parties (people or entities) so that those who are to assume responsibility may come to know something of the service, its assets, customers, processes and interactions.
Customer Service – The effective fulfilment of almost any service transaction requires timely access to relevant information. This is most visible to customers in the ability of agents to resolve issues rapidly on the first call. This is perhaps most acute in global business services where multiple people may be called upon to support a customer, separated by time, space and sometimes organisation.
One of the early thought-leaders in the field of knowledge management was Ikujiro Nonaka. He studied the processes used by Japanese companies to create new knowledge and apply it systematically as part of a consciously managed process to drive product and service innovation [Ref 2]. Peter Senge in his seminal “The Fifth Discipline – The art and practice of the learning organisation” [Ref 3] looked at the systems (as in feed-back loops), organisation, behaviour and leadership of activity that helped organisations to get smarter, understand threats and capture new opportunities. Probst et al [Ref 4] approached the processes and structures with rigorous Germanic clarity of process and dispassionate, inhuman efficiency. In contrast, Seely-Brown [Ref 5] turned his back on technology and looked at the interactions between social groups and information. For Thomas Stewart [Ref 6], the question was “How do smart companies exploit intellectual capital to increase their market value enormously over the book value of their tangible assets?”
Within ITIL, Knowledge Management is couched as a process within Service Transition Management. It is presented as a lifecycle process, so spanning the whole life of the service from concept to withdrawal. It is a coordinating and guiding process. Configuration data is excluded as being within the scope of another. A central artefact supporting the process is the “Service Knowledge Management System” (SKMS). The purpose of this is to act as a repository for the data that underpins knowledge. This is useful for what needs to be done, less so for how best to do it.
The Implications for Services
There are many possible perspectives, but for me there are two with high impact:
Service Efficiency – Service delivery people need knowledge of the services to perform their daily tasks well. Speed, accuracy, operational risk and economy are significantly affected by the quality with which this is achieved. This is predominantly transactional and affects aspects such as service availability.
Effectiveness – Those who are seeking to stimulate innovation and drive the service forward in the pursuit of the customer’s corporate objectives need knowledge both of the service and what is possible in the universe outside that could bring advantage. This is predominantly strategic and conceptual and affects aspects such as stealing a march on competitors.
Both of these are affected when there is a change of supplier. Knowledge will then need to be transferred from the outgoing to the incoming. Competent suppliers have developed approaches to facilitate this and secure critical data and information assets. True knowledge is much harder to handle.
SKMS and Efficiency
Technology can help to manage data and information (“explicit” sources). The richness with which searches can be conducted has grown enormously over the last few years. Indexing things accurately helps, but is now less critical than it used to be. The problem is now frequently that we get so many hits that pulling the important out of the morass is the dominant issue. When the question is known, technology helps us search for, analyse and report on the evidence to answer it.
When I have been involved in service transition or improvement, the key question has been “who needs to know what to do their job well?” Often, we ask people to act without providing the information on which to decide. This is patently stupid. In working on a failing service in an organisation where highly sensitive personal data was handled, we found that the culture of secrecy that understandably had grown up was interfering with the ability to deliver the service. We worked with the service delivery teams to define the information they needed and went around establishing sharing agreements and building personal links between groups to maintain information currency. None of this was personal and little was sensitive from a security perspective. We took particular care over the areas required to keep the content current and reliable.
Years ago I worked with some very long-life infrastructure customers. Nuclear installations, power plant and railways take a long time to build, cost a lot and last a very long time. In the 1990s the British railways were still referring to track drawings prepared on velum by Victorian draftsmen. A practice called “Product lifecycle management” developed to address the need to take engineering information, including supporting calculation and rationale, from design projects into safe long-term accessible store. This would be needed for years to come to support maintenance and ultimately decommissioning. No small matter when large elements are rendered radioactive. Practice has since moved on. Work at the University of Reading with the construction industry and others has developed standards for the exchange of data between design and operations groups to support this. There is much that can be learned by service organisations in this field.
Where to look for information becomes a significant matter in multi-sourced services (e.g. SIAM). Where many organisations are involved, the rate of change in people and information storage is high. The various organisations have their own networks and security. This impedes the automated and social exchange of information and the flow of knowledge. A simple question such as “before I seek to change it, what is the current state of this part of the estate and process?” can become a hugely expensive discovery exercise. Some of the answers may be recorded in a Configuration Management Database or design documentation, some of which may be accurate in recording what is in place. Many of the important considerations and connections are in the heads of architects and technicians. Who are they? Where are they? Are they still on the account?
The effective management of knowledge on a service requires:
- An environment of trust in which such interactions can occur rapidly with low levels of friction;
- A complete set of records of what has been delivered and changes to it;
- Technical means to draw upon, search and exchange information between service providers;
- Commercial support to provide access to intellectual property when necessary for the delivery of the service;
- Incentives aligned to support the creation and capture of continual improvement;
- Processes in which the players recognise their role to provide and maintain accurate information and pass it on to others;
- Personal relationships and connections to support the identification and engagement of the right people;
None of these happens by accident. The wise start with forming the environment and diligently keep track of change. You cannot realistically recover this if it is ever relaxed.
Network Effects on Innovation
I relish the power of a well-chosen dining table where eclectic interest plays with matters of weight or interest, tongues liberated from conventional restraint by a fine wine. Humour facilitates the leap sideways into new possibility. The diners test assumptions through the joust of debate. It is stimulating and frequently influential.
Ask the right question, and the answer may still take research and effort to address, but appears obvious when later reported. This is where insight and wisdom come to play. To drive and deliver effective innovation, the most important factor is who is involved. The best people have an extensive and well-informed knowledge of their own area of expertise and a good set of relationships with others on whom they can call from across the service and beyond. I used to do a lot of service design work. Knowing who were the leading companies and who within them to call (or who within my own company could find these connections) was key to assembling a winning proposition. Similar issues arise for customers seeking to procure a service. A well-informed advisor has a critical role to play in this, I enjoy this greatly. The success of the final solution is strongly influenced by the quality of this foundation work.
Sometimes the critical observations will be based on deep understanding of obscure interactions learned from many years’ experience. Sometimes it will be from access to a new technique held by a particular niche supplier that has not yet been introduced. This may look like serendipitous chaos and there is an element of that. However, the wise follow an organised process knowing what they have to manage to get results. They learn this through engineering studies, commercial and professional development.
The discipline of knowledge management and sources such as those identified above help greatly to establish an effective environment and process. Knowing who to turn to and what to ask them is part of the art of doing it well. The ability to do this depends upon:
- Choose your network carefully. Not all links are of equal value. Cultivate it, grow it, feed and water it;
- Follow up on opportunity and seize it when it calls;
- Start your programmes early, the most valuable require many connections that take time to build;
- Direct your energies to play to your strength and progressively build competence, reputation and market success. It is impossible to do everything, so choose your direction and priorities carefully;
- Take some chances with tactics. Experiment and some will come off.
In the field of knowledge, it can be difficult to predict what will be of value in the future. Thinking about the contribution to your strategy and what you have to do well now is a good start.
The Long Game
That knowledge is a “soft” subject does not render it any less valuable than the tangible. Indeed Stewart’s work [Ref 6] showed in hard economics how powerful this is for organisations, supply chains and ultimately their stock-market value. Knowledge management principles have important roles to play in designing and amending sourcing arrangements for innovation, and for the daily grind of operations. It is less a discrete subject than one that infects every aspect of a well-formed service. If yours could be improved, call in help, it is worth it.
“The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.”
From TS Elliott, The Rock.
This article was first published in Outsource Magazine and is reproduced with permission.
1] European Guide for Good Practice in Knowledge Management, European Committee for Standardization, March 2004
2] The Knowledge-creating company, Nonaka & Takeuchi, Oxford University Press 1995
3] The Fifth Discipline – The art and practice of the learning organisation, Senge, Doubleday 1990
4] Managing Knowledge – Building Blocks for Success. Probst, Raub, Romhardt, Wiley 2000.
5] The Social Life of Information, Seely Brown & Duguid, Harvard Business School Press 2000.
6] The Wealth of Knowledge – Intellectual Capital and the Twenty First Century Organisation, Stewart, Nicholas Brealy Publishing 2002.