Why You Should Open Up Support to Your User Community

A group of Kinder egg working gnomes

Photo from Horia Varlan on Flickr

Do you know you have a ready-made community of practice that could be sharing knowledge amongst each other about your product or service? They might be talking in person, but it’s likely they occasionally talk to each other on Facebook or Twitter, as well. When groups of people get together to talk about your product or service they are commonly using, they uncover neat ideas on how your product can be used in innovative ways. They discover more efficient ways of using your product, based on the experience of others. We like to compare what we’re doing to someone else, just to know we’ve got it right.

Now imagine if you facilitated that by opening up an online user community, where your customers could come together and have those conversations in a space they know you’re available and listening. And I’m not just talking about your customers having somewhere to bring up feature requests or “here’s how we’re using it, what are you guys doing?” I’m also talking about your customers helping each other out when issues arise. Sometimes your customers, in their tinkering with an issue, come up with their own workarounds or solutions.

In December, I wrote a post detailing my predictions for 2012. One of those was an expectation that community management would merge with IT service support. Last night, I listened to a webinar called “Is the Service Desk Still Relevant?” During the panel’s discussion, ITIL author Stuart Rance (@Stuart Rance) and @ServiceSphere‘s Chris Dancy, called for service desks to create a community management role to engage with the user community and build upon the knowledge community members share amongst each other and with the service provider. By engaging with your user community in a searchable, online medium, you already have the basis of a living knowledge base. Some support software solutions provide a forum structure that is ideal for this kind of community, and others provide a social stream, not unlike Twitter, which lacks structure but can be easily tagged and searched.

If you’ve got the means but you’re unsure of the method, and you can get to Melbourne in September, please check out Swarmconf. You’ll get a ton of help and knowledge from experienced people in the online community management field, who can help you map out how to get started.

Tacit, Explicit, Implicit, Whatever. Let’s call the whole thing off.

the Wise Leader from HBR May 2011

Image* inspired by The Wise Leader from HBR May 2011


One of the highlights of the KM Australia congress was the debate on day 2. The topic was Making tacit knowledge explicit with collaborative technologies. Arguing for “we should and we can” was Aaron Everingham and James Dellow, and for “we shouldn’t and we can’t” was Shawn Callahan and Dr Vincent Ribiere. I thought it was an odd question in the first place, though there’s a good discussion in the KM Australia LinkedIn group. Brad Hinton also offered a response to the question on his blog. I found the meaning of should or shouldn’t in this discussion to be unclear, and indeed through the course of the debate, both sides agreed with each other at different times.
I’ve always found the conversations that nitpick over the definitions of tacit and explicit to be irritating, but just for the record, here’s what they mean:

Tacit – this is the knowledge in our heads that is made up from experience and personal contexts. It’s not written down and is hard to articulate. A great example, (and I don’t remember where I read this. If you know, please comment and I’ll link to it.), is the worker at an oil rig who knew there was a drilling failure by the feeling of the vibrations at a certain spot on the platform. The only way he could transfer that knowledge was by taking the visitor, who was documenting knowledge and procedures, out to that spot and showing them the feel of that vibration as it was happening and explaining what that meant. Apprenticeships, mentoring, and sometimes video documenting are good ways to tap into another’s tacit knowledge. Here are some other ideas.

Explicit – this is the knowledge that is written down and is accessible in one way or another.

Implicit – this is knowledge that isn’t written down yet but is largely procedural and not dependent on an individual’s context.

Implicit doesn’t often come up in conversations knowledge wonks have about the types of knowledge. Usually, we just talk about tacit and explicit, and this may explain why people confuse tacit with implicit. The reason I find these conversations irritating is because the person who needs the knowledge at the time they’re doing the work, probably doesn’t know and certainly doesn’t care. No complete knowledge management program has one single approach to knowledge transfer, aiding one type of knowledge at the expense of the other, anyway. We should always take a multi-pronged approach, even though we may make one change at a time. So let’s just get the knowledge to the people, no matter what its original form.

And so, what do collaborative technologies have to do with this discussion? These social tools allow us to connect virtually, before we meet in real life. They allow a relationship to germinate so that the initial awkwardness and defensiveness that some of us might feel on first meeting, isn’t there. When those barriers aren’t there the stories and personal contexts, and the tacit knowledge, flow much more easily. So, while collaborative technology doesn’t make tacit knowledge explicit, it certainly enables that knowledge transfer.

* The image is from this fassforward Consulting Group sketchnote, inspired by this article.

The itSMF Australia Conference Warm-up

In the weeks leading up to this year’s Australian national itSMF conference on the Gold Coast (Aug 20-22), the itSMFA is holding a series of twitter chats with speakers who will be presenting at the conference. Last week was with Rob England, the IT Skeptic, chatting about governance. I was on last night to talk knowledge management. I know it’s hard to get a full picture in 140 characters, but there were several gold nuggets in there and even if just one person takes one of those and builds on it, then it’s been a useful exercise. Check out the curated Storify and you might just take something away, yourself.

Metrics and Knowledge Management

I’ve been asked recently about metrics in knowledge management. Specifically, what are the things I like to measure. I do have a favourite. Diving down into the read count per topic or category and then looking further into what specific issues are being accessed most often can uncover potential improvements to products or services. Layers of complexity could be removed by redesigning the product or service for more intuitive use. Maybe the instructional documentation could be made clearer. Analysing metrics like these can help us improve our offering in a way that ultimately reduces the amount of support we need to provide. No wonder that’s my favourite.

Onboarding in the Flexible Working Environment

I read an interesting post recently, by James Dellow, about the relationship of our physical work environments and our work habits. He points out that the availability of wifi has enabled the concept of activity based working (ABW). This is where an organisation provides no permanent desks for employees, but rather allows people to sit in project-based groups. The work environment is far more fluid and some organisations even provide fewer desks than staff, encouraging them to work from home. On the surface, that sounds pretty great. The business saves money, and the employees have the freedoms and flexibility they’ve been wishing for.

Hoarding for headcount

I was one of the guest speakers at a seminar on Thursday. The NSW branch of the itSMF held their first quarterly seminar for 2012 and the theme was Knowledge is Power. It was a terrific lineup and a full house. The Q&A panel, following the two presentations, yielded some great questions, many of which, I expected to hear. There was one, however, that I completely fudged my answer to, even though I was prepared for it—it’s the one obstacle knowledge wonks face all the time. I thought I’d take this opportunity to explain why I blew it and also to answer it again, in writing.

To paraphrase the question: aren’t we knowledge-managing our way out of a job; and therefore, shouldn’t I be anxious about sharing knowledge?

Structure vs Search: Curating Knowledge

As Facebook approaches IPO and Twitter becomes part of the general media landscape, corporate-sanctioned social media tools are slowly seeping into the workplace. Once you’ve made the cultural shift of getting people using tools like Yammer, it’s not much of a leap from being one of the cool kids to becoming another confused one.

People are starting to wonder how to blend the structured environment of a knowledge base with the more chaotic and time-sensitive social channel, or whether they must choose one over the other. Well, you can run both and frankly, you should.

How to Review a Knowledge Base Article

A knowledge base is only as good as the information it contains. I think incorrect, out-of-date, and confusing articles are more common than most people would like to admit. Stay flush with your knowledge base currency by regularly reviewing existing articles. If you notice anything wrong with an article while you’re busy doing or looking for something else, flag it when you see it, so you can review it when you have time. If you’re following KCS methodology, articles will be in draft—ready for review—before being published. Just like any good writer has an editor, it’s good quality control to have a peer review your article for inconsistencies, anyway, before pushing the self-destruct publish button.

Knowledge Cafés and Cultural Variances

I’ve been nursing an addiction to LinkedIn groups—itSMF and knowledge management groups, in particular. One term that’s been coming up a lot is knowledge café. A knowledge café is a facilitated workshop, occurring in the workplace, that assists in a sort-of goal-oriented conversation. Conversations we could have at work with the intention of sharing knowledge and building on our professional relationships. David Gurteen is a well-known facilitator of knowledge cafés around the world.

Information disorder

The Information Age is bearing down on us. We’re carrying the burden of constant connection. Wireless internet, 3G, mobile devices, checking in where we’re going, checking out what others are doing, and that old dinosaur email—we’re all connected all the time. Life was smoother in the Stone Age once the wheel was invented. The greatest discovery of the Information Age won’t be targeted advertising, it’ll be whatever way we embrace the organisation of the information we choose to consume so that we can get back to it again quickly, when we need it.

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