• October 1, 2011
  • By Ian Jacobs, vice president and research director, Forrester Research

All I Know Is That I Don’t Know Nothing

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A late-1980s ska-punk rock song by the band Operation Ivy had the memorable sing-along refrain, “All I know is that I don’t know / all I know is that I don’t know nothing.” Double-negatives aside, this should be the refrain for many brands and enterprises when it comes to understanding the critical intersection of knowledge management and customer service, as well as how those two areas combine with social technologies. Put bluntly, most companies have a serious knowledge management problem, exacerbated heavily by social channels.

As evidence of the central role that knowledge management has grabbed in technological approaches to improving customer service, consider a recent acquisition. In July, Oracle bought privately held knowledge management vendor InQuira. On the face of it, this was not a huge deal; a software behemoth buys a much smaller company to plug a product line gap. But InQuira was being tossed around as a potential target for a range of companies. Pundits had cited SAP, Alcatel Lucent’s Enterprise division (home of the Genesys brand), and even RightNow Technologies as potential suitors. So, besides Oracle, we have another enterprise application giant, a contact center infrastructure provider, and a customer experience/customer service specialist with a heavy social bent. 

What was extraordinary about this motley assortment: A reasonable argument could have been made for any of those deals. Knowledge management could provide a benefit to companies if combined with their CRM and enterprise application stack, if plugged directly into the infrastructure for delivering customer contacts to contact center agents, or if linked to their case resolution systems and social forums.

In fact, that last area soon could see the rise of a new category of technologies: social knowledge management. As a term, social knowledge management is problematic because it can equally mean “social + knowledge management” and “social knowledge + management.” In fact, a good social knowledge management system would provide both sets of benefits, adding social features to traditional knowledge management technologies, as well as being the tool for collecting, collating, and centralizing social knowledge and then distributing it throughout the enterprise. Social knowledge management could become the glue that allows social to break out of its current silo to become a core tool for customer service (as well as many other corporate functions, although those are beyond the scope of this column).

Currently, customer service delivered through social channels benefits only social users. If an enterprise provides support to a customer over Twitter, it is possible that dozens of other Twitter users could be helped by the same answer. But that does nothing for the hundreds or thousands who still use the phone to call into a contact center, especially vital given that the phone remains the most popular channel for contacting customer service organizations. 

End users currently generate a great deal of high-quality content and knowledge on community forums. When customer A solves customer B’s problem on a company-branded forum, or even on non-corporate sites such as Twitter or Facebook, that solution also might be able to provide useful knowledge to customers C and D. If those additional customers are using the same social network on which the initial peer-to-peer interaction took place, they can find that knowledge and solve their own issues. 

If, however, customers C and D have not thought to look at the community site and instead call into a traditional contact center, the company should still be able to use the peer-to-peer interaction. Social knowledge management tools then would be responsible for pulling that social knowledge into the enterprise and applying the same rigorous knowledge-blessing processes currently used to create, endorse, and distribute knowledge to the contact center. Also, social knowledge management tools could use feedback about knowledge items from customers on social channels to update information to agents about the effectiveness of various knowledge base items. 

What I’ve just described is an optimal case, but that idealized version of social knowledge management could be a key to extending the value of social technologies to all customers, whether they use social or not.

 Ian Jacobs (ian.jacobs@ovum.com) is a senior analyst at Ovum. He can be reached on Twitter as @iangjacobs. 



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