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Is Social Media Changing Knowledge Management?

Knowledge management is the process of controlling and using information about a corporation and its products that is already available. In the past, the marketing and legal departments controlled a company's external knowledge. Internally, the control was in the hands of the engineering and maintenance departments. While customers talked, the conversations were few and local, unless news of a recall, crime, or other unseemly event reached the news media.

Social Media Breaks Through

As a disruptive technology, social media is peered with a select group of technologies – such as agriculture, the steam locomotive, the automobile, and the radio – that radically changed how we live and interact with others. Through their transformative affects, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, blogs, and user-driven communities has extricated the control of corporate knowledge from the marketing, legal, and support teams and has placed it in the hands of customers. In spite of the disruption, businesses are learning to use this new control paradigm to their advantage. Brad Shimmin, Principal Analyst, Collaboration and Conferencing for Current Analysis, described this change well, stating, "at first, businesses fought against loosing the control of the corporate knowledge. However, corporations are now learning to harvest knowledge from both internal and external sources. Social media has increased the population of experts available to businesses which enables them to better serve customers."

Leveraging Social Media for Business

Businesses have discovered that there exist a whole host of different, unique, and beneficial views and uses of their products and services. Social media has introduced companies to a new population of users and knowledge managers; users that they may not have been aware of prior, who are using and adapting their products in ways that these companies had not envisioned. Furthermore, social media allows businesses to tap into this new collective knowledge. For example, if a business received a rather unique request from a customer, social media is an effective way of searching for an answer in the business’ partner eco-system, customer base, and this new user-universe.

At first, customer service followed the lead of the organization and tried to stifle the use of user communities and other social outlets as a customer service venue. However, customer service quickly learned that it could not stop customers from helping each other. Now support organizations are learning and capitalizing on social media as an open and unstructured "knowledgebase." Tim Hines expressed how social media is benefiting service and support organization in his article, Using the Contact Center and Knowledge Management to Make Customer Service Social. Hines wrote, “ … customers have always helped each other, and social technologies give them new, more scalable platforms for helping even more. Service and Support owns the “use” part of the customer experience, while social media amplifies the voice of the customer, providing new ways to listen and learn from customers. Social isn’t a threat for service and support—it's a force multiplier."

Refining Knowledge Management Tactics

Call centers are no strangers to social networking or knowledge management. Over the last several decades, agents and supervisors have developed unique ways of gathering and sharing knowledge. Because the call center is the company’s interface to the customer, it has historically been a crossroad of knowledge and traditional social networks. Anyone who walks through a call center for the first time is almost always amazed at the number Post-it notes and small slips of papers pinned to agents monitors and cube walls. These notes and papers are the nuggets of knowledge accumulated over the years, and in some cases, generations (experienced agents passing on their experienced to new agents). First time visitors are also surprised to see the level of sharing going on between agents. Historically, agents have used the knowledge (and Post-Its) of their neighbors simply by asking questions over the cube walls. Email and instant messaging allowed agents to seek answers from people outside their immediate proximity. Unified communication expanded the search area into the enterprise.

Today, through social media, agents have access to an exponentially larger population; an almost limitless "communal brain". Agents not only have access to other agents and experts within the enterprise, but through tools like Yammer, Cisco's Quad, Avaya’s Social Media Manager, SalesForce.com's Chatter, but they can tap into a greater knowledgebase of partners. They also can tap into the open and unstructured knowledgebase of the social network communities, using applications such as Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and other user communities.

Challenges and Opportunities of the Unstructured Knowledgebase

The open and unstructured knowledgebases presents both challenges and opportunities to service organizations. Lisa Abbott, Senior Product Marketing Manager at Genesys suggests that companies take advantage of the available opportunities, stating that "Call centers and customer service organizations need to become part of the on-line communities or risk being cut-out of the conversation." Abbott also advises that companies proceed with caution. She says, "Social media offers tremendous opportunities to support organizations. But, they must acknowledge they can no longer lead the conversations as they did when FAQ's and on-line knowledgebases were the norm. Customers are no longer looking for answers at a company's website. They are more likely first using Google for their answer."

The opportunities of an almost unlimited information source are generating excitement among many customer service organizations. Abbott adds, "Once service organizations realize the potential that social media offers, they are confronted with how to gather and organize that information into something they can use. That is the next big challenge in customer service."

So let's face reality. Customers have been helping each other since the dawn of commerce. Social media simply provides another channel for that socialization to continue at a much grander scale. Social media is not changing knowledge management; it has already changed it and support organizations can either join in the conversation or be left behind.


Michael Barbagallo is the President and Principle Analyst of Shenandoah Analytics. [email protected].