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Applying the Five Laws of Library Science to Contact Center Knowledge Management

Leaving a job in a library for a job in a contact center didn’t seem like a natural move at the time, but the more experience I gain, the more common ground I see between these two worlds. At the heart of what we’re both doing is connecting people with the information they need. With that perspective in mind, I started to build the foundation of my team’s knowledge management environment around the Five Laws of Library Science. These basic principles, first proposed in 1931 by Indian librarian Dr. S. R. Ranganathan, have guided the way libraries and other information institutions manage their collections. This is also how I help the staff and customers of my contact center find what they need among our vast scope of policies, procedures, and resources.

The laws use the words “book” and “reader,” but in the modern library or contact center, we’re not always talking about actual books. “Books” in our context means any resources or content that someone is looking for. “Reader” traditionally means the library patron, but essentially means any audience for that content. I will be talking mainly about contact center agents as the audience for various internal resources, but the same principles can also be applied to the customer as the “reader.”

Laws of library science

Law 1: Books are for use

Library books are meant to be checked out, not just locked away for preservation or to make the library look important. That’s why the library has them. The resources you provide to agents, too, are meant to be used to help them do their job. That’s why we write them and make them available. They are not just meant to sit in posterity or for someone in management or QA to have a rulebook to judge people against. If they are not serving that purpose, find out why, and solicit agent input to improve their usefulness.

Law 2: Every reader his/her book

Every reader, every agent, every customer, should theoretically be able to find the “book” they need to read when they contact us. It may be impossible to answer every potential question anyone has ever asked in the knowledgebase and still have it be manageable, but by framing it this way, you can measure against a benchmark. Then you can start to ask questions about how to manage it. What would it look like for everyone to find what they need in the knowledgebase? What is missing? What do we do with the stuff that is not worth including? It also means providing a variety of resources to suit your agents’ different learning needs. Some may want the same information in a list of steps, some in screenshots, some like an FAQ format. Find a way to balance your team’s needs so that everyone can find and understand the stuff.

Law 3: Every book its reader

This one is somewhat contentious among librarians. Some believe that this is a natural fact on its own, that every book has somebody out there that will want to read it. I disagree. I think this is a prescription, not a description – that a curator has to manage the collection in such a way that this becomes true – that you constantly review and weed things that are not being used or that are out of date so that this statement remains true of your collection and audience. Everything you put in the knowledgebase must be useful to somebody. If it isn’t, take it out of there. Make sure your FAQs only include questions that really are frequently asked. Nobody will miss it if nobody was looking at it in the first place, and it will just clutter up the search results and hide the good stuff.

If you feel some tension between laws 2 and 3, between the need to capture the answer to every possible question and the need to clean up and make room for only the stuff you need most of the time, I’m right there with you. It is a continuous balancing act, and you’ll need the input of your staff and your customers to keep it in a good place.

Law 4: Save the time of the reader

The knowledge manager’s real job is not to know everything, but to organize, curate, and arrange the information in a way that the agents can easily retrieve and use what they need. Depending on the size and scope of what your contact center handles, this could be as simple as well-named files and folders, or it could be a complicated and robust environment of cataloging, tagging, natural language search processors, and curated links and interactive sites. Whatever it is, I believe it is better for me to spend a little bit of extra time setting things up in the back, one time, making things easier for the agents, rather than the agents having to spend that extra time every time they’re on the phone with a customer looking for something.

Law 5: The library is a growing organism

Everything will change. Your technology, your business’ products and policies, your customer’s expectations, and your staff. Even when you perfect your execution of the first four laws in your knowledgebase, you won’t be done. It can be formal or informal, but create feedback and review mechanisms, and revisit how your knowledgebase is holding up to these five laws. Involve agents in this process. Encouraging agents to contribute to the team knowledge will not only ensure that they are engaged and that the resources are written in a way they understand, but it will also build trust, usage, and compliance with the resources. Make it easy to edit, add, or remove resources as needed when things inevitably change.

As we all deal with increasingly unwieldy amounts of information, it is essential to look not only to technology but to professional experts across disciplines like library science and knowledge management to guide how we handle what we need to know. These are just theoretical principles, not a set of steps, but they give me a framework and a grounding from which I can make real business decisions that impact compliance, employee engagement, and ultimately customer effort and satisfaction.