Features September 2020

Digital Services and Knowledge Management: A River Runs Through It

By Dr. Liz Herman | STC Associate Fellow

If you read the March/April 2020 issue of Intercom—more specifically, the article I wrote titled “Customer Experience and Content: The Field of Dreams”—you might have picked up on the movie theme that I used as an analogy. You won’t be surprised, then, to see another movie analogy appear in this article as well. I’m not sure if the current pandemic has television stations replaying a lot of older movies, if I’m just racking up more screen time while staying home, or if I’m attempting to use that extra screen time as a sensemaking mechanism for the chaos of the world around me, but the movie A River Runs Through It came to mind while I was participating in, and listening to, a government roundtable about leveraging digital (think: online) services to assist customers.

In late July, I was scheduled to provide some remarks about knowledge management (KM), which happened to come near the end of the virtual roundtable. As I listened to the speakers before me, I saw KM running through all of their comments. There was talk about the sense of urgency the pandemic created for federal agencies and how there was a need for accessible, understandable information for the public. There was conversation about internal customers (agency employees) who suddenly found themselves, like many of us, working from home, and how they had to find new and different ways to collaborate with each other. There was agreement that technology, metrics, and analytics can be useful to illuminate where information gaps exist. User experiences, journey mapping, and human-centered design were mentioned. KM is the river that runs through all of this. KM is the unifying piece of the puzzle when it comes to a digital service strategy. I’ll elaborate, but first let me talk about the movie, which was recently on television.

A River Runs Through It is a movie based on the semiautobiographical novella of the same name by Norman Maclean. It stars Brad Pitt and is directed by Robert Redford, if that rouses anyone to watch the movie. Tom Skerritt, Craig Sheffer, and Brenda Blethyn are terrifically cast as well. It is also narrated by Robert Redford. Readers, his voice is like butter. It’s his narration, coupled with the gorgeous Montana scenery, that is the star of this show—sorry, Brad. I won’t spoil the movie for any future viewer other than to say that the storyline is about the Missoula River and how it connects with the land and how it connects people. Having grown up boating and paddling on the Mississippi River in Iowa, I know firsthand how the river runs through the story of my childhood. Sappy? Maybe, but watching the movie a few days before participating in the roundtable, I couldn’t help but think about KM flowing like a river through digital service touchpoints.

Touchless Services

The pandemic prompted many of us to embrace touchless experiences that we might not have accepted before. Online learning, telehealth appointments, mobile deposits, and ordering groceries for delivery are some examples. New programs introduced by the government rendered digital services absolutely necessary as citizens tried to find out about testing locations, stimulus checks, and small business loans, among other things.

While contact centers across the country—including Senture, LLC, the company I work for—quickly transitioned their customer service representatives (CSRs) to work at home while hiring hundreds more to meet the demands of these new programs, phone lines were still overwhelmed in the early stages of the remote-work situation, leaving people to access online resources to get questions answered.

There are lessons that we can learn from this and subsequently apply for continuous customer service improvement. Leveraging KM is central to this discussion.

Seize the Moment

KM is all about having the right information, understandable to you, and available to you at the right time. The best KM practices ensure that there is a continuous-improvement feedback loop between the users, stakeholders, subject matter experts, knowledge and content managers, technical communicators, and even the systems in use. For example, if a CSR uses a knowledge base to answer a customer’s question, “seizing the moment” means enabling the CSR to give immediate feedback about that answer, directly from the system they’re using, to the content team. Seizing the moment ensures that answers stay accurate and relevant in the knowledge base and truly assist the inquiring customer. If a CSR doesn’t have a channel back to the KM team, opportunities to improve the knowledge base can be lost. It’s the same with customers: if customers aren’t given an opportunity to rate answers in the knowledge base or provide their level of satisfaction with an answer, the feedback loop breaks, making it more difficult to improve answers or correct outright errors.

In many cases, and certainly during the pandemic, customers are not interacting with CSRs, making it more critical that knowledge portals, agency websites, and AI-enabled technology such as chatbots deliver the right information. In those digital self-service channels, customers still need a way to interact with, and provide feedback on, information. Seizing the moment means pausing now to collect lessons about how those digital services failed us or left us wanting during the pandemic, while those lessons are top of mind, and incorporating them into strategies and solutions going forward.

A Sense of Urgency

Now that I’ve hopefully imbued a sense of urgency around capturing lessons learned before we all block out 2020 as an annus horribilis, exercise caution when disseminating information without considering the user experience. The pandemic has most likely tested the best KM governance and content management plans. In efforts to share knowledge, the knowledge hasn’t always maintained its user-centeredness—in other words, it wasn’t always understood by the customer. As one participant remarked during the roundtable, the sense of urgency eclipsed the human-centered design process. Her lesson learned was that information needs to be reviewed through the user’s eyes before it sees the light of day. Without that lens, more work is created as information is backtracked through review processes and refined to minimize customer confusion and provide support. I’m not necessarily advocating a “less is more” approach when it comes to sharing knowledge, because information should ideally flow like water from a fire hose in times of crisis. Users and their experience with said knowledge, however, must always be considered. Shoring up our ability to keep users in mind when sharing knowledge in urgent situations will strengthen future responses.


Whose heart wasn’t warmed by people sharing teaching tips, sewing and music lessons, or video conference how-tos? Knowledge sharing is suddenly in fashion. We need to continue that momentum. When we’re on the other side of this and living in “the new normal,” let’s remember the feeling of unifying for a greater good and remember how sharing knowledge made a positive impact. Let that be one of the first lessons learned to come from this: hiding knowledge serves no one.

The most successful organizations embraced available collaboration tools to continue doing work and to maintain a sense of engagement among their employees. Who has been to a virtual happy hour with their organization within the last six months? In this, too, KM plays a role. Organizations that had ready content or were able to quickly develop content around working from home, system setup, and video conference instructions seemed to fare better in terms of pandemic response reaction. This is anecdotal, but academics and researchers take note of the rich canvas before us in terms of studying what worked well and who (which organizations) truly thrived during the pandemic with KM. When you move your whole organization offsite in a few days, the knowledge that employees have accessible to them in the remote environment becomes paramount. A robust KM program eases those transitions. Just as organizations want customers to have access to information, employees must have access as well, from wherever they are and often without the assistance of another person. Self-service for employees is also necessary when considering digital services.

Technology Enablement

Technology enables KM; it, in and of itself, is not KM. When conducting a case study years ago on an organization’s adoption of KM, I quickly learned that the technology didn’t matter as much as the employees, the organizational culture surrounding those employees, and how change was managed. I know that continues to be true today, which is why I discuss technology as an enabler of KM.

During the pandemic, technology-enabled KM allowed knowledge and content teams to see how customers accessed information from their agencies and organizations. That’s important, because it helps us understand, going forward, which self-service channels become channels of choice in times of crisis: Is it the web portal? Answers provided through an Interactive Voice Response? AI-enabled web chat? But it also forces us to consider questions about still-used channels, like correspondence. What happens when there’s no one in the building to answer the mail? How do we accommodate those users? Is there a technology-enabled solution for that?

As discussed in the roundtable, agencies saw success in sharing knowledge and engaging employees when they used technology enablement in multiple ways, such as the following:

  • The public-facing portal
  • The employee-facing intranet
  • The learning management system offering training courses
  • Document management systems fostering synchronous and asynchronous collaboration
  • The customer relationship management tool used to analyze customers

If the flow of knowledge was impeded during the course of the pandemic, identifying how technology supported or undermined those processes is worth uncovering and fixing, if necessary.

Merging KM and Digital Services

In the last few lines of the movie, narrator Robert Redford says, “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.” Merge is such a great word choice in that sentence written by Norman Maclean, because it means “to combine into a whole.” Any digital services strategy cannot be whole without KM embedded across all the touchpoints. KM runs through it, and the opportunity is before us as knowledge managers to improve our practice using lessons learned from the pandemic.

Dr. Liz Herman (liz@lizherman.com) is an STC Associate Fellow working at Senture, LLC, as its Director of Knowledge Management. She is currently on the STC Nominating Committee and writes the occasional book review for STC’s journal Technical Communication. She grew up in Dubuque, Iowa, bordered by the mighty Mississippi River.

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