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What is a knowledge management system?

Establishing a knowledge management system can have a major impact on business

By Tara Ramroop, Senior content marketing manager

Published May 26, 2020
Last modified June 12, 2020

The knowledge management system defined

A knowledge management system is both the process for gathering, organizing, and sharing information across an organization, and the technology used to manage those processes.

A knowledge management system is often created to improve the customer experience—self-service portals are popular ways for customers to self-assist when they need help on simple issues that don’t require 1:1 support, for example. But knowledge management has an equally important impact on internal operations, too; when a business becomes a more knowledge-centered organization, it ensures that information about products, tips, and tricks aren't siloed within certain teams or departments.

Establishing a culture of knowledge-sharing helps ensure that everyone has equal access to institutional knowledge that can help them do their jobs, and that everyone contributes to filling knowledge gaps across the company.

Some types of knowledge include:

  • Expertise that feeds help center articles, which outline step-by-step instructions for customers to self-serve on common support inquiries, or for agents to consult in the course of helping customers one-on-one
  • Internal context from the customer support team about a persistent customer-facing issue, such as a bug in the software or a design oversight impacting the customer experience
  • Tips from community managers and moderators about optimizing the product for their unique use cases
  • Information from product experts that help technical writers create official product documentation
  • Updates from the product team on upcoming new features
  • Interviews, survey results, or feedback from the customer success team or a voice of the customer program

What is the purpose of a knowledge management system?

There are many reasons for establishing a knowledge-management system within an organization. First and foremost, harnessing the power of institutional knowledge can streamline operations across the board. In other words, good knowledge management practice is the high tide that raises all boats.

Proper knowledge management breaks down internal silos of information that can come with periods of high growth or expansion. Furthermore, knowledge is the basis of good self-service, and self-service helps a business scale support operations. Ensuring fresh, relevant content is available for customers can improve the customer experience and provide a competitive advantage.

Failing to address knowledge management complexity risks fragmented information that is hard to find when customers or agents need it most, according to a report on knowledge management from Customer Contact Week Digital. For example, say the support team is killing it on capturing knowledge that is most useful for them: accurate, complete answers to customers’ most frequently asked questions. They have a solid process for sourcing and publishing content on a help center, and, as far as they know, the knowledge management ship is sailing smoothly. But maybe community managers are creating a ton of helpful advice for unique use cases, visible only to a handful of people within a small team. There might even be multiple sets of information and documentation for multiple products and services, with no knowledge-sharing opportunities bridging any of them. When there are this many sources of truth, there are no sources of truth.

Having a process in place captures tacit knowledge that might otherwise fall through the cracks and gives teams across an organization the power to leverage that knowledge throughout their workflows.

Knowledge management system benefits

There are many downstream benefits of a knowledge management system.

  • Good knowledge management improves customer experience. We’ve known for a long time that customers prefer to self-serve for simpler tasks, such as changing their password or for answers to frequently asked questions. Data in the 2020 Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report confirms that self-service remains an essential component of good customer experience. Customers not only want to take care of problems themselves, they are open to interacting with bots and AI if it means fast, efficient resolution to their issues.
  • Good knowledge management improves agent efficiency. While customers who self-serve on simple queries can take the heat of busy agents, good knowledge management practices enable agents to become cross-functional collaborators within an organization. Months after a product launch, for example, an agent with explicit knowledge of a product or feature would be in good stead to make suggestions for future launches and versions of the product. They would also be armed with the context needed to assist customers seeking 1:1 support with complex issues within their area of expertise. Harnessing their intellectual capital can be a boon for their careers and the business.
  • Good knowledge management breaks down internal silos. These silos can prevent organization-wide sharing of information that can assist everyone, not just those on specific teams, to do their jobs better. Think of every time you contacted someone within your own company for information or insight about specific topics; and then consider how much easier it would be to start by browsing an organized repository of organizational knowledge on that topic, available to all employees regardless of team, role, geographic location, or software permissions. A knowledge management system that surfaces knowledge throughout the organization can make this a reality.

Establishing a knowledge management process

Given the wide range of business needs that good knowledge management can help support, the shift toward becoming a knowledge-centered organization requires the buy-in and participation of many teams beyond front-line customer service operations, which includes those teams identified above: product, IT, customer success, and documentation experts, to name a few. Organization-wide buy-in also helps break knowledge management silos before they pop up, because everyone will be on the same page from the start and more likely to turn to it when they need help. It also establishes knowledge management as a shared benefit and shared responsibility—though documentation experts often take the lead, effective knowledge management isn’t only their responsibility.

Here are some knowledge management best practices to get started:

  • Identify quantitative and qualitative knowledge management KPIs, such as ticket deflection rate or an observed increase in cross-functional collaboration. KPIs aren’t one size fits all, so be deliberate about what you track based on what the business is trying to achieve with knowledge-sharing and automation.
  • Thoughtfully structure your knowledge management team to include a knowledge editor, who helps ensure a cohesive, brand-right voice and tone; an executive sponsor, who helps ensure the entire knowledge management function is cross-functional and strategic; and individual contributors and subject-matter experts, who provide the essential knowledge transfer.
  • Source contributors by identifying candidates with skills that are especially useful in knowledge management, such as project management, content management, or technical writing, and continue to develop those skills over time. Some good candidates include support agents with creative problem-solving skills or writing chops, power users of existing knowledge management tools, or technical writers who have a particular savvy and passion for bringing a human voice to technical processes and tools. Many of these roles can be deputized as ad-hoc knowledge workers.

Best practices for designing a knowledge base

Once you’ve decided to move forward with creating a knowledge management system, it’s time to design a knowledge base. Here are some of the most important knowledge base design strategies that apply regardless of the type of business or user base being served.

  • Make complex knowledge simple to consume. Use simple language to describe the steps involved in solving a problem. The knowledge base isn’t a resource if people are still confused after consulting it for assistance.
  • Keep titles concise. Continuing the theme of simplicity, keeping titles concise increases the likelihood of the articles being useful and searchable.
  • Build and improve knowledge over time. Taking an agile approach to maintaining the knowledge base helps ensure it stays fresh and relevant.
  • Empower your team to work cross-functionally with analytics and AI. With more customers and internal users depending on the knowledge base, a strong feedback loop helps ensure more reliable, accurate content is available at all times for customers, agents, and internal collaboration. And deploy AI to spot trends in what people are clicking on, searching for, and more.
  • Implement a responsive design to help ensure a good experience no matter what device is being used.

A modern knowledge management tool can help streamline all of the above. Smart knowledge management software and knowledge base solutions, for example, can automatically offer relevant articles in response to search queries. Knowledge base software solutions equipped with machine-learning capabilities can also get smarter with time, improving the quality of the automatic responses served up via AI. Other technologies can streamline the maintenance and upkeep of the knowledge base, prompting knowledge contributors to update certain articles, to fill knowledge gaps, or to verify accuracy and relevance.

Check out some of the best knowledge management examples and see how companies like Spartan Race, Vend, Khan Academy, and Tesco are empowering support agents, harnessing the power of community, and creating simple, beautiful customer experiences by putting smart knowledge management practices into place.

Your customer base is expanding—is your self-service scaling with it?

Learn more about how knowledge management can impact and scale support.