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Knowledge management is an approach that can benefit all staff within an organisation, from senior management, to front-line staff, and out into the field.
Up to now however, many of the case studies have focused on management and consulting staff, and have not addressed the unique environment that is the public face of an organisation.
This article looks at the way front-line staff operate, and how knowledge management can be used to meet their needs.
This article does not provide the final answers to the challenges of bringing improved knowledge management to front-line staff. Instead, it is hoped that it will further encourage discussion and research in this area.
Introducing front-line staff
Front-line staff are those who interact directly with customers or the public. This includes:
- front-desk (or service-desk) staff
- customer service staff
- branch staff in general
- call centre (or help desk) staff
There are many other types of front-line staff, including sales staff, and those out in the field.
These two categories in particular have not been focused on in this article, as they have very distinct needs.
There is also already a reasonably substantial amount of literature on the knowledge management in the context of these two job roles.
The front-line environment is unique within a business
The front-line environment
It is important to gain an understanding of the environment in which front-line staff operate, as this is very different to the management and administrative environment in most organisations.
Some key characteristics:
- Front-line staff typically have very defined job roles.
- Front-line staff have extensive interaction with customers or the public.
- There is a strongly hierarchical management structure in front-line environments. This typically goes from senior management to sector (area) managers, through to branch managers, team leaders, and then finally to customer service staff.
- Lines of communication follow this hierarchical ‘chain of command’.
- Most front-line staff hold relatively junior positions within an organisation.
- The majority of front-line roles are non-professional.
- Front-line staff typically receive a considerable amount of structured training when first employed.
- There are very strong time and resource pressures on the front-line environment.
- Front-line environments are often closely monitored through the use of a variety of metrics. (This is particularly true in call centres.)
- The organisation is legally liable for the actions of front-line staff.
- Front-line staff have limited opportunities to innovate the ways in which they work.
The key goal is consistency, not innovation
Innovation versus repeatability
Much has been made of the knowledge management’s importance in supporting innovation within organisations. This has led to the focus on approaches such as communities of practice, and the moves to create ‘knowledge-enabled’ organisations.
While developing new approaches is undoubtedly important, for many organisations, the challenge is to stay the same.
Government agencies are often a good example of this. They have a legislated function (whether it is providing drivers licences or providing social service payments). In these organisations, there is a requirement to provide the same level of service today, next year, and most probably, in ten years time.
That is not to say that the way these services are delivered cannot be improved upon, or that innovation does not play a role.
What must be realised, however, is that these agencies cannot pursue new market opportunities, create new products, or substantially alter the nature of the service they provide.
In these cases, knowledge management must focus on:
The challenge is to maintain these, in the face of organisational restructures, retiring staff, and other sources of destabilisation.
While this is not as ‘sexy’ as innovation, it is nonetheless an area where knowledge management has much to offer.
This will therefore be the focus of this article.
Unlike other areas of the business, there is little team-based or project-based work in the front-line environment. Instead, the front-line typically performs the work specified by the business, reflecting any changes and initiatives implemented by management.
The primary goal of knowledge management for front-line staff must be to effectively disseminate knowledge from central management, out to all branches and centres.
Note that this is more than just sending out information. Delivering the information is one thing, getting staff to act upon it is quite another.
Thus the focus is on communicating knowledge, whereby the staff take on the updated information and processes being disseminated.
The first step is to deploy an effective communications platform that will reach all front-line staff. This can then be used as a single source for updates and news.
This is only part of the solution. While a communications infrastructure can easily deliver information, it can just as easily overload front-line staff with a flood of information. With little available time, staff are then unable to keep up.
The knowledge must be disseminated in a form that is tailored for the specific needs of front-line staff. This means brief, concise and clear communications.
Beyond this, initiatives within each branch must be conducted to ensure that the knowledge reaches the actual front-line staff, and not just their mangers or team leaders.
The best way of ensuring that staff are kept informed is to involve them in designing a solution. In our experience, front-line staff have a very clear understanding of their responsibilities, and the knowledge they need to meet them.
Knowledge must be communicated out to front-line staff
The amount of information needed by front-line staff is staggering. This includes: product or service information, detailed knowledge about the organisation itself, latest updates and news, legal and compliance requirements, to name but a few.
Much of this knowledge is used daily, and therefore fairly easily remembered. Still more, however, arises rarely. It is this information that presents the greatest challenges.
Front-line staff often need the information before anyone else in the organisation. If there is an article announcing a new initiative in the newspaper, front-line staff need to know immediately, so they can appropriately answer questions and phone calls.
As a final challenge, there needs to be absolute consistency in the information that is provided to customers. If someone rings up twice, and talks to two different call centre operatives, they must be given the same answer. Likewise, the answers given by two different branches should be identical.
To meet all these needs, it is necessary to develop a ‘knowledgebase’, containing documented details for products, processes and customer questions.
This must be written in a way that supports rapid access and easy comprehension. Business processes must be put in place to maintain this, and to keep it up to date.
Unfortunately, the hierarchical and regimented nature of the front-line environment reduces the effectiveness of many of the other common knowledge management approaches, such as communities of practice.
While these may be of benefit within a single branch or call centre, there is little scope for knowledge sharing between different locations.
While this structure remains in place, it falls to management to ensure that front-line staff have the knowledge they require. While the staff must be involved in designing the solution, it will still need to be driven and maintained centrally.
New staff have a lot to learn, in a very short time
Inducting new staff
Front-line staff are most often employed from outside the organisation. These then become entry-level positions at the base of the corporate ladder.
As a consequence, new starters in the front-line environment know nothing about the organisation, and have a huge learning curve to overcome.
Not only must the learning be as rapid as possible, these same staff will soon be giving advice to customers, exposing the organisation to potential legal liability.
Organisations must tackle these challenges by using a range of effective learning and knowledge management approaches, including:
- best-practice learning techniques, such as ‘learning by doing’, etc
- self-paced learning and e-learning
- coaching, facilitation and mentoring
- knowledge transfer techniques, such as storytelling
There are real benefits to be gained by improving staff induction processes. For example, in call centres, initial training takes anywhere from 2 weeks to 3 months, the cost of which is considerable.
By reducing the time taken to induct new staff, while improving the quality of knowledge transfer, business benefits can be gained while reducing costs.
Front-line staff know your customers best
Gaining market intelligence
The flow of knowledge is not just one-way. As front-line staff have the most direct interaction with customers and the public, they are an invaluable source of market intelligence.
Front-line staff understand customers better than most others within the organisation, and will know their specific needs and complaints.
Processes must be put in place to feed this information back to the relevant areas within the organisation, such as the sales or policy units.
By doing so, it becomes possible to ‘close the loop’, and to create an integrated knowledge culture within the organisation.
Front-line staff are also able to provide valuable feedback on the organisation’s knowledgebases, as they are the ones actually using the information in practice.
By implementing simple feedback mechanisms, the repositories of knowledge within the organisation will be more accurate and up-to-date.
Benefits of front-line KM
There are very real benefits to be gained by implementing knowledge management in the front-line environment, including:
- improving customer service and satisfaction
- increasing sales
- improving consistency of advice and information
- reducing legal exposure and risk
- reducing customer support costs
- reducing staff training costs
- improving staff satisfaction
- reducing staff turnover
- improving staff efficiency
- improving marketplace intelligence
- greater consistency of processes over time
- greater protection against loss of knowledge when staff leave
Knowledge management has an important role to play in ensuring that front-line staff are efficient and effective.
It must be recognised, however, than the front-line environment is very different from management, consulting or administration.
Knowledge management initiatives must be developed with an understanding of front-line issues, to ensure that suitable techniques and approaches are used.
It is worth the effort. Knowledge management for front-line staff has the potential to deliver huge savings, reduce legal exposure, increase sales, amongst other benefits.