In a recent report, Forrester® predicts that pragmatic, “tech-led” innovations will play a prominent role in 2019. Says Carrie Johnson, Chief Research Officer for Forrester, in her prelude, “the pace of change is not slowing down, nor is the market getting more forgiving: customers challenge companies to deliver value to their lives.” In such a fast-paced, knee-jerk environment, companies cannot afford to ignore sources of friction.

This includes addressing technical debt.

The knowledge management function within an organization is one place where technical debt likes to quietly accrue. Yet, an efficient knowledge management function—and specifically a powerful knowledge management platform—can play a key part in fueling the kind of tech-led innovation called for by Forrester.

Here’s a look at a few ways organizations can start addressing technical debt in knowledge management.

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What is technical debt?

Essentially, technical debt is the creation of additional (and usually deferred) work. In most cases, technical debt is created when a company’s processes are operating at a less than optimal state.

Sometimes, technical debt is a necessary evil. The most common circumstance is the need to meet a deadline tied to a broader organizational initiative. Or the push to, say, ship suboptimal code in order to make good on customer demand for a certain feature or functionality.

Technical debt in knowledge management

Within the sphere of knowledge management, a few things commonly contribute to technical debt.

1. Assumptions

Sometimes, technical writers and other knowledge workers assume too much about their audience when creating content. They write customer-facing content as a product expert might, even though most customers (internal or external) don’t share the same expertise.

This creates a knowledge base full of content that customers don’t engage with because they don’t understand it. And when content is written in a language customers cannot understand, it’s unlikely to surface for the search terms that our customers will use to try and find it. Under these circumstances, customer self-service is suddenly far less likely.

2. Blindspots

What happens when customers do try searching for self-service content but cannot find it? They’ll either bounce or initiate a customer service interaction. This can lead to a cycle in which basic, “self-solvable” issues repeatedly generate interactions with level one support. This creates frustration for the customer—“why can’t you make it easier for me to do it myself?!”—and can burn agents out with mindless, repeat work. If customers cannot find a company’s relevant knowledge, that company misses out on the knowledge they might have gained from that customer interaction.

3. Organizational silos

There’s more than one way to shear a sheep. Wouldn’t it be nice to document all those ways in a single place so that everyone in the organization can benefit? Too often, various departments, business functions, or even branches will become silos of tribal knowledge. They fall into the cycle of using their own informal, ad hoc processes for capturing, sharing, and using information. So-called “experts” hold their tribal knowledge close to the chest.

Though this might be more convenient in the short term, it creates debts in communication, organizational efficiency, and access to information. Knowledge is only as powerful to the extent that it is available to internal and external customers. Information silos create inconsistencies. Inconsistent information can lead to inconsistent customer experiences.

4 tips for overcoming technical debt in knowledge management

Eventually, technical debt in these areas will require attention, something sound knowledge management tools and strategies are well suited for. Still, even with the right tools in place, technical debt can continue to build in the realm of knowledge. It’s cunning like that. What’s often needed is the right framework for knowledge capture, refinement, reuse, and publication.

Here’s a few ways to get there.

1. Take a “pragmatic inventory”

We don’t know what we don’t know. In the spirit of Forrester’s 2019 recommendations, start by documenting stakeholders in your knowledge management and customer self-service processes. Bring those people together and make an inventory of the areas heavy with technical debt. What are the consequences and how, in an ideal world, might they be solved? This process can help lay the groundwork for reducing technical debt.

2. Make it easier to access content

A common contributor to technical debt in knowledge management is a lack of customer-facing content. Without customer-facing content, companies miss out on the value that comes with searchable, findable help content, customer self-service being first and foremost among them. Though making documentation customer-facing can be a large and complicated step, the upside can be considerable.

That goes for both internal and external “customers.”

3. Understand the virtue of simplicity

A return to simple principles can work wonders. Simplified article structure, for example, or style and document layout. Straightforward, easy-to-follow navigation. For companies that regularly update existing content in the knowledge repository, try focusing on the content that users actually interact with and benefit from (as opposed to wholesale updates of everything under the sun). What internal experts think is worth their time might not be supported by user analytics and behavioral data.

4. Dig into the root cause

Knowledge can provide useful insights into customer sticking points. Dig into content analytics around common customer support issues, for example. Or search query data. These can lead you to the foundational source of customer friction, be it an outdated process, or a snare within the product itself. Lobbying support for these kinds of changes is a lot easier when the push is backed by objective data.

What will your pragmatic inventory look like?

Technical debt can never be entirely eliminated—not in knowledge management, not in code. How we manage it, though, should continue to evolve. No matter what a company’s “pragmatic inventory” for 2019 looks like, a failure to address the more pressing items can create untenable positions that ultimately hurt the end user.

Knowledge management platforms, in particular, have the potential to play an unexpected role in the kind of “tech-led” innovation that recent Forrester research calls for. As we’ve seen in the past, ignoring technical debt in knowledge management, especially as it relates to customer engagement, can prove disastrous.

KCS® is a service mark of the Consortium for Service Innovation.

Additional categories: Customer Experience, Knowledge Management