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Consortium for Service Innovation

The Opportunity

Many service and support organizations use the tiered organizational structure to handle requests. This is an efficient way of working if the majority of the issues are simple or known and the first point of contact can resolve a majority of the issues. The more difficult issues then get escalated to higher-level experts.  Jon Stevens-Hall of BMC summarizes the advantages of a three-tiered support model:

  • Customers (requestors) are presented with a single communication channel to the support organization, regardless of the nature of their issue or question.
  • The general technical support skills needed to work in Tier 1 and Tier 2 support are easily found in the workforce. This also makes outsourcing of one or both of these layers straightforward, and as a result this is commonly seen.
  • Specialist technical resources can be insulated from direct contact ensuring that only properly triaged issues reach them.

Overall, the tiered model ensures that the simpler issues are being solved by generalist knowledge workers at a lower cost and the more difficult issues get to the higher skilled and more expensive resources.  However, there are some shortcomings of this model:

  • The tiered model creates organizational silos and handoffs/escalations that inhibit the exchange of information and knowledge, and thus inhibits learning.
  • Tiered support creates multiple queues. Any issues that can’t be solved by Level 1 enters a queue, turning a real-time activity into a backlog item (which is problematic in the Lean philosophy).
  • Tiered support blocks the route to the correct responder(s).  The knowledge required to solve the issue may reside across multiple teams or queues, or even in development/engineering.  This is particularly problematic for cross-product or multi-vendor issues.
  • Tiered support leads to issues “bouncing"; the case needs more information to proceed, or is assigned to the incorrect team.  This is time-consuming and very frustrating for the customer.
  • Tiered support does not solve the problem of knowledge workers becoming overwhelmed, as high volumes of difficult issues are escalated to Level 2 and Level 3.


A Shift in the New vs Known Ratio

For organizations who have implemented Knowledge-Centered Service (KCS®), the conversation around the new vs known ratio is not a new one.  The new vs known ratio is the ratio of requests that knowledge workers have to solve through research versus those requests for which we already have a resolution.  We define known as captured and findable by the intended audience.  As a general rule, service and support organizations' new vs known ratio is 30/70: 30% of the requests handled by a knowledge worker are new and 70% of the requests are known. Our goal is to shift the new vs known ratio to 70/30: 70% of the requests we handle are new and 30% are known - with the demand for known issues being satisfied by self-service. The degree to which we can shift the new vs known ratio to have a higher rate of new requests is good for both the organization and the knowledge workers.  The organization benefits in terms of resource utilization: we want to use the talent we employ to solve new issues, not handle repetitive known issues. And, most knowledge workers enjoy the challenge of solving new issues as opposed to the repetitive, mundane work of answering known issues.  Two major factors influence our new vs known ratio:

  • Effective self-service mechanisms 
  • Root cause and corrective actions on pervasive issues

As we get good at enabling self-service, and requestors can easily find the resolution to known issues, we need to pay attention to the patterns of article reuse in the knowledge base.  This should be driving root cause analysis and corrective actions that remove the high volume or pervasive issues from the environment - both of which will remove known issues. The ratio of new vs known issues starts to shift from mostly known to mostly new.  A higher percentage of new issues amplifies the shortcomings of the tiered structure listed above. 

If we think of the organization as a network of people and content, our goal is to optimize the network by connecting people to content (knowledge articles) for known issues and connecting people to people for new issues. Intelligent Swarming improves our ability to solve new issues by connecting people to people with a high degree of relevance.  It is a new way to align people with work. 


Employee Engagement

Employee engagement is a critical factor in any team or organization.  In general, many companies find it hard to engage their employees. Gallup’s report State of the American Workplace (2013) concludes that 70% of the workforce is disengaged.

“Most people work just hard enough not to get fired and get paid just enough money not to quit”  - George Carlin

While a paycheck is important, the research shows that engagement is created through factors like autonomy, human connection, recognition, self-expression, a stimulating career path, personal growth, sense of community, and other intrinsic incentives (Larry Myler in Forbes, 2013). Organizations benefit from engaged employees when they offer more than just the demands of the job. An organization will thrive when employees offer their creativity, optimistic attitudes, and belief in the purpose, mission, values, and brand promise.

Harvard Business professor Shoshana Zuboff in her book  The Support Economy writes about the future of Capitalism. She concluded that today's business models, based on the frameworks of concentration and control associated with twentieth century “managerial capitalism,” have reached the limits of their adaptive range. Once the engines of wealth creation, they have turned into its impediments. The society of the twenty-first century requires a new approach to commerce based on a new "distributed capitalism.”

Skill Development and Utilization

It becomes more and more evident that this global interconnected and constantly changing world needs so-called “T-shaped” people. T-shaped professionals possess deep disciplinary knowledge along with an understanding of the bigger picture, the context of use, and the ability to communicate across social, cultural, and economic boundaries (See picture.  Source:

T-shaped professional.gifThe two vertical bars of the "T" represent disciplinary specialization and the deep understanding of one system. Systems describe major services, such as transportation, energy, education, food, and healthcare, that impact quality of life. These systems are comprised of interconnected components of people, technology, and services. To understand a system, one must know how it functions from the bottom to top in order to address challenges.

The defining characteristic of the “T-shaped professional” is the horizontal stroke, which represents their ability to collaborate across a variety of different disciplines. To contribute to a creative and innovative process, one has to fully engage in a wide range of activities within a community that acknowledges their expertise in a particular craft or discipline and share information competently with those who are not experts.

This implies a change in emphasis from being a specialist or a generalist to being a specialist AND a generalist.  Most knowledge workers are trained and work as an I-shaped person. They are focused on being productive in one field and a particular skill set in which they gain knowledge.  Organizations nowadays require employees to collaborate with different disciplines, to handle information from multiple resources, and to contribute to organizational practices in an innovative way.

The same applies to the service organization. To dynamically fulfill the demand to service each unique request, knowledge workers need to collaborate with other knowledge workers or generalists to tap into the various skills available in the organization.

A T-shaped person taps into both the left and right brain. Daniel Pink explains the need for "whole-brainers" (as opposed to left-brainers and right-brainers) in his book A Whole New Mind: “We are moving from an economy and a society built on the logical, linear, computerlike capabilities of the Information Age to an economy and a society built on the inventive, empathic, big picture capabilities of what’s rising in its place, the Conceptual Age”. From a brain perspective, left-directed thinking is analytical, sequential, and textual, while right-directed thinking is more holistic, intuitive, and non-linear.  A T-shaped person integrates both left- and right-brain thinking.  Having a staff of T-shaped people gives us much greater flexibility in the utilization of our resources.

In his book, Now Discover Your Strengths, Marcus Buckingham argues that in their training of employees, organizations focus too much on correcting weaknesses, while there are huge gains to be made by building on employees’ strengths. By identifying strengths already present in the organization, employees can be utilized in the most suitable positions, where they can acquire skills easily, which in turn helps to improve employee morale and reduce turnover.  By focusing only on the left brain (developing deep but narrow analytical expertise), organizations underutilize the other skills present in each employee.  In fact, Buckingham's research implies that companies only use 40% of the skills they employ.

To summarize, some of the current issues in support organizations are:

  • The tiered support model may seem efficient but it functions with the boundaries of organizational silos and does not optimize the use of our resources (especially when solving new or complex issues).
  • The escalation model, or "throw it over the wall" approach, does not promote learning and creates an "us versus them" culture rather than a "we" culture.
  • The workforce is often disengaged and its strengths are underutilized

It’s time for a change!

The opportunity: Can we create an environment that facilitates collaboration, optimizes the use of resources, builds the skills we need, and enables people to feel a sense of ownership, autonomy, accomplishment, and contribution? The early adopters of Intelligent Swarming report a resounding YES! 


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