How to Retain Institutional Knowledge Despite Cutbacks

By Roland Murphy

Understanding and overcoming call center agent turnover has always been a challenge for supervisors and managers. You need to find good employees, train them well, and then, most importantly, keep them working for you.

The ongoing economic downturn has placed additional pressure on the already tenuous state of employee retention. Many call centers have been forced to cut staff when faced with decreases in sales or budget cuts. Organizations not only face the challenge of trying to do more with fewer employees; in many cases, they have also lost the valuable expertise those employees had developed over their tenure. Companies may have initially thought they were merely losing valued employees, a difficult enough proposition, but they no doubt also relinquished important institutional knowledge.

In today’s business environment, companies rely heavily on internal experts and specialists; this holds especially true when it comes to regulatory compliance. “Mike” may be your go-to authority for questions surrounding Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI-DSS) compliance. “Helen” may be the resident expert when it comes to healthcare information management (HIM) and Health Insurance Portability Accountability Act (HIPAA) compliance.

Institutional Knowledge Is Built Organically: Often, employees don’t join an organization with a high level of expertise on a given topic unless that was what they were specifically hired for. A more common scenario involves the employee being tasked with researching a topic to address a particular need at a particular moment. As more and more questions about that subject are generated over time, they are routed to that employee because they’ve dealt with it in the past. Their expertise develops organically.

This phenomenon can prove quite valuable – provided the employee stays with the company. In the face of voluntary and involuntary workforce upheaval, an organization can suddenly find itself operationally ignorant in an area of expertise on which it has built part of its reputation. In short, it has experienced a critical institutional knowledge loss.

Companies Retain Knowledge “Poorly or Not at All” When Workers Leave: According to a Knowledge Retention Survey conducted in 2008 by the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) in conjunction with the Center for Effective Organizations and the Human Resource Planning Society, 30 percent of responding companies said they retain knowledge poorly or not at all when workers leave, while half (49 percent) think they’re doing only “okay” at preserving institutional know-how. Just two in ten think they are doing well or very well in knowledge retention.

Effective knowledge transfer and retention strategies can help to ensure that a single employee does not become the sole source of expertise in a particular area. Call recording technology is a viable component for supporting both these efforts.

Call Recordings Can Preserve Institutional Knowledge: Contact centers regularly use call recordings to review agent performance and as a highly effective training tool. When a team member experiences a particularly good sales or service call, it is often shared with other agents as an example of how to properly interact with a caller. This is a commonly used and well-known benefit of call recording technology in the contact center environment. However, call recordings are typically underutilized when it comes to supporting the creation of a critical-knowledge database.

Cross-Training via Call Recordings: In combat, Special Forces units adhere to an operational doctrine that every person on the team can perform someone else’s job should the need arise. In that way, should the unit lose its communications expert, for example, another soldier can carry out those duties. While each member of the team is a highly skilled specialist, cross-training increases the utility of each soldier under extraordinary conditions. Your contact center operations, when faced with workforce disruptions, should operate the same way.

As an example, let’s say “Mary” is a sales engineer providing sales support in your call center. Last year, she was tasked with developing a report detailing the basic rules and requirements of the PCI-DSS. She did the research, wrote the report, and you distributed it to your team.

Fast-forward a year later – there have been some changes to the regulations. One of your sales reps calls in with a PCI-related question, and Mary informs her of the change in the requirements. The rep thanks Mary and hangs up.

In most organizations, that would be the end of the exchange. However, in an organization that wants to promote knowledge sharing and enhance the longevity and scope of its institutional memory, the supervisor will share a recording of that call with the rest of the team. Mary is still your first line of expertise on PCI questions, but now she’s not the sole source of knowledge.

That cross-training opportunity depends on you knowing what Mary’s call was regarding. Searching for and retrieving a specific call recording on a particular topic can be challenging enough. It can be nearly impossible if you don’t even know it took place.

That’s where effective call recording archiving and organization helps support knowledge retention. Call recording solutions that offer additional input capabilities, allowing agents to capture supplemental information provided by callers, prove most valuable in this regard. If your recording solution enables the inclusion of this additional interaction metadata, you can begin to build an easily referenced library of calls relating to a designated topic.

Organize Recordings to Increase Knowledge Base: If your solution lets you organize recordings into named search folders or directories, your knowledge library will grow organically along with your agents’ expertise just by moving tagged calls into their corresponding folders.

Using this library approach, should Mary leave, take a different position, or if you wish to train another expert in PCI compliance, the history of real-world examples and interactions is at your fingertips.

This means of knowledge archiving also allows you to identify areas of change in your operations. If you notice an increase in calls relating to a specific area you have been tracking, you can proactively allocate additional resources to it. For example, if your call center is divided into a general medical and a Medicare-specific set of operations, and you notice an increase in calls marked “Appointment Rule,” you can potentially see that your Medicare Part B efforts are experiencing an uptick. You can then allocate more resources or enhance the training regimen for your staff in that area to better ensure compliance with Medicare’s regulations.

Used Effectively, Call Recordings Save Millions in Institutional Knowledge: Call recording technology has saved companies money by improving training, enhancing performance, providing a record of orders, and gathering facts to resolve disputes. Used effectively, it can also make daily interactions an integral part of your company’s knowledge base, minimizing the risk of productivity and institutional knowledge losses even in the face of workforce attrition.

Roland Murphy is marketing and communications manager for Oaisys, a provider of interaction management and voice documentation solutions. He has more than fifteen years’ experience in the communications technology sector and has served in varying capacities for telephone systems manufacturers, interactive voice response providers, and engineering document collaboration firms. He can be reached at

[From Connection Magazine Jan/Feb 2011]

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