The data that's missing from your DX strategy: Tribal knowledge

digital transformation

In the field services industry, a crucial part of digital transformation is the move toward outcome-based and predictive contracts meant to minimize downtime and maximize service efficiency. But to be successful in the shift, these organizations (think: service divisions across manufacturing, medical devices, capital equipment, HVAC, commercial appliances, etc.) need to be able to utilize their service data to more accurately understand their workforce and operations.

That’s easier said than done. While many organizations incorporate and analyze easy-to-access data as part of their digital transformation strategy, most are leaving a business-critical element out of the equation: tribal knowledge from long-tenured employees. That's because this information is housed in non-traditional databases like filing cabinets, service records and even their minds, and previously, it's not been cost effective to gather and distribute. Couple this dilemma with the fact that many of these top subject matter experts are nearing retirement age and it’s clear that the field services industry has a hurdle to jump, and time is of the essence.

To understand just how critical this tribal knowledge is, Aquant recently gathered and analyzed actual anonymized service data from more than 50 leading service organizations across 2 million work orders and 38,000 technicians, totaling $3B in service costs.

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What we learned: True digital transformation simply cannot happen without extracting best practices from top subject matter experts and making that data accessible and actionable across the organization.

Luckily, it’s not an impossible task. Here’s how to get there.

Bridge The Knowledge Gap

First, it’s important to realize that there’s a pervasive knowledge gap in the workforce between the highest performing 25 percent of the workforce and everyone else. That’s contributing to higher-than-average service costs and service delivery hurdles.

According to our 2020 Service Intelligence Benchmark Report, the bottom quarter of the workforce costs organizations 80 percent more than the top quarter. If organizations can successfully uplevel the team and bridge this gap by spreading the tribal knowledge wealth, they will benefit from everything from lower customer churn to the ability to execute on more profitable service contract models, and everything in between.

In fact, we found that the service organizations whose workforces have a smaller discrepancy between top and bottom performers -- or a lower skills gap -- demonstrate higher performance overall compared to those with a high skills gap. Even small workforce improvements that bridge this gap add up to big ROI. For example, boosting the bottom 25 percent of the workforce up modestly to the level of "average" performers will result in a nearly 17 percent savings in service costs. Boosting them closer to the top performers will increase ROI by another 17 percent.

Focus on People

Organizations must understand that digital transformation strategies that do not focus on people are lacking balance and will almost certainly fail. People (and their tribal knowledge) are the driving force behind performance, customer experience, and ultimately the bottom line, and exposing (and correcting) knowledge equality or inequality within a service team is critical to success.

Organizations would save 38 percent in service costs if everyone had the knowledge and skills to perform like the top 25 percent of the workforce. Despite this massive business implication, know-how from top subject matter experts about customers, products, processes and equipment is rarely categorized as a dataset and thus essentially doesn't exist as part of most digital transformation efforts. Unlocking this type of data about customers or machines, and inputting into a searchable database, is key to making tribal knowledge freely accessible and actionable, and key to true digital transformation. This way, what used to be known by only a few top performers can be turned into insights for the many.

How to get started? Look to those subject matter experts who are always called on to solve the tough problems and bring them in as part of a team that will help oversee the project of extracting tribal knowledge, and then use AI tools to categorize and analyze all that unstructured data.

Amplify with Technology

At the crux of any digital transformation plan is the need to simplify processes to become more agile and deliver better customer experiences. This very specific goal has caused many data analysts to focus efforts too much on technology -- overlooking tribal knowledge as part of the transformation equation -- rather than marrying the two. It’s not enough to simply involve top performing experts in the planning process, converting their tribal knowledge into data, and letting technology do all the work; organizations need to deploy technology that enables ongoing input from these experts so the technology can continue learning from real-life experiences.

Once there’s enough data in the system to analyze, using the real-life expertise of subject matter experts to fine-tune and validate findings can also provide a real competitive advantage. While automating insights from historical data is certainly helpful in recommending a service plan, only humans can understand what’s the right outcome for a particular industry, customers, or the workers available based on years of experience.

Ignoring tribal knowledge as part of a digital transformation strategy is one mistake, but the challenge certainly does not stop there. That information, no matter how accurate, is useless unless it’s readily available to everyone. Organizations must deploy technology -- such as AI and natural language processing that understands context regardless of word choice -- to make the data easily searchable and accessible to all employees. This helps put people at the front and center of transformation, putting the power of the best experts into the hands of a whole team and helping to erase the business-critical knowledge gap.

Photo Credit: Sashkin/Shutterstock

As the VP of Product Marketing at Aquant, Edwin Pahk has a deep understanding of the service industry. He's gotten to know service leaders across the globe and digs into their organizations to understand what makes them tick and what challenges keep them up at night. Prior to joining Aquant, he was Principal Solution Engineer, Field Service Lightning at Salesforce. Before that, he led the Solution Consulting team at ClickSoftware.

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