Army finds answers in knowledge management

Training center keeps an centralized repository of help-desk questions.

How can a training organization provide answers for thousands of users a month if the information being sought is not organized into one central library? It would be quite difficult, which is why it is probably a good idea for such an organization to build out a centralized knowledge base.

This is the approach that Army Training Support Center (ATSC) chose to do with all its distance learning files. ATSC oversees 32 different Army schools, as well as a set of online courseware on the Army Knowledge Online and Defense Knowledge Online sites.

These days, students who have questions about their material can receive answers from anywhere around the world at any time of the day. They get the answers by calling, e-mailing or filling out a Web form that connects them with the material managed by the Army Training Help Desk. Users can check for answers themselves in the Frequently Asked Questions file. If they can't find the solution themselves, the help desk can route the trickier questions to subject matter experts, who can also tap into the knowledge base and answer questions by phone.

"We found that customers want access to information 24/7, and not necessarily through human contact," noted Greg Bailey, chief of ATSC's Customer Assistance Division, in an e-mail interview. "They are very comfortable having information pushed to them via our Web site. We also found that we have not run into any limit on the amount of information placed in our knowledge base packages."

About 350,000 service members, civilians and retired military personnel routinely use the training modules. This generates about 6,000 help requests per month, which are handled by about 300 help-desk agents.

If a user can't answer a question, he or she can call or e-mail the help desk. The e-mails and questions from the Web links are put into a single queue and routed to the next available help-desk worker. Each time a question is asked, the software generates an incident report, which then tracks its progress, an acknowledgment is sent.

In order to estimate user satisfaction, random users are given a survey once their incident is resolved. About 1,000 users a month are quizzed in this fashion. About 20 percent of the surveys are filled out.

This new system came about thanks to some system consolidation efforts on the part of the Army.

In 2003, the Army had several help desks dealing with different training programs. The following year, the service decided to centralize the management of its distance learning courseware under the Army Learning Management System. "Customer assistance and support functions were decentralized [and] poorly managed, and generally did not leverage commercially available technologies. Other than existing Web sites, there was no underlying knowledge base to push out information to customers or any system to track incidents," Bailey said.

It made sense to build out a central system to handle all the all Web-based, e-mail and phone inquiries as well. ATSC did a study of what commercial-off-the-shelf software was available for running help-desk support software. "We investigated established help desks throughout Department of Defense and private industry. The goal was to analyze enterprise systems and supporting software, and measure existing help-desk practices and tools," Bailey said.

For the much of the job, the Army ended up using the Knowledge Foundation software from RightNow Technologies. The software bridges the self-help Web pages with the case management system and the database-driven knowledge repository, said Kevin Paschuck, vice president of RightNow's public-sector division.

The Army has traditionally been a strong user of knowledge management software and practices. Knowledge management software "should get all the knowledge from an organization, both internal and external, into one single repository," Paschuck said. "Historically, you have knowledge spread across various departments and divisions," he said. Material can be in word processing documents, spreadsheets, databases. It could only exist within the heads of the employees. Setting up a KM system involves putting any material of interest in a central repository.

The software runs on a single Microsoft Windows 2003 server, using SQL Server as the database. Setting up installation was fairly straightforward, Bailey reported.

"The only challenging part was the installation and configuration of a Post Office Protocol 3 (POP3) server internally, so the product could receive emails," he e-mailed. "Department of the Army has directed that POP3 servers cannot be used for outside communications. To meet security requirements, we have the e-mail forwarded from the regular e-mail server internally to the POP3 server."