Shift Left, Reduce Costs, Thank Knowledge Management

Last verified May 20, 2021

30 years ago, the Service Desk Institute (SDI) was born. The SDI is an IT help desk industry group with the mission to “continually improve the ability of business to deliver good service.” While the 30th anniversary of the SDI may not be terribly buzz-worthy, it does serve to remind us that the IT service desk is an enduring institution. An IT service desk functions as a primary point of contact between a company and its customers, and represents a cornerstone of corporate operations that is to be steered and shaped to make it successful. But what is success? Let’s explore.

The heart of the IT help desk? Knowledge

SDI is internationally recognized for setting professional standards and advocating best practices for the IT service desk. One of its flagship products is an annual benchmarking report that measures the proverbial pulse of the IT service desk industry through a comprehensive survey, exposing issues and exploring new trends. A question asked in its most recent survey was “What tools do you have access to?” Among other utilities, “knowledge base” was widely reported, with 70% of the respondents answering that they possessed some form of a knowledge management tool. This is no real surprise, as IT service managers have long celebrated the advantages of a knowledge base, citing benefits ranging from smarter staff to reduced operational costs.

But is "knowledge" enough?

While service desks have turned to knowledge management to help empower staff and reduce costs, many knowledge systems fall short because of human or technological factors. Thus, critical performance metrics can become difficult to influence. Some observers point out that knowledge management may fail to gain traction because people underestimate the culture change it requires. Knowledge extraction – actually capturing and continuously leveraging what people know – does not happen intuitively, and instead, service personnel continue to consult static, highly perishable artifacts published by a select few, thus perpetuating service inefficiencies. As one contributing SDI author stresses, keeping content relevant must be a team sport. “The Knowledge Base will grow and change organically over time…[so] make it a routine of the Service Desk: everyone on the team helps each other.”

Shifting left: Where knowledge extraction and cost factors meet

One of the more important service desk mantras to emerge in recent years is “shift left,” an organizational call-to-action that pushes ticket resolution as close to the customer as possible. To put this in perspective, shifting right would be bad for performance metrics and corporate costs, as it calls upon highly paid experts to resolve problems that could otherwise be solved by customer support reps (or even the customers themselves). Traditional knowledge management may fail to move things leftward because the triage phase remains stuck in rote scripts and FAQs that don’t detect the nuance of the issue at hand.


How, then, do frontline specialists extract the knowledge they need to keep things moving left?

First, they are apt to find more relevant solutions by having a dynamic, well-cataloged and retrievable knowledge library nurtured by the team at large. When the knowledge base is fed by the wider organization, customer support reps are empowered to find the answers they need themselves without escalating to the experts. Conversely, if the right knowledge doesn’t exist, subject matter experts can be easily tapped to create new knowledge and fold it into the library.

Secondly, by adding a layer of AI to the ticketing system, keywords can be scraped and put to work to serve up the necessary knowledge. Keywords might stem from the type of problem, the system parameters, the location – anything that presents repeatable clues and trains the machine logic. First-line personnel can then be served tailored content based on trained learning systems, focusing on first call resolution and generally resisting the inclination to escalate the problem. Yet even if a problem must be escalated to the next tier, the business AI component can help with incident prioritization and assignment based on key details.

Economizing, not downsizing

The entire shift-left paradigm speaks to one of the more vital help desk metrics, the total cost of ownership. This metric represents the operational art of intelligent ticket triage and confident escalation. Shifting left and reducing the total cost of ownership doesn’t translate to wholesale layoffs and firings. Its aim is to whittle efficiency to the point where the service desk runs the theoretical risk of putting itself out of business. While that won’t happen in practice, our 30-year-old SDI puts it this way: “Self-help and self-healing options with sophisticated knowledge bases are used to drive down the need for an expensive premium human support service.”

At the end of the day, we can take comfort in the idea that institutions made of seasoned experts are moving the industry forward (if not leftward). Happy birthday, SDI, and may your insight and advocacy continue for years to come.