I recently attended a Consortium for Service Innovation team meeting on intelligent swarming. We got updates from PTC, Cisco, Red Hat, Sage, and others about how swarming was working in their support centers. Eleven years after our first presentation to the Consortium about swarming (which we then called “Betty,” for obscure reasons), I think it’s really ready for prime time. Let me share some things I took away from the discussion.
First, let me back up and define intelligent swarming. It’s a way of doing support that replaces tiers (or levels) and escalations with a flat organization arranged into skill groups. The case owner owns the case to resolution (a practice sometimes called “touch and hold.”) If the case owner needs help, he or she can request it. Or, if someone else thinks they have the right skills to help, they volunteer to help. Laid out that way, it’s a pretty simple idea, but one with profound implications.
Here’s what I learned:
- It actually works. Everyone who has tried it reports shorter times to resolution, improved support center capacity, higher customer satisfaction, and a host of other benefits. The tiered model, with its hand-offs and escalations, is apparently far more wasteful than it looks. Based on the experience to date, intelligent swarming really does seem to be the way to go.
- The details of how you implement it aren’t so important. We’ve seen successful swarming implementations that are highly automated, and others that are quite manual. We’ve seen ones where collaboration happens in real-time, off-line, face-to-face, or a combination. Sometimes case owners pick their next case, sometimes owners just take the next case in the queue, sometimes a triage team assigns cases to owners, and sometimes it’s a hybrid. Best practice may emerge later, but (unlike KCS) swarming seems pretty resilient to varying approaches.
- It fosters a sense of team. More than we know, the tiered model of support creates a caste system in which front line staff and Tier 3 experts feel distinct, separate, and sometimes at odds. Support centers that moved from tiers to swarms report that morale improved as teams no longer identify themselves by their tier, but by their shared area of expertise and interest.
- It promotes skill development. When people get a case they don’t know how to resolve, swarming with other team members is a fantastic opportunity to learn. And, because people are not held back by their organization (“But, I’m just a Tier 1 person!”), capable people move to a senior engineer level much more quickly.
- It’s a great opportunity to capture knowledge. When people are swarming, they’re often communicating in writing, in a forum or chat system. Someone, usually the case owner, can glean knowledge article content from these collaborations. In a lively open space discussion, we all agreed that new technology is required to help us to capture and structure knowledge more efficiently during the collaboration, and that case management, knowledge management, and collaboration should all be an integrated user experience.
- Team measures matter more than individual measures. It’s very hard to measure individuals’ contribution in what is ultimately a team sport. We discussed innovative ideas for approximating individual measures (for you hockey fans, they’re in the spirit of players’ +/- ratings), but ultimately, the team is the unit of measure. This presents management and HR challenges!
- It doesn’t take a village. The data seems consistent across companies: most cases are resolved by the initial case owner alone. When help is needed, most frequently one collaborator is enough. The hyperbolic fear we hear from some managers (“I can’t afford to put 20 engineers on a single case!”) just never happens in the real world.
- Maybe it’s not quite as new as we thought. Since I first started thinking about swarming, I’ve come across quite a number of companies where a big job for Tier 2 people is monitoring a chat room, and answering Tier 1 questions as they come up. In these organizations, true escalations are relatively rare. Hmm…sounds familiar!
Has your organization tried swarming and eliminating tiers? What’s the buzz?