The Benefits of KCS Coaching: A Conversation

An edited and condensed excerpt from a February 8, 2021 Consortium Member phone call.

What does a coaching program look like in a mature KCS environment?

Monique Cadena, Principal Program Manager at Akamai

Our current KCS implementation at Akamai has been around three and a half years. This reboot started in July of 2017.  It took about seven months for the entire organization to get trained. We have about 450 engineers across all levels. We have 105 coaches and 20 head (lead) coaches. Separate from them, we also have 10 KDE coaches who coach the KDEs on the KDA analysis and activities that they do. All Coaches are split up into our three geos: Americas, EMEA, and APJ, and we have coaching calls either twice a month or monthly, depending on the location, to make sure everybody stays calibrated across the entire globe. 

The KCS program is really broken down into three separate sub programs: the coaching program, the training program, and the KDE program. In the coaching program, we have head coaches that will coach coaches, and then the coaches coach the TSEs (Technical Support Engineers).  Initially we didn’t have head coaches, and it was too hard to maintain; it was me going to all these different geos every month, trying to coach all the coaches.  It wasn’t feasible. So that’s how the head coach role came about and how we’re set up now. 

In terms of our licensing model, when you’re a new hire, you go through the initial KCS onboarding, which is a four hour live session. Probably about 75% of it focuses on organizational change management.  We talk a lot about the why: why we’re doing this, the benefits, and the outcomes. The other 25% is how to actually do it in the tool itself. Once you have gone through that live training session, you take a certification test through our university. And then after that, you continue to work with the coaches.  

Coaches cover everything in the performance assessment…but they only really focus on “let’s improve one thing at a time.”

Monique Cadena, Principal Program Manager at Akamai

The intent is that KCS Candidates and Contributors start with weekly coaching sessions, but now we’ve matured to the point where we say, “Well it doesn’t have to be every week, but if you’re having three to four a month, that meets the criteria for being in that initial phase.”  Coaches cover everything in the performance assessment, so they look at searching and creating at the right time, modifying, AQI, linking accuracy, attaches, all that great stuff, but they only really focus on “let’s improve one thing at a time.”  

Once a coach sees that a Candidate is reaching some suggested indicators, they might be ready to move to the Contributor state.  These aren’t hard numbers, but for example, the coach will say, okay, over the past 60 days, I’ve reviewed at least five articles through AQI, their AQI average is around 85, their attach rate is 60 to 70%, they have a high attach accuracy, etc. And if the coach and the manager both feel that, yes, this person has displayed these proficiencies, they will nominate them. That nomination and reasoning goes into an actual form, which the head coach reviews.  They go back and look at their articles, the quality, all the same stuff, and then they get another head coach to agree: this person’s ready. Or if not, the head coaches determine what they need to work on to get to that next level.

And then the last state is a Publisher, who has access to publish independently, externally. So it’s the same thing, there are suggested indicators around AQI: maybe out the gate, it’s closer to 95% for a minimum number of articles looked at within the last month. And then there’s an exam that we have them do: go in and pick an article that is internal, and update it to make it external. And then we can compare the versions to make sure it meets the criteria. The next thing we ask is, give us an example of an article you’ve created recently that is external-facing, so we can see that you can independently do this. Then the same process: the head coach and the coach review the Contributor’s performance indicators, history, and exam.  Yes, this person meets it, or they don’t and we give them feedback. 

We’ve gotten to the point now where if you are a Publisher, Coach, or KDE, you only need to attend coaching sessions twice a month. They don’t have to be every two weeks; they’re what we call “on demand,” because now people are having a lot of conversations around knowledge naturally and organically. So we don’t want to force it, or not count something when it really is a coaching session, like, “hey, I pinged my coach, because I have a question around this,” and it ends up being a coaching session. So that’s how we’ve kind of progressed them as they grow. 

There is a form they fill out during coaching sessions, because as part of our yearly Objectives we set our coaching compliance to average out to 75% across the year.  One of the things that the leadership team kept asking was, “What kind of objectives can we put around KCS?” which is dangerously close to the “let’s put goals on activities” conversation.  After having the discussion, we realized, well, if coaching is happening, it’s addressing all these right behaviors. So if we look at coaching and making sure that coaching is happening, and enabling people with the time, that’s how we’re going to measure both the coaches and the knowledge workers to make sure that they are doing the right things.  It doesn’t matter how fast somebody grows on certain proficiencies as long as they continue to grow. And coaching is the one thing that can make that happen.

It was interesting, because we actually had a similar conversation with another Consortium member last week.  One of our head coaches was on the call, who has been with Akamai through at least three previous failed KCS attempts. One thing that he noticed that contributed to it not working in the past, besides trying to do “KCS lite,” was that there was no coaching program. So training was really just a presentation around, “hey, here’s what we want you to do,” but there was nothing offered to nurture and enable that continuously. 

And part of that is because in any organization, there’s always more things that need to be done than we have time to do. So it’s very, very easy for people to say, let’s stop doing XYZ or let’s stop doing coaching. When that happens, you start losing a lot, you stop worrying about creation and capturing and publishing before you close cases. So keeping that always in front of them, is one thing that our leaders are absolutely sold on, especially after they saw all the great benefits and outcomes of the program.

Kendall Brenneise, Knowledge Manager at F5

To Monique’s point: we cannot truly measure the total value of coaching. It is the fire that runs our KCS program at F5. While on paper we’ve got a fair number of wins and successes in KCS, none of them would have been possible without the coaching program. 

We took a challenge from Beth Haggett [the creator of the KCS Coach Workshop] a fair while back; she said, “I’d love to see a case study or a use case where a company could measure the value of coaching.” And we just had a thing occur at F5 where it caused us to have to pause all coaching. We just had to go full stop for an entire quarter. And surprise, surprise, at the end of the quarter, all of our leaders were like: why did all of our KCS stats plummet? Searching, linking, creating, you name it, all of it plummeted because we paused coaching.  There is an exact date timestamp where coaching was paused, and then every KCS stat started to fall off. 

However, at the end of the quarter, when we relaunched coaching, all of those stats came back, and they came back twice as fast as when we first started. So it’s fascinating to dig into that a little bit and just kind of say, again, you cannot overvalue a coaching program.

Coaching is the fire that runs our KCS program at F5.

Kendall Brenneise, Knowledge Manager at F5

Our overall model is quite similar at F5. As Monique was talking, I was thinking through where we have some nuanced differences and where we don’t. Our org is about 650 engineers (knowledge workers, analysts, whatever you want to call them), and we are currently sitting just shy of 50 Coaches, but we’re anticipating closer to 100 by the time we’re fully mature with our coaching program. 

One of our pain points is that not all of our org interprets the formula for coaching the same way. Even though we are the authority on what is coaching and what is not coaching within F5, at least under the KCS umbrella, we found that some parts of the organization will say, “Well, I know your formula says they should be meeting once a week, every week, but we’re gonna do it every other week in our region.“ One of the things that we found is it’s usually a lack of understanding about why it’s every week or why it’s every other week. It’s oftentimes also a lack of awareness of how that will come back to bite them in the butt later.  They don’t realize that because the MBOs are attached to our formula, it means that you’re going to shoot yourself in the foot in being able to achieve your MBO.  So that’s something that we’re starting to recognize is for those individuals who may not be fully knowledgeable about why the number is what it is, it’s important to clarify that with them and also go to their leadership if they aren’t aware, either. 

In terms of getting buy-in on that weekly coaching cadence, it was an issue of proficiency and speed.  What we found is if you were meeting once a month, your KCS behaviors didn’t really go anywhere – because it’s an afterthought. It’s, “Oh, I’ll get to that when that week rolls around.” And then all of a sudden, you realize that meeting’s today at 10am, I guess I should probably do something. And then we looked at it from an every other week standpoint, and we realized you could see some growth there, but not at the speed that we want to see. If you think about back to Beth’s foundational coaching class, it’s about building habits. And habits don’t happen once a month or every other week, they have to happen almost daily. So we landed on: let’s fight for once a week, and we got once a week from our executive level leadership!  

So we protect and fight like hell for the formal coaching session time. And we track that as an actual coaching session in our tool. But then we also separately track the ad hoc, on-demand types of coaching questions. That way we can follow a person’s proficiency whether or not their leadership is actually protecting that coaching time.

Do you really keep coaching at that same frequency after people reach KCS proficiency?

Kendall Brenneise

At least from my perspective, I think it depends on your level of maturity as an organization. We are in a culture at F5 where we are rapidly pushing into new stuff: products, services, ways of working, everything.  Thankfully, our leadership has started to realize the only way you can do change management at that level of speed is to have something to nurture it – like Monique was saying. 

Our coaching program is now more than just KCS. KCS is the foundation for why we meet with our learners and our coaches, but it’s not just limited to it. So for example, as we start to dip our toe in the water for Intelligent Swarming: even more reason to do coaching.  As we start to dip our toe into the water of new products and services: even more reason to do coaching.  The list goes on and on and on. So for that reason, if the particular area of your org was mature or you’re not trying to drill into a new way of working, sure, you could scale back, a little bit because that proficiency is plateaued to where it’s expected to meet. However, if you’re trying to actually ramp up, then I would say, yeah, keep going at as high a frequency as you possibly can.

Monique Cadena 

Yeah, we’ve used our coaching program as a model to implement coaching for case management and quality as well. So through cases and escalations and transitions, it’s very, very similar. There’s even a checklist like a Content Standard Checklist, but it’s a case management checklist for different things. 

Coaching is very powerful. A long time ago, before I did my first coaching program, I was at an organization where we had 1500 engineers, and all of them were publishers. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that for any other organization – it worked then because the tenure of people there: 15 plus years, they’d been doing this forever, they knew how to write external facing customer articles. And everyone was following the KCS Solve Loop. But we didn’t have a coaching program. As soon as we implemented the coaching program, just in the pilot alone (which was a month long), we saw the time to mitigation reduced by 25% – from 8 to 6 hours on average. People have no idea how strong coaching programs are, that’s why I’m a huge, huge advocate. You have to have a coaching program. And anywhere else that you can put coaching, you’re gonna benefit from.

Adam Hansen, Sr Knowledge Domain Engineer at F5  

There’s also the constant leveling-up. I wouldn’t ever consider KCS as a program where there’s a finish line, where we cross it, we high five, and we’re done. People can think that, but they’re not gonna last. The people that we want are the people who are hungry to learn and grow and do more. So someone hits Publisher, and a coach can help them think through what they want to work towards next.  I think this is something you tie back to management as well, to be driving people to have those growth mindsets – how can I be better than I was last quarter, than I was yesterday? The coaches can be those facilitators to help them find how they want to express that.

Kelly Murray, Chief Engagement Officer at Consortium for Service Innovation 

Even more key to me are the cultural implications of “I have somebody in the form of a coach who makes me feel tied into what’s happening in the organization. Like I’m not alone. Like I can ask questions about what’s supposed to be happening. Someone who is invested in my success.” I think that those are the intangible, sometimes unmeasurable benefits of a coaching program, which are so hard to put an ROI on.

Adam Hansen

Kendall and I both have examples of having very interesting coaching sessions that, on paper, are just a checked box. But in actuality, the level of openness and engagement and conversation that happened undid a log jam that allowed the coachee to be more successful on a lot of levels.  It’s something you can’t quantify, in a sense, but, it’s realization. It’s coachee realization.

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