The Knowledge Management Genius of Amazon.com

  • We see our customers as invited guests to a party, and we are the hosts. It’s our job every day to make every important aspect of the customer experience a little bit better.

    —Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder and CEO

How does Amazon.com so effortlessly connect “zillions” of people with “zigabytes” of product information? The answer, in part, is through use of advanced knowledge-management (KM) techniques. We in the eLearning field can learn a lot from how Amazon approaches the relationship between customers and information.

Enhancing value by using KM principles

Most people think of Amazon as one of the world’s most successful eCommerce companies, and it is. From the beginning, Amazon determined that the user experience—the ability of its customers to find what they want, when they want it, quickly and easily—was a key to success. But that wasn’t enough. If the system could help customers accomplish their goals in an intuitive and personalized way, it would add even more value to the experience.

That’s where knowledge management helps. Whether they call it KM or not, Amazon uses KM principles and practices to add significant value for their customers in many ways:

  • One portal, one interface. Everything we buy from Amazon, all the business we do with them is through the same portal. Food, electronics, books, clothing—it doesn’t matter. One-stop shopping. The portal is the same and the user experience is the same. This breeds familiarity and comfort for users, allowing less anxiety as they explore new areas of the site. Imagine if the Amazon bookstore and the Amazon technology store had different web addresses. Imagine if you had to first figure out which store to go to before you could shop.

    Implications for us: A single portal and interface provides the employees with a common, familiar, and easy-to-use gateway to workplace knowledge in all forms. Courseware, eLearning, website, videos, on-the-job tools—it all shows up in the same place.

  • Consistent presentation. From product specifications to reviews, they display information for every product in the same way and in the same order, wherever possible. This comes from outstanding content management, where they compose information and then publish it to users in a consistent manner. An added benefit is the ability to track and archive each and every information “nugget.”

    Implications for us: Workers should not have to figure out how to read or interpret content because it displays differently. Metaphors, flowcharts, and other organizing structures have value, but if every site has its own presentation strategy, requiring its own learning curve, that value significantly diminishes and can be disconcerting to users. Consistency matters, a lot.

  • Modular content. They organize every page on Amazon in easy-to-read sections. No elaborate PDF books to comb through. They sometimes provide additional detail, but they present it as an option (e.g., “click here”) rather than a barrier to cross to get to what you want.

    Implications for us: This enables workers to quickly access only the content they need and relieves them from wasting time scanning elaborate documents or indices to find what they need. Remember, it’s not about searching; it’s about finding. Anything we can do to help people find what they need—faster—is a good thing.

  • Distributed upstream content creation. Although Amazon appears to control everything we see, for the most part, the product companies, where the real expertise is, actually generate the content. Adhering to Amazon’s design standards, writing styles, and other practices and policies, the content looks like it came from the same place, making it more usable.

    Implications for us: By moving content creation to the source, the responsibility of content completeness, relevance, and accuracy also moves to the most accountable party. It also empowers SMEs.

  • Almost magical personalization. What strikes most Amazon customers as so amazing is the way the site seems to know them. The more we use the site, the better it knows us. It can then remind us of our history, recommend products we might like, and connect us to additional information it knows we are looking for. That’s why we willingly register on the site so that Amazon gets to know us, because we recognize the value of this service. (Amazon.com is smart enough to do this without registration, but registration makes it much more personal.)

    Implications for us: Productivity and efficiency is enhanced when the system has capabilities to “know” users and provide the most important content—for them—at the moment of need.

  • Crowdsourcing. With features like customer-provided ratings, reviews (including most and least helpful), and images, plus an analysis of what customers “like you” previously bought, or bought together, Amazon builds knowledge and awareness in users. Numerous online-shopping sites have emulated Amazon, the archetype of many of these social features.

    Implications for us: A sense of community without formal communities of practice.

  • Insanely easy and consistent transactions. Buying something from Amazon? Putting a product on hold? Requesting more information? No matter what you are looking at, the process is the same. You quickly become comfortable with the system. There are no curveballs.

    Implications for us: After content validity, ease of use will be the most critical aspect of any KM effort. Are the transactions your people have with your LMS, eLearning, and other resources as easy and consistent?

  • Subscriptions, alerts, and reminders. Don’t want to scan Amazon every day for a particular product or service? Ask the system to remind you. Or join a subscription list for regular updates as they become available. Be “in the know” without even asking a question!

    Implications for us: Let the system do the searching! Combined with personalization, the KM system can improve productivity and awareness of new information without repetitive and exhausting searches. This improves productivity.

  • Feedback. Amazon is one of the most successful eCommerce sites in getting users to provide meaningful feedback. Why? Because the company values what customers have to say and it knows that feedback provides value back to customers. It places feedback right on the product’s front page and gives readers many ways to parse and sort the information to their liking. It even allows readers (shoppers) to rate the reviewers! This information is not just for the benefit of future customers, it also allows Amazon to improve its services and the product companies to improve their products.

    Implications for us: User feedback on the value of content is one of the most effective ways to gauge KM effectiveness. It is much more impactful than page visits or downloads, for example. It also helps users to quickly distinguish important and useful content based on feedback from their peers.

  • Reduced servicing. Calls to Amazon’s call center are reduced because they strive so hard to make its site as user friendly and as comprehensive as possible. This is a tremendous cost saver for the company and results in higher customer satisfaction. So good is the information about most products on Amazon, that people often reference it even if they intend to buy elsewhere.

    Implications for us: Anything that can reduce call center or email inquiries, even a little, can result in tremendous cost savings.

  • Performance-centered. Need to cancel or change your order, change the shipping or payment method, return an item, or find out what you bought a year ago? Amazon provides a clear path to action for all the tasks customers need to accomplish.

    Implications for us: Moving from a topic-centered approach to a performance- or task-centered approach will be very beneficial to workers as they seek to perform their jobs more effectively.

  • Great online help. Go to Amazon.com and click on “Help.” Easy to use, easy to read, easy to follow. Once again, this adds to the customer experience, increasing their satisfaction and their productivity, and lowers Amazon’s costs.

    Implications for us: “Help” is, in fact, KM. Anything that improves the help function on any tool or software will be beneficial to worker productivity. Are we prone to building solutions and forgetting to include a good help resource? Unfortunately, too often, the answer is yes.

  • Mobility. Amazon.com, and its associated apps, is available anytime and anywhere, and on any device. No business hours to worry about.

    Implications for us: Essential for the increasingly mobile worker. Some current estimates place millennials, the first generation to grow up with mobile devices, at close to 30% of the US workforce, and growing.

How does your intranet stack up?

Look at your organization’s intranet, likely the primary access point to business, customer, product, technical, HR, training, and other information. How easy is it to use? How accurate is it? Does it improve over time? Does it know its users and what they need? Does it help them do their job better and more efficiently? If the answer to any of these questions is “no” or “could be better” you have a knowledge-management problem. And if you have a knowledge-management problem, you likely have learning problems as well. And if you have learning problems, you almost certainly have performance problems.

What makes Amazon.com brilliant is not just how it manages content; lots of sites do this well (examples include WebMD, Wikipedia, Flipboard, MyYahoo, and many more), but how it adjusts to users’ needs and interests, and how it connects users with information provided by others (the crowd). What if your intranet was more like this? What if you could incorporate this into your learning strategy? What if your company’s process, product, technical, and strategic knowledge were accessible in an easy-to-use way, uniformly, and consistently? What if, like Amazon, your organization’s intranet got to know you, the types of content you need, and when you need it? What if it could remind you when new content is available and hook you up with others who are interested in the same things you are? How would all this change your organizational-learning strategy? How would all this change you? The opportunities are staggering.

It’s genius!

Amazon.com is a multi-billion dollar operation and its web-based services took many years to perfect. While this may be beyond the reach of most of us, it does not mean we shouldn’t consider the model. Just think of how much more valuable our web resources could be—for business and for learning—if we just added a little bit of Amazon genius to the mix.

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