Jim Connett, on February 16, 2022, 04:21 AM
The Tribal Knowledge Pandemic
A Commentary on the Importance of Documentation
The new year provides a unique opportunity to “zoom out” from our myopic views of the tasks at hand today to reflect on the accomplishments in our rear-view mirror, the challenges today, and the opportunities ahead. It’s a time of evaluation and goal-setting. It’s a time of introspection and projection. It’s a time to acknowledge how much information you’ve learned and have stored in your head, how much smarter you’ve become, and how much you know. It’s a time of year to rearrange the “pecking order” of superiority among your colleagues, to compare intelligence quotient scores, and determine what you can do in the coming year to get your name on the trophy awarded annually to the most knowledgeable employee of the year…
I hope you read those last two sentences with some level of discordancy. That was intentional.
As you think back over 2021, when was the last time you documented a process or aggregated internal information into an electronic record (…or ANY kind of record) or developed an information portal whereby your struggles to get from point A to point B in a given system are documented so the next person has an easier time. Was it last month? Last year? Never?
If you work in the technology field, I can pretty much assume you don’t shy away from the joy of research, the thrill of discovery, and the pain of learning by trial and error. I might equally assume you have the heart of a learner and love the work you do because you’re always learning something new. I’m definitely in that camp myself. However, there’s one thing I’ve grown to loathe over my career in technology, and my level of loathing (maybe not so surprisingly) aligns with my increasing chronological age. That one thing is this: the sickening feeling I’m wrestling with something someone else has already solved. Yes, the struggle is part of the learning process. We all agree on this, but why has Google become a verb in our lexicon? Because the problems we face in technology have likely already been solved by someone else and documented on some forum like StackOverflow. We just have to ask the question, sort through the chaff (unfortunately, there’s a growing amount of chaff out there), and find the solution that works best. Maybe this is why Moore’s law continues to this day – because we have a way of moving beyond the secondary and tertiary issues and commit our energy and effort to the unsolved/creative tasks ahead. When was the last time you were a contributor and not just a consumer in these forums?
Allow me to transition from a philosophical, loosely connected argument and go directly to my point of encouragement in this new year.
The Trouble with Tribal Knowledge
“Tribal knowledge” is a phenomenon that occurs when certain individuals have key bits of knowledge stored in the synaptic gaps of their brains and is often – but not always – passed verbally from colleague to colleague. Tribal knowledge finds its home in the newest employee as well as the most senior colleague. Tribal knowledge requires no formal committee or official team charter. It does not need to be overseen by some C-suite manager as part of their operations portfolio. Tribal knowledge just…happens. It can start with a simple process or a set of steps everyone in your group or organization faces. Then it seems to flourish into little tips and tricks you’ve picked up in coding or things you’ve learned in modifying a process or a procedure, or a workaround in a system. Before long (sooner rather than later), the “tribe” maintains key points of knowledge that if altered in the smallest ways, could cause harm, loss of revenue, etc. Tribal knowledge is an acceptable risk until it’s not. And when it’s not, it is not quickly solvable. Remove key members from the “tribe” through attrition, extended illness (can we say Covid?), or even the unpredictable but guaranteed event of death for every person living today, and the full risk of tribal knowledge is felt rapidly and acutely.
If I may be so bold, tribal knowledge exists at pandemic levels in many companies today. That’s the bad news. The good news is there IS a vaccine: documentation.
Tips for Disseminating Tribal Knowledge
Documentation (specifically in software development…but in other disciplines as well) has been, and in most cases continues to be, an afterthought that may or may not ever be addressed. Documentation is hard. We are all pressed for time. We all have more on our plates than we can manage, and the current worldwide pandemic only amplifies our time constraints. But if we would just take 10–15 minutes a day and write down notes and thoughts in electronic form, and if we were to be intentional about this for an entire year, how much more will we be able to contribute to the success of our respective companies in 2022 and beyond? How much more advanced would our products and processes and systems be if we could learn from our colleagues’ successes and failures in pursuit of shared company end-goals? How much more quickly could we onboard new talent and get them out of the “training lane” and into a lane of productivity? How much more quickly will we learn that others are facing the same challenges and that, together, we could combine our efforts in pursuit of a collaborative, efficient, and effective solution?
Start small. Maybe use a shared “.docx” file with your immediate team or a shared Google doc. See how it goes for a month or two and evaluate the level of participation. Expect changes in direction, methodology, format, and requirements (you probably won’t get it totally correct the first time!) As the habit of documentation takes hold and receives general acceptance, move to a more remote-work-friendly, web-based solution like a wiki – give everyone a “digital home” in which to jot down ideas, tips, steps, etc. Over time, codify the more commonly accessed wiki pages into topic-specific PDF documents which can be controlled and cataloged for easy access and reference. Many project planning applications now have easy-to-use built-in wikis for information, retrospectives, etc. The required (or eventually accepted) type of system and/or level of complexity will depend on your company’s internal policies and infrastructure. I’m not at all suggesting the best path forward here. But a path forward exists for you! And that path forward begins with your first steps.
I know I can do better with my documentation efforts. I think my SYSTEMA colleagues worldwide would agree we all can do better at some level in this area. And I hope you agree as well. Let’s make this year the year where we intentionally tip the scales away from tribal knowledge and toward a shared knowledge experience.