Why document your company’s tribal knowledge?

The processes you and your subordinates follow

It is not common for the CEO of a rapidly growing company to think of slowing down the furious pace enough to have each manager (including the CEO) document the job process managed, as well as see to the documentation for each process managed below.

Examples of documentation by key employees

And it is even more of a challenge to consider documenting the tribal knowledge of a company’s key employees.  Examples include forcing the entire sales and customer support team to use a single database such as Salesforce or Sugar or Act to document the interactions with prospects and customers or using “REM” statements liberally inside software code to notify future coders of critical information contained and reasons for making code branches, assigning variables with unusual names or more.

We leaders are not invincible

Have you made a list of your critical chain of advisors, including bankers, accountants, industry advisors, and more?  Do you have a “secret spot” for critical information someone might need if you were incapacitated or worse?  Especially when we are young, we feel invincible, and documenting tribal knowledge seems a chore with no reward.

The inevitable “walk out the door” of one may be too late for all

Then inevitably a key employee gives notice and we begin to worry over what knowledge we will watch walk out that door, wonder how we will recover in the short term and grow out of the problem in the long term.  We worry that asking our subordinates to document their processes will look like the first step in removing them from their job. And we worry over lost productivity during this effort.

Start at the top

[Email readers, continue here…]   But if we make this a part of the culture of the corporation starting at the top and from an early point in the life of the organization, this process becomes an accepted way in which managers learn and leave behind, able to move up the chain with minor disruption both in the job left behind and the job assumed.  It makes for a smoother process for seeking outside hires by providing a model for the job specification to be written.

Other important gains from doing this

And it allows everyone to better appreciate the organization, understanding the limits of each position and the duties performed, avoiding conflicts between managers when in the future changes are made in the organization and in personnel during periods of growth or even downsizing.

Tribal knowledge is an asset of the corporation, to be protected as much as cash in the bank.

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3 Responses to Why document your company’s tribal knowledge?

  1. Fima Vaisman says:

    Tribal or “institutional” knowledge is so very important. When a new sales person takes over a client account, the company suffers if the information is lost or the past mistakes are repeated. When an IT director leaves a complex network undocumented and reasons for choices unexplained for the next head of IT to figure out, the company suffers. There are those that feel that such information kept closely to the chest provides a measure of job security. Others, more comfortable in their skin, and focused on the overall good, make an effort to ensure that the work can continue unimpeded even if the employee leaves the organization. While personal choice will vary with individuals, there are tools that can be used to promote saving tribal knowledge. Using Slack as an adjunct or instead of email can help to organize information, as can the use of CRMs as mentioned above. Processes that promote addition of metadata can also be put in place for items such as REM statements in software code, reasons behind decisions in marketing campaigns, etc. An example of this is in management consulting organizations; when consultants roll off a case or a client and move on to other work or leave the company, they take much of this tribal knowledge with them; a better process supported by the right technical platform that is practiced by leadership and embraced by the organization can solve much of this pain point.

  2. Michael O'Daniel says:

    One of your most important posts ever. An organization’s knowledge base — including its business processes, project history (even those that failed or were aborted), training history, software upgrades, its values (the pillars of its culture) — is among its most valuable assets. Further to Fima Vaisman’s point about consultants taking the “tribal knowledge” with them, any contract with a consultant should specify that they document the entire engagement including lessons learned. This is how you build sustainability into a company’s culture and avoid constantly having to reinvent the wheel, especially when key managers or employees move on.

  3. Michael O'Daniel says:

    Actually, documenting “tribal knowledge” should not be at the discretion of the manager or employee. It should be mandated as a business process within the organization that everyone is required to follow, and one or more individuals should have the responsibility for verifying that the process has been followed by anyone tasked with doing same.

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