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Why Tribal Knowledge Holds You Back


Why Tribal Knowledge Holds You Back

We have all been there. We start at a new company and have to beat the tribal drum to acquire information in order to get to know the firm and ultimately complete our job.

You would expect a baseline of common information, standard processes, organization charts, phone lists, network addresses, etc. would be shared with you. But instead you find yourself searching for answers, beating the drums and hoping someone will answer. Is anybody there?

The practice of using tribal knowledge – any unwritten information that is not commonly known by others within a company – is too common. I have experienced this first hand in both public and private companies – large companies and small.

The lack of documentation coupled with hesitation to share information – especially as it relates to a new employee – harms everyone involved and it happens more often than it should.

The thing I have learned is that it doesn’t just make things difficult for the person seeking information, it damages the brand of the person who is unprepared or holding back, and it damages the company.

On the flip side, if I am the party answering questions and providing information to a new employee – I have an opportunity to develop a new relationship and build my brand

Answering questions is a basic requirement of working on a team, but taking the time to explain a process in detail demonstrates true collaboration and that requires preparation.

Documentation is the foundation of every well run organization

I’ve worked with many cross functional teams and I’ve managed many people. I’ve always asked for them to document process, policy and procedure right down to smallest detail. It saves everyone a great deal of time and it institutionalizes the knowledge.

It also creates efficiencies because the new user who is picking up the process can read the documentation and typically do it the first time by themselves. If they are assuming responsibility for the process, they can master it more easily and can in turn enhance it and teach it again.

It is a cycle that benefits the employees and the company.

Don’t fall victim to the small-minded belief that if your job is documented you will become dispensable. Quite the contrary. When you document your process you open yourself up to opportunities to work elsewhere with increasing responsibility because you’re in a position to train and complete knowledge transfer in a timely manner. Which is important in any job.

Reap the rewards of preparation

When your work is documented you will realize other benefits.

You demonstrate your professionalism and save time. Even three ring circuses have a script. If you don’t have documentation you look unprepared, even if your head is full of knowledge. Take our new employee example. When you provide documentation, rather than stream of consciousness, the new employee can walk away, read, assess and then come back with educated questions – saving you both time.  It’s better for everyone; your stock prices goes up as you’re prepared and the other employee feels empowered to learn.

Your credibility immediately skyrockets. When you have documentation you have a reference point with which to teach others. If you have to explain a standard process on the fly and you forget a piece or stumble through it, it leaves the impression that you’re not prepared and unhelpful. Your stock immediately goes down.

You’re more likely to seize opportunities to advance your career. When your work is documented you’re in a position to train and teach others to do the work. If a new opportunity comes up you can step away from your current responsibilities while your trainee temporarily fills your role. You are now the expert, trainer and support for your teammates – wow, that looks like management.

Don’t fall victim to tribal knowledge. You work hard on your personal brand – protect it! Take some time each day to document your processes and when you hear those tribal drums beating in the distance – you’ll be prepared.

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