Capture the Tribal Knowledge in Your Growing Company

Posted by Alana Kadden Ballon on Jan 28, 2014

Ancient Scroll in PotMany of the clients we work with are transitioning from oral to written knowledge. One of our biggest challenges is to make information more accessible to a growing workforce while retaining the tribal knowledge that makes the firm unique.

When the Bible Becomes a Book

This is not a new problem. Dr. William Schniedewind, Biblical scholar from UCLA, writes about the cultural shift that ancient Israel underwent when the Bible became a book (Schniedewind, 2008). It democratized the written word, shifting it from something that the government and priests did to something that was accessible to the entire populace.

It also took the place of the prominent voice of the teacher, whose role had been to communicate the stories and laws. With the advent of a written tradition, individuals could access the information on their own. The democratization of the Bible changed the power structure and the purpose of writing. Writing went from a ritual to a form of communication without room for oversight of a particular section that a teacher wasn’t fond of. Individuals could take their own viewpoints, but might be less inclined to hear those of others.

Turning Your Tech Tribe into a Reading Community

We find high-growth companies encounter the same issues when onboarding new hires and developing talent. They begin with tribal knowledge, where all information is passed from employee to employee through discussions, but as they grow and early employees leave, crucial knowledge gets lost, and the volume of necessary information becomes too big. The time to ramp new employees starts to lengthen.

We work with these companies to take their tribal knowledge and capture it with written documentation, easing the transition of a shifting culture.

So, how do we do it?

First, we place a tremendous amount of value on the oral traditions of a firm. We find out how they teach new hires and peers and what information people found most helpful. This is not just product facts and sales tactics, this also ties into the company’s culture and how work gets done.

Next, we figure out what people felt they were missing & had to find on their own. We try to determine why that information isn’t passed down and how it is ultimately found. Sometimes, as the firm grows, it is more difficult to get the full message out to everyone on the team. We want to know where and why that breaks down.

Finally, we create a plan to combine the best of tribal knowledge with formal instruction, checklists and guides to help the new hire ask the right questions. This can include a mentor program, structured shadowing and Q&A with executives.

We find that people want to be helpful and offer to “answer any questions,” but sometimes, new hires struggle to know which questions would be most helpful to ask. By facilitating the beginning of the conversation and creating a net so that key topics aren’t missed, we can retain the best of a firm’s tribal knowledge without sacrificing the benefits of documented, biblical knowledge.

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/ancient/origins-written-bible.html