Do You Still Practice Tribal Knowledge Job Execution?

by Mike Starling









In this day of rapidly growing and expanding business software tool capability, it is truly amazing how many business processes are still undocumented. These processes are literally passed along by word of mouth, through on-the-job training, from one individual to another. This approach is called Tribal Knowledge (TK).

Do you think your company is pretty sophisticated compared to your competition? Take a look around you. Are the processes you utilize to accomplish your day-to-day tasks documented? Is there a process map that lays out the flow of the work process so that you can clearly follow each step from beginning to end? Do your work processes take into consideration the impact of coordination between you and others, in other departments, or outside the company? If so, great. If not, you may be suffering from a touch of TK.

Tribal Knowledge can be defined as information passed by word of mouth from one generation to the next. In business, it is job-performance-related information passed from an incumbent to his or her replacement—a verbal on-the-job training program that is typically characterized by a mentoring incumbent providing hands-on guidance to a junior member assigned to carry the baton to the next leg of the company’s existence.

So what’s the problem with TK? You get things done effectively and efficiently, right? And Dork over in Purchasing gets his stuff done every day. But what happens when you are out on vacation? Or out sick? Or heaven forbid, you and Dork are BOTH OUT on VACATION? Management probably hasn’t allowed that to happen since the last time that happened!

The problem with the Tribal Knowledge approach to work is that:
1. It is PEOPLE-DEPENDENT:  When you are not present, the work either doesn’t get done until you return, or someone tasked to do your job in the interim just doesn’t know all the ins and outs, so it’s done much less efficiently.
2. Process Are NOT DOCUMENTED:  Documented processes provide a road map that shows how the job is to be done, in what sequence, who should be coordinated with, and what constitutes job completion. Without this documentation, job execution will be sub-optimized, as it is human nature to do as little as possible to get the job done, and to be oblivious to the collateral damage both inside and outside the company.
3. Its Focus is MYOPIC in NATURE:  Because TK is a People-Dependent OJT approach, the incumbent’s JOB SECURITY is often dependent not only on how well they perform their defined task, but on the amount of information and experience they carry around in their head. The longer the incumbent is in the job, the more VALUABLE they become to the organization. Only one catch here: sooner or later the incumbent leaves the organization, and all that knowledge goes out the door with him.

So, if you fit the TK mold, do yourself and your company a favor. Document your processes from beginning to end. Your replacement or vacation stand-in will thank you profusely. If you witness TK in action in your organization, ask your manager, director, or company president, “WHY? AND WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO ABOUT IT?”

The time for Tribal Knowledge OJT has long passed. Let’s move up to Today’s Standard.

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