How to Retain Tribal Knowledge

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Tribal knowledge is the information and systems known within a specific group but unknown outside of it. 

Think of tribal knowledge as the stories and memories shared around a campfire. You remember the gist but don’t recall every detail. And more details are lost as the story is re-told over and over again. Despite modern-day technology, many teams are left trying to recall campfire stories when a colleague moves on. 

Here’s how to capture that tribal knowledge with writing, reading and critical thinking. 

Get Ahead of the Problem: Reduce Turnover

Get ahead of tribal knowledge loss by reducing turnover through employee engagement and a focus on culture. This is especially important during restructuring periods and corporate mergers.  

A 2018 study of 234,000 exit interviews found that 77% of departing employees could have been retained by their employers. There were three main reasons for turnover which can all be addressed with clear, written communication. 

Manager behaviour - This is the most common reason for unwanted attrition. Managers and employees don’t need to be best friends to be effective. Manager behaviour issues are often due to a lack of communication and clarity. Managers must create a team charter document with expectations, constraints, and guidelines to establish shared accountability. 

Career development - Write full job descriptions with daily functions, promotion paths, and expected interaction with other departments. For many employees, the only role they can realistically aspire to is their boss’s job. Many organizations have more flexibility but fail to document it clearly and risk unnecessary turnover from otherwise content employees. 

Work-life balance - Letting employees work remote is the best method for immediately improving work-life balance, but implementation without a remote work policy is a mistake. Include standards for technology, availability and provide a team communication charter. 

Understand the Difficulties of Documentation 

There’s a simple solution to the tribal knowledge problem - write everything down. The problem is that it's difficult to execute. For starters, writing everything down doesn't help if the information is inaccurate, outdated or created in a silo.  

There are technology and workplace culture issues to address. 

Lack of a “reading culture” - Teams often overlook the most important aspect of documentation - reading and reviewing. This is why corporate wikis are out of date and writing documents feels like a waste, there must be a system of reading. Frequent writing then becomes impactful and incentivized. 

Lack of shared accountability - Instructing reports to write out their processes and internal knowledge is part of the equation, but it won’t be effective if managers are not involved. Leaders such as Jeff Bezos (Amazon) and Ben Horowitz (Andreessen Horowitz) created systems with fewer PowerPoints, and noted the value of long-form memos and document reviews (more on that below). 

Knowledge Base and Wiki limitations - The 90-9-1 principle is an internet culture phenomenon that manifests itself in corporate knowledge bases and internal wikis. The rule says that 90% of users are “lurkers” who don’t contribute to content, 9% of users edit content while the remaining 1% are the only users to actually create new content. This lack of creation and moderation leads to confusing and out-of-date information. Encouraging and incentivizing collaboration must be a focal point for any company using these tools. 

Software sprawl and inconsistency - There are many tools for capturing knowledge beyond knowledge bases and wikis. However, these tools are often designed for something else. Communication platforms, project management app and general storage tools are all used as makeshift team intelligence databases. This isn’t negative necessarily, but teams that fail to write and read documents about how to use each tool will struggle. 

Facilitate a Reading Culture 

It’s not yet possible to download knowledge from our brains or guarantee the long-term employment of a given individual. Developing a reading culture is the best way to retain tribal knowledge and overcome software challenges. This includes three components: 

  • Writing - Teams (managers included) write documents when they need to propose an idea, save a process, request a promotion, etc. 

  • Reading together - These documents are read together as a team. Everyone has a chance to provide feedback and ask questions. 

  • Managing with documents - Managers leverage the creation and request of documents to organize projects and goals within their team. 

Usually, only organizations with vast amounts of resources and internal tools can apply these workflows. That's why Topple is building software to help teams write, review and manage documents.  

Here are a few examples of how well-known business leaders encouraged this type of culture. 

Ben Horowitz (Andreessen Horowitz) - Horowitz has been known as a written communication evangelist ever since his timeless essay, “Good Product Manager, Bad Product Manager.” He talks about the importance of clear, written communication for product development and management in general. 

Jeff Bezos (Amazon) - Bezos famously banned PowerPoints and had employees write long-form memos for any business project or action item. These memos would be reviewed collectively so everyone could give input. 

Andy Grove (Intel) - Grove’s approach contrasted Bezos, he saw writing as a way to refine our thoughts and be more precise. But thought reading the report was often less important. This shows how two entirely different management techniques still leverage the value of critical writing.   

There are countless examples of great leaders who prioritized writing such as Phil Libin, founder and CEO of Evernote and legendary PR executive David Ogilvy. Beyond the benefit of better communication, long-form writing helps your company retain team intelligence. 

Tribal knowledge loss is difficult to quantify the impact is easy to see. Reducing turnover is an obvious goal but teams need a documentation system for information retention. This is usually referred to as a ‘writing culture’ but remember the content must be read, reviewed and updated for real results. 

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