What is tribal knowledge in your business? It’s all the knowledge about how to operate the business that is in the memories of you and your team members.
When you hire someone new, the existing “tribe” members’ (employees of the business) knowledge is shared and then stored in the memory of the new employee. In a small business, there may be only one person who holds specific knowledge that is needed to run the business.
What happens when they don’t show up? Unfortunately, one of my clients experienced this when a key employee took an ambulance ride unexpectedly and is now off on long-term disability! Yikes!
The alternative tribal knowledge is building this knowledge into a system. Some call it SOPs – Standard Operating Procedures. The old-style “manuals” I had to read when I got my first office job have fortunately been replaced by cloud-based methods of capturing key workflows, procedures, and tasks.
If you have a concern about a key person not showing up and bringing the business to a screeching halt, here are a few useful considerations:
- Have a system for the system – As with many behavior changes, the biggest challenge is getting started. If you create a standard way of capturing and documenting a workflow, It is much easier to get started.
- The owner might not be the best systems builder! We have observed better success when an employee “sustainer” or “champion” of the change effort is given the power and support to help the team build the systems.
- Start small with the easy and routine workflows first. If the Pareto principle (the 80 -20 rule) applies, as it does to most of life – 20% of the tasks are the important workflows to be documented.
How to embrace resistance:
One of the reasons the team holds onto their tribal knowledge is for job security and power. If they are the only one who holds the knowledge – they are perceived as valuable. This works right up until they want to take a vacation or worse – they take an ambulance ride! These key employees need to be assured they can build the systems, reduce the dependency on each person and still keep their job.
When this happens, the business will be able to grow now that it is scalable, and it actually frees up team member’s time and training new hires becomes easier too.
It is important to explain the objective is not to make team members into mindless checkbox-following robots. Since the objective is to systematize only a portion of the key tasks, the new systems allows employees to use their brains on the exceptional tasks that needs personal attention.
Here is the bottom line: Documented systems are better than tribal knowledge. It is worth the short-term investments of time and effort to achieve the lasting freedom and time savings of a systems-building culture. The trick is to accomplish the change before one of the key people doesn’t show up one day – and never comes back.