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 Marketing Strategy + Effective Communication = Business Growth

Proceduralize - Perils of Tribal Knowledge

By Amanda Menking
Internal Communications Specialist, PKG Communications

Tribal knowledge belongs to the members of a tribe--and only to them. In businesses and organizations, tribal knowledge may include the unspoken rules of engagement between management and employees, the undocumented goals of training, the assumed philosophy of customer service, and even the unspecified vision of the company.

The transference of tribal knowledge requires time. When a new member joins, he must be inducted into the tribe and a significant part of this induction process is the sharing of knowledge. However, because tribal knowledge isn't documented, sharing it is time-intensive. For example, if a retail business does not have a training manual that includes specific information about how to handle merchandise returns, this knowledge must be communicated to a new clerk by his or her co-workers or managers. Co-workers and managers may be on hand to train the new clerk, but sharing this kind of information takes time away from their other duties and may need to be repeated again and again as they cannot refer the new clerk to a reference for self-study.

Although not every aspect of a business can be documented, recording important policies and procedures eases the burden of sharing knowledge with new team members and reduces the amount of time it takes for a new member to become a fully functioning part of his or her team.

The tacit nature of tribal knowledge causes frustration. Because tribal knowledge is undocumented and obtuse, new members can become frustrated by the seeming inaccessibility of information. They can also feel isolated, as though everyone else knows something they don't. Even worse, they may feel like they don't know how to find out what they don't know. For example, when a new team member's responsibilities and duties aren't clear, she may feel as though she is being held to an invisible bar--invisible only to her. If neither Human Resources nor her manager can provide her with clearly written objectives, she may become resentful and frustrated--not knowing how to perform her job or how to know if she is successful.

Providing new team members with written job descriptions that include responsibilities and duties as well as objectives, metrics and incentives provides boundaries and a sense of security so that they can focus on their work and not their jobs.

Tribal knowledge is always subjective and therefore inconsistent. When members of a tribe share knowledge, they unconsciously present information from their personal point of view. Although two different employees may tell a new hire about the unwritten dress code policy, they will each convey a different attitude about this policy even if they accurately communicate the particulars. For example, the first employee may share his personal experiences, adding that he has never witnessed the enforcement of the dress code. The second employee may point out that she was sent home because her skirt was too short, but she doesn't remember how short it was. Both employees are communicating what has been true for them, but the new hire will likely be confused about what kind of experience he or she may have.

Including company standards and the consequences for violating standards in new employee training manuals removes the subjectivity from the transference of this knowledge to a new team member. If a policy is documented, a manager may still choose to interpret subjectively and may even choose to enforce consequences inconsistently; however, this is much less likely to be the case as she knows that the tribe can hold her accountable to what has been agreed to and recorded.

Whether your company struggles to quickly and effectively train new employees, consistently articulate expectations of existing team members, or even ensure that people stop using the color printer, PKG Communications can help you to tease out and capture tribal knowledge. After all, tribal knowledge is only perilous when it's unspoken. Giving a voice to the information your organization shares can move you beyond perils to power.

Proceduralize - Perils of Tribal Knowledge

Want to Play Telephone?

As you may remember from childhood games of Telephone, the relay of information can sometimes lead to misinformation. The first person says rather earnestly, "I went to the grocery store yesterday and was surprised to see a lady with a green parrot on her shoulder in the produce aisle." The fourth person, between giggles, hears, "I went to the shore yesterday and it was nice to see a baby with a green parasol on her shoulder in the British Isles."

The relay of company information can, unfortunately, be like a game of telephone. To prevent the spread of misinformation, it is important to document shared knowledge. True, it's not nearly as amusing as the rumors and lore that can result from misinformation, but that's what the holiday party is for.


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