4 Consequences of Tribal Knowledge & Tips for Avoiding Them

September 12, 2019 Kristi Park

Many companies—startups in particular—are started on a foundation of tribal knowledge. Often, it is the result of a small core team coming up with processes on the fly, or just faster than they can actually be recorded. It’s not always difficult to operate this way when your team is made up of only a few people; after all, whatever hierarchies do exist are likely more symbolic than practical, with founding members and early hires wearing many different metaphorical hats in the early days. 

However, once your business begins to grow, and people settle into silos based on their roles, disseminating important information about company policies and processes becomes much more difficult—especially if it’s not actually written down anywhere. The bottom line is that when key information lives only in the heads of a few people, it creates a few different problems. 

Problem 1: An Indispensable Few

Tribal knowledge tends to make members of the tribe indispensable. This may sound relatively harmless, but no good can come from a company being literally incapable of operating efficiently without one or two specific people. It can also easily lead to instances of gatekeeping, where more junior employees may not feel that they have the same ability to learn and grow within the company because they don't have the same access to important information as more senior team members. 
One of the reasons silos are so harmful within an organization, is because they make it difficult for teams to share information that helps the company run as it’s supposed to. If not everyone has access to the same knowledge, it creates an inconsistent experience for your customers and creates unnecessary internal bottlenecks.  

Problem 2: No Source of Truth

All the answers anyone at your company is likely to need should live somewhere accessible. Having a single source of truth is crucial, both to enable your teams to speak a shared language and to protect productivity by giving people a way to find information quickly and easily on their own. 
When processes are implemented within an organization, the effectiveness of those processes depends on the team’s ability to maintain them. This is virtually impossible to do if they aren’t actually recorded anywhere, because there’s no starting point to which to refer or upon which to innovate. 

Problem 3: Lack of Accountability

Creating a culture of accountability within your organization is a huge factor if you want to have teams that can communicate and collaborate effectively. If there is no central source of knowledge, it becomes extremely difficult to hold anyone accountable for anything. For example, if you have a manager training a new hire, they may think they are passing on the correct information regarding important processes, but without written records there is no way to be sure. In short, it can lead to a very costly game of ‘telephone.’ 
It should also be noted that one of the biggest anxieties that comes along with a new job is getting through onboarding without being seen as a slow learner or a burden to the team. Because of this, some people may not feel as comfortable asking questions as often as they come up. If important information is well documented, it can help new hires ramp up faster and feel more confident in their role. 

Problem 4: Playing Catch Up

In some cases, it is more difficult to unlearn something that’s incorrect than it is to learn something totally new. Right or wrong, the reality is that our brains hold on to the stuff they’ve done repeatedly. This means that if your company’s internal data and processes become inadvertently distorted early on, people are likely going to have a tough time correcting themselves. 
Additionally, as you scale, there’s a good chance you’ll find yourself playing catch up when it comes to proper internal documentation. This will turn into much more work than it would be to document as you go. 
The good news is, there are plenty of ways to avoid these negative impacts of tribal knowledge. In order to help, we’ve compiled a list of tips we use to keep our team and those we work with fully informed and enabled. 

Pro Tips: 

  • Use a tool like Kiite to document and share knowledge across your internal teams. With Kiite, you can build Playbooks, which will act as a central source of information for any internal use case. This tool also has a chat product, which uses AI to answer questions directly through Slack. 
  • Make over-communication one of your values. It’s much easier to assess what is and isn’t working internally when there is an open line of communication. Providing a space to give feedback and ask questions about things that are happening within the company will allow you to see when people aren’t on the same page and how you can get them there. 
  • Prioritize organization and enablement. Fairly self-explanatory, but still critically important. If your internal filing system is disorganized, it will add unnecessary time to tasks and hurt productivity. Enabling your teams to quickly locate information and use tools properly by being thorough in their initial onboarding will save you time and money in the long run. 
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