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.
4 Consequences of Tribal Knowledge & Tips for Avoiding Them
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.
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.
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.
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.