Tribal Knowledge – A Sufficiently Large Problem?

Greg MeanyNews1 Comment

Aaron Levie’s 2012 quote is a good statement for the business times we live in…

“Want to spot the next great technology or business opportunity? Just look for any market that lacks a minimally complex solution to a sufficiently large problem.”  Aaron Levie, CEO Box

It’s a great entrepreneurial statement that helps focus our thinking on solutions and software that can deliver real productivity. But what if the marketplace tacitly accepts the status quo or has a blind spot for the “sufficiently large problem”?

Tribal knowledge provides a good example. This is the idea that much of how a company operates is stored in the heads of employees and not officially documented anywhere. Fact is we’ve all accessed this knowledge pool. We’ve leaned over to a cube-mate to ask about the details of a software release, or jumped on IM to find out how legal thinks about indemnification. Or any number of other difficult to find nuggets. This scenario repeats itself thousands of times each day in companies across the country.  The issue is that this information never gets stored anywhere but in people’s heads, so the same questions get answered over and over through oral tradition. By never capturing this information or making it easily available the speed and productivity of these organizations is negatively impacted.

But is tribal knowledge the sufficiently large problem targeted by Aaron Levie’s statement? Should we move to improve the status quo? Is there enough business value? Let’s look at some numbers…

  1. The average tenure of an American worker is 4.6 years (3 years for younger workers) – This is actually up from pre-recession levels, but with an ramp-up time for a new employee averaging 6 months, employers will need to capture the knowledge developed during these shortened employment cycles to reduce the on-boarding time of the next employee.
  2. Every month, more than a quarter-million Americans turn 65 and head towards retirement – These are the most experienced employees in the organization and they taking irreplaceable, tribal knowledge with them. Saving this knowledge will be essential to avoiding large expertise gaps.
  3. Economic stability continues to be elusive – Efficiency will be as important as growth. Knowledge retention is an obvious target. How much organizational speed could be created if people had the full depth of an organization’s knowledge at their finger tips?

To envision a solution it’s important to understand the efforts thus far and why collecting tribal knowledge seems elusive for most organizations. IT departments have historically deployed content managements systems, intranets, wikis, etc in a sincere effort to collect, save and make organizational knowledge searchable. In some cases a limited number of items that had been tribal in nature were committed into documents and saved in these systems, but it was far from comprehensive. Other companies tried to implement enterprise search with the idea that there was an effective way to search all of their enterprise systems. Even though expectations were high for this approach, it realized only limited success. The tribal knowledge gap remained.

So is there a minimally complex solution to the sufficiently large problem presented by tribal knowledge? Consider the possibilities of crowd-sourced answers provided in an enterprise Q&A system. It’s fair to note that Haydle is an enterprise Q&A company, but what other option can both capture and deliver tribal knowledge while being complimentary to existing systems? Enterprise Q&A let’s you ask questions of your peers (much like you did when you leaned over the cube wall) while expanding the knowledge pool to include people in other groups and locations. This expanded access along with peer validation of the answers gives you the full power and experience of the organization. Even links to documents located in existing knowledge management systems can be included. Most importantly these question and answer sets are saved permanently and are searchable. This gets new employees on-boarded faster, makes their efforts while employed more productive and saves the knowledge they’ve developed for use by others after they leave the company.

Always interested in  your thoughts…