Unlocking Tribal Knowledge to Transform Your Organization

The pace of innovation and the complexities involved in creating cutting-edge products and services are exacerbating the need for new methods of capturing, managing, and sharing information; synchronizing activities; and replicating best practices and proven techniques.

By Alfredo Zangara, PMP, Business Architect, Intel Corporation

We’re all familiar with the phrase, “Knowledge is power.” But an often-overlooked source of power is “tribal knowledge”—the collective knowledge of the organization contained within the context and boundaries of the various “tribes” (business units, functions, product teams, and project teams) that make up the organization.

While the instinct to form tribes goes back hundreds of thousands of years, the recognition of challenges associated with the sharing of tribal knowledge across an enterprise is starting to spread. To date, tapping into this knowledge has been difficult and costly. But the desire to make it easier to access and organize this information for broader benefit is inspiring fresh thinking. Let’s take a look at what tribal knowledge is, how it traditionally has been developed, and some important considerations as you transform the way you collaborate and share information across your organization.

Tribal Knowledge Is Rich and Useful

It is natural for us to cluster into tribes; modern humans (Homo sapiens) have been doing it since our emergence about 200,000 years ago. We form teams and departments based on our expertise, functional roles, or common goals. Together, we collaborate to develop initiatives, oversee programs, and complete projects. Although ultimate responsibility rests with those at the highest ranks of the organization, the magnitude of effort—the bulk of the work to create products and services—happens among project teams and departments, or tribes.

The knowledge developed within these tribes typically is transmitted by those with the deepest domain expertise through conversation or demonstration, and learned over time through experience. It continues to evolve and becomes part of the tribe’s language and way of doing business. To newcomers and those outside the tribe, it can be difficult to grasp. Some of the information and data is documented, but a considerable portion of it is not. And the tribal knowledge that is documented often is challenging and time consuming to find and access. Depending on the tribe and its purpose, the knowledge may be willingly shared, it may be carefully guarded as a source of power, or it may be rightfully protected (as in the case of classified information).

Tribes aren’t inherently problematic. In fact, they are powerful and necessary for business success. But tribal behaviors can impede productivity, particularly in complex organizations, because the full complement of knowledge contained within one tribe is not systematically shared with or understood by other tribes.

Hunting and Gathering and a New Way Forward

We’ve been hunting and gathering for as long as we’ve been forming tribes. It was the only known means of subsistence for most of human history. Organizations have hunter-gatherers, too—analytical hunter-gatherers, individuals who either proactively or responsively undertake the role of connecting the various tribes of the organization to enable the necessary and purposeful exchange of information and ideas. But the effort required—hunting, gathering, compiling, studying, interpreting, re-packaging, and publishing the knowledge in an understandable form—is costly from an organizational perspective. Not only does it require considerable time and effort, but it can take its toll on morale. Most organizations don’t provide relief from day-to-day job duties to find a way to better perform this vital function.

As corporations become more complex so, too, does the job of hunting and gathering. Tribes have autonomy to determine how to document and track information, creating a huge variety of formats that can be difficult to reconcile. And business ecosystems involving suppliers, partners, associations, government entities, and others outside of the traditional walls of the enterprise result in tribes that include participants from other organizations, each with their own ways of handling tribal knowledge.

Furthermore, the pace of innovation and the complexities involved in creating cutting-edge products and services are exacerbating the need for new methods of capturing, managing, and sharing information; synchronizing activities; and replicating best practices and proven techniques. The need to evolve beyond hunting and gathering is becoming not just increasingly urgent but necessary to remain economically viable.

The Path to Transformation

Just as agricultural methods supplanted hunting and gathering in order to sustain growing populations, we can apply the same concepts of efficiency and standardization to devise a better, more sustainable way to plant, nurture, harvest, and share organizational knowledge.

Successful initiatives to improve collaboration and information exchange have certain principles in common:

  • A shared desire to achieve a state of operational alignment
  • A vision of an orderly system that encompasses effective, efficient management of information and cross-organizational behaviors that form a cohesive and comprehensive methodology
  • A process to examine best practices, clarify informational needs, develop new models for activity and information flows, and identify an integrated set of collaboration tools

These key principles create a solid foundation for operational alignment. But to truly achieve transformation, it’s of crucial importance to acknowledge and deal with change dynamics.

First, gain a deep understanding of the organization’s Nature domain, described in the Strategic Execution Framework set forth in the Stanford Advanced Project Management program as the combination of an organization’s culture, structure, and strategy. By understanding the context in which the organization operates, you can realize important insights into how hunting and gathering is conducted and how best to go about evolving it in that specific environment.

Also recognize the anxieties generated by the uncertainty that comes with change and with loss of power, in particular the power of holding recognized expertise or of being regarded as the “go-to” person for specific information. In “Organizational Culture and Leadership,” Edgar H. Schein characterized these as Survival Anxiety and Learning Anxiety. To overcome these anxieties, executive leadership must endorse and enable the initiative, and intentionally provide what Schein describes as Psychological Safety—the “air cover” that allows people to define, implement, practice, and tune the new way of working.

Realize that change initiatives create the potential for conflict (of ideas, philosophies, and methods). Remain alert for divisive behaviors and be prepared to bring stakeholders together to resolve issues through facilitated debate and principled negotiation.

Finally, you’ll need an influencing plan to proliferate this transformation. Similar to Geoffrey Moore’s premise in “Crossing the Chasm,” recognize that there will be innovators and early adopters who will jump on the bandwagon quickly, but the vast majority will need a combination of demonstrated success, persuasion, and easy-to-use tools before they will adopt the new approach.

The reality is that tribes are here to stay. The good news is a shared desire for transformation toward operational alignment is also here to stay. By following key principles and addressing change dynamics, those connected to a common purpose can focus on exercising their best talents in creative, productive, and valuable ways, and organizations can turn tribal knowledge into organizational power.

Alfredo Zangara, PMP, is a business architect at Intel Corporation with more than 15 years of experience in Project Management and Operational Improvement. This article is a synopsis of his presentation delivered at The Strategic Execution Conference presented by the Stanford Center for Professional Development and IPS Learningin April 2013. For information on the 2014 conference, write to strategy@executionconference.com

Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training Top 100 and Emerging Training Leaders.