Tribal Knowledge Is Not Your Friend


Bearing an organization’s secrets is bad for your career health

Originally posted on Medium January 18, 2020

If you are working on a project that has anything to do with the IT help desk, you are going to need Ted. Ted has been here since the very beginning, and there is nobody as well acquainted with where all the “bodies are buried” as him. Ted speaks in org-specific initialisms and can explain the historical context for every data discrepancy ad nauseum. Without Ted, the IT help desk would surely explode into a fiery mound of rubble.

We all know at least one Ted; organizational pillars with a web of hyper-local company secrets. The information they guard is commonly referred to as tribal knowledge: details about the organization’s processes, technologies and operations that are highly unintuitive, exceedingly complex, rarely documented and disproportionately impactful to the business. Tribal knowledge is a form of instance knowledge, the type of insight that has little worth outside the company walls but inside can seem mission-critical. The density of this tribal knowledge among individuals is often referred to as the bus factor; i.e. “How screwed will we be if Ted gets hit by a bus?” While it is generally accepted that, from an organizational standpoint, tribal knowledge is bad for business, rarely discussed is how toxic a high bus factor is to the bearer.

Photo by chuttersnap on Unsplash Let’s hope that isn’t Ted in the crosswalk, or we are all doomed.

What Makes Knowledge Tribal?

Before diving into how tribal knowledge contaminates an individual’s skill pool, it would help to define what differentiates tribal knowledge from other types of knowledge. In this context, the polar opposite of tribal knowledge is skillful knowledge — that is, abilities and expertise that increase the professional worth of an individual and their capability to add organizational value. Skillful knowledge differs from tribal knowledge in several ways:

  • Tribal knowledge is domain-instance specific. One of the key differentiators between skillful and tribal knowledge is the scope. Given a domain like Web Development, knowledge of the Ruby on Rails framework is a larger domain skill in that thousands of websites use this framework. Knowing the difference between the User class, the UserLegacy class, and the DefaultUser class in the company codebase is knowledge specific to this instance of Ruby on Rails. Only in one single Rails codebase in the world is this information valuable or valid.
  • Tribal knowledge is contextually dependent. When organizational knowledge requires plot exposition to be understood and useful, it is likely tribal knowledge. “_Years ago, we only received any given product from a single vendor. When we started using multiple vendors for a product we had to suffix the product names in the system and then combine the inventories on the website. Now the system can handle multiple vendors but some teams still put the suffixes on when entering new products._” This is organizational lore; storytelling that explains why an odd behavior or complex process is (or once was) necessary. Without context, the tribal knowledge that sometimes products have meaningless suffixes applied is neither helpful or understandable.
  • Tribal knowledge is tightly coupled with the current state. If a change in organizational process or technology renders certain knowledge valueless, that knowledge is probably tribal. The ability to generate complex emailing lists and stagger sends using a collection of home-rolled scripts is instantly made obsolete by the adoption of a professional email management system — this is tribal knowledge. The skills involved in curating those emailing lists and determining optimal send times transcend the current state and apply to any email solution — this knowledge is skillful.
  • Tribal knowledge often involves an emotional attachment. Tribal knowledge offers a sense of power and importance to its possessor which can develop into a type of codependence; any threat to this knowledge (say replacing an overly complex system or cross-training the larger team) is interpreted as a threat to the sovereignty of the tribal guru and met with a dismissive and/or defensive response.

There is a simple litmus test for whether or not knowledge is tribal: for a given role, could a person with more domain experience easily take over the role without being provided this knowledge? If they can, the knowledge is likely domain skills knowledge. If they can’t, the knowledge is probably tribal.

So why concern yourself with avoiding tribal knowledge in the first place? For many, the idea persists that possessing mountains of organizational secrets will equate to sustained value as a team member. Here are some very compelling reasons that may lead you to reconsider.

Tribal Knowledge Has Lost Its Shelf Life

The microservices evolution is everywhere in business. Modern systems and processes are architected to be modular and componentized wherever possible, making once indefinite elements of business suddenly disposable. Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash Modern businesses are all about modularity, and that spells trouble for tribal knowledge dependencies.

Consider a retailer that uses multiple shipping carriers. At one time, each carrier would require a unique integration with the retailer’s software, accounting processes, and vendor relations. This overhead multiplied over many carriers will inevitably foster a tangled web of code, process, and practice. It is also likely to create at least one tribal knowledge guru to navigate it all. Today, there exists a multitude of SAAS vendors that connect to hundreds of shipping carriers through a single integration. The complex ballet of old is replaced by a few lines of code and a single vendor on a balance sheet — and all that tribal knowledge is instantly rendered useless. In a world of modular design, the tribal knowledge guru can find themselves made obsolete at any moment and without warning.

Tribal Knowledge Clouds Your Vision

Back when my younger self was selling motorcycles, the first high performance 4 stroke dirt bikes hit the market. The first run of these machines were nearly impossible to kickstart; manufacturers were quick to release the second generation of bikes that started with much less fanfare, but if you managed to buy one of those very first bikes it required special skills to kick the motor over. So difficult was starting these bikes that only one single person employed at our motorcycle shop was able to get them started. He was our first-gen 4-stroke tribal expert.

When we overpaid for a first-gen bike trade-in, you could bet he was the buyer. Whenever he came back from a motorcycle auction, it was guaranteed at least a few of those hard-kickers would be in the back of the truck. Even though there was little demand for the bikes (who wants a machine you can’t start?) he had an admitted soft spot for them that clouded his judgment.

Tribal knowledge has a way of skewing how we assess value. When niche instance knowledge gives us a leg up in connection with a specific process or tool, we are much more likely to favor that process/tool even when another alternative is objectively superior. This myopia is dangerous to the tribal knowledge expert in that it distracts from our true career trajectories and larger success. Through the haze of tribal knowledge, it can be painfully difficult for the guru to perceive that doing the job well — in this case, reselling motorcycles for a healthy profit — is what matters for lasting career success.

Tribal Knowledge Makes You Bad At Your Job

A common phrase in programming is “leave that problem for future us.” As a rule, we only do the work we know we absolutely need right now; this leaves time to see how things play out in practice and adjust as needed.

The problem with any complex system that is rich in tribal knowledge is that it begins to limit the size of the group that “future us” refers to. The more tribal knowledge that is required to do work, the fewer people are able to do it. Compassion for the next person to pick up the work will often motivate us to remove as many booby traps and minefields as possible. If compassion fails, at least our pride will usually ensure we leave things tidy enough to prevent being judged. But when tribal knowledge secures your role as that next person, it becomes easy to do our very worst work. Compounding matters is the human tendency to overestimate our ability to remember information over time. This can lead to cut corners in documentation, leaving future us without a roadmap.

Tribal Knowledge Reduces Your Marketable Skills

With the average U.S. worker now changing employers at least a dozen times in our adult life, long-term skills viability is a critical component to maintaining a sustainable career. Developing oneself as either a tribal knowledge guru or a skills-focused expert each demand a significant investment in time and sweat equity, but they return very different dividends. Consider how a Director of IT Support could choose to invest in their future:

To be a tribal knowledge expert, this Director might make extraordinary efforts to involve themself in all affairs remotely associated with the IT Support department. It would be important to learn that the phone system aggregates log files daily and what the different log file prefix codes mean, understand how marketing uses 6 directed phone numbers to indicate campaign source channels, find the backstory on why the helpline software database has 2 different user tables, etc.
To be a skills expert, the Director might invest time searching out literature, course work and case studies around technical team management, managerial psychology, and customer service strategy. It would also fall in line to regularly attend industry trade shows and vendor open houses, expose themselves to a variety of tools for call center phone systems, support analytics, and team management.

In meetings, the tribal knowledge expert will become a local hero with a cornucopia of snap responses to very in-the-weeds questions such as “This spreadsheet looks off because the xyz table doesn’t refresh on Tuesdays until 3 pm, due to of our contract agreement with abc vendor from 9 years ago.” The tribal knowledge expert will gorge on the instant gratification of responding to every off-the-cuff trivial question the CEO happens to blurt out, and leave each meeting in a dopamine cloud derived from what-would-we-ever-do-without-you pats on the head.

The skills expert at the same meeting will likely have no answer for what is wrong with the spreadsheet, and will need to investigate if it really matters (hint: it seldom does). What the skills expert will be more than prepared to weigh in on is a change of helpdesk software vendors, a new remote work policy for the team, or the workflow implications of a merger with a major competitor.

When it comes time to interview for the next role at a new company, the skills expert will be able to speak intelligently on the latest trends in the industry, show informed opinions regarding upcoming choices the business will need to make, and walk an interviewer through the body of highly impactful work that comprises their career. The tribal knowledge expert, on the other hand, will find themselves lost outside the safety of the organizational domain. Their wealth of knowledge detailing why their previous employer’s TPS reports could only be run after 4 on Tuesdays will be of little use in an interview, and conversations of the larger industry will be met with a painful-to-watch mental struggle, the expert searching for answers that are simply not coming.

Photo by Johanna Buguet on Unsplash Interviews are not the best time to remember to stay industry-relevant.

Our learning resources are genuinely finite, and every choice regarding how we invest in our skills will impact our marketability.

How To Break Free Of Your Own Tribal Knowledge

If you find yourself acting as tribal knowledge guru (or on the way to becoming one), there are a few techniques that tend to help alter your path. Here, in order of application:

  • Simplify: first and foremost, does the tribal knowledge even need to exist? Often a little investigation into why a thing is so complex and cryptic will turn up surprising results. I once worked on a project that was made exceptionally complex by the need to generate and email PDF reports in near real-time. Upon closer inspection, it turned out no one actually used these reports — in fact, every recipient had marked them as spam long ago. In addition to removing unnecessary complexity, it is also smart to investigate the ROI of supporting edge cases. Often you will find a system that would be remarkably simple, except for an edge case that causes it to spiral into a spider web of tribal knowledge. If these edge cases do not add significant value to the overall operations of the business, it may make sense to sacrifice them altogether.
  • Standardize: Some complexity is always unavoidable. When you have finished simplifying, the next step is to seek out and implement widely accepted best practices. For example, using a heavily adopted platform like WordPress or Ruby on Rails to display a website is far leaner in tribal knowledge than creating a bespoke content management system written in Rust. Best practice standards exist for even the simplest processes: If you visit a restaurant with cage-style dishwashers you will notice the silverware is all placed in handle-down. This ensures that tines are cleaned and also prevents a stray blade-up knife from cutting someone who is expecting to grab a handle. Finding and implementing best practices whenever possible will help to reduce the tribal-ness of your tribal knowledge.
    Often an argument will be made that the organization’s challenges are so unique, so different from every other business that the only possible strategy is a completely custom solution; this is generally hubris. Every company has difficult vendors, ragged data structures, and unpredictable demand cycles. In this case, it may help to ask: How do other organizations solve these problems? What makes our solutions unique? Do the benefits of our solutions justify the added complexity? Your strategy for solving vendor invoicing or database distribution is rarely an organization’s market differentiator, and bespoke solutions that are not part of the core business competency serve as little more than distractions.
  • Document: When it needs to be complex, documentation is often our last best hope. Documenting complexity is an art unto itself. Documentation needs to be accessible — if the tribal knowledge expert is the only person that can read the documentation it does little good. The best person to write documentation is not the tribal knowledge guru, but someone else that can consult them and avoid the blind spots that familiarity can cause. For it to stay useful, the documentation must be regularly updated (which is why simplifying is always preferable).
  • Pass the buck: Tribal Knowledge is a bit like The Ring in that you can also escape the curse by giving it to someone else. If you choose to indoctrinate a compatriot with the dark secrets of the organization you will, at the very least, unburden yourself. This tactic is a bit unscrupulous in that your victim will now suffer the parasitic effects of tribal knowledge, while you are free to focus on career-building skills, so use with care.

How To Help Your Team Break Free

Organizations generally recognize the negative impacts of high “bus factor” roles, however, idolization of the behaviors that lead to tribal knowledge is still deeply embedded in much of business culture. Shedding the weight of tribal knowledge dependency starts by attacking the cultural roots that allow this behavior to flourish.

  • Hold tribal knowledge gurus accountable: Quite often, the individuals with the greatest volume of tribal knowledge are also the most eager to excel in their roles. By clearly defining a small personal bus factor as a measure of their success (and implicitly a large bus factor a sign of failure) you provide a framework for these team members to sunset tribal knowledge dependency in their realm. When team members cling to false power and resist efforts to simplify, standardize and document, holding them accountable exposes their mindset as a liability.
  • Update the value narrative: As modern organizations struggle to measure the value of knowledge workers, it is unfortunately very common to associate the worth of contributors to their individual bus factor. Companies will often encourage cross-training and cheer for best practices adoption, while at the same time venerating team members for their mastery of embedded tribal knowledge. To shift this paradigm, organizations need to shift verbiage.

Encourages Tribal Knowledge:
>- “We couldn’t run this place without you Sarah, you know more about the TPS system than anyone else alive!”
>- “You need to make sure Ted is in that meeting or we can’t discuss the IT implementation.”
>- “Our system is far too complex and unique for us to consider hiring outside consultants to help us, they just wouldn’t understand what we do here.”

Encourages Skills Knowledge:
>- “Alex, your work on the TPS system is amazing, we can now onboard new operators in less than a week!”
>- “Morgan is one of our best project leads, any member of that team is qualified to sit in on meetings because of how Morgan runs the department.”
>- “Our system is so intelligently designed that we can easily augment our resources with qualified developers, and rapidly add features the second we see a business opportunity.”

Taking every opportunity to define success with flexible, skills-focused solutions will go a long way to minimize tribal knowledge across the organization.

In Closing

Sustaining a Horcrux of tribal knowledge is as toxic to the bearer as it is to the whole of the organization. Learning to cast aside the false authority of domain-instance knowledge will create opportunities for true skills growth, improve career marketability and raise the quality bar for all the work you do.