Home Standardizing “Tribal Knowledge”: It’s Time for Your Company to Grow Up

Standardizing “Tribal Knowledge”: It’s Time for Your Company to Grow Up

After spending more than 20 years in Silicon Valley fighting my way through every conceivable obstacle, misstart, and product disaster, I’ve learned that knowledge can be an organization’s greatest asset. But standardizing best practices and giving everyone access to valuable institutional knowledge remains a challenge for many companies.

More than 70 percent of employees said they have difficulty finding and accessing the information they need to do their jobs effectively.

Time and time again, I’ve noticed that information gets locked inside the minds and computers of employees, and, as a result, not shared with wider teams. That lack of communication can inhibit both ongoing operations and further innovation and expansion — and it becomes an even more serious problem if employees leave and take their institutional knowledge with them.

Growing your business sustainably is simply impossible without putting in place well-documented standard procedures.

I’ve found that the best way to foster standardization is to create a widely accessible company knowledge base — a place to capture intellectual property, best practices, and informal “tribal knowledge” contributed by employees along the way. This kind of growing knowledge base can provide everyone in your company with cumulative information from the organization’s entire journey — where it began, what milestones it has reached, and where it’s heading in the future.

Articulation of a company’s core elements — its mission, makeup, and milestones — should form the foundation of its knowledge base.

Best practices for achieving operational efficiency, as well as solutions for recurring issues, should also be captured. And all employees, regardless of tenure and experience, should have easy access to an evolving repository of education and training materials.

Building the Foundation

The first thing a company should document — and constantly refer back to — is its North Star.

A North Star is an organization’s unwavering definition of its purpose, its products, its customers and potential acquirers. Clarity about a company’s North Star helps founders create missions and strategies that lead organizations more effectively toward their ultimate goals.

Another must-have component of a company’s knowledge base is a clear breakdown of the company’s accountability structure — which areas are responsible for completing specific tasks within designated time frames. According to Atlassian, 59 percent of U.S. workers cite communication as their teams’ biggest obstacle to success, followed by accountability (29 percent). Having clear strategies that define who is responsible for what, and in what order the tasks need to be carried out, eliminates ambiguity and makes teams much more effective.

Companies also need to identify what I call “triggers” — events or deadline that mark completion dates for specific actions.

I once worked with a San Diego-based startup that had recently lost an account manager who was responsible for handling the company’s most valuable clients. Because that manager hadn’t documented triggers and accountabilities based on those clients’ needs, the service level dropped off and the company was left scrambling to hold on to its key customers.

Setting Standards

People in every role develop a certain amount of tribal knowledge that can be lost when employees outgrow the position or leave the company.

This is especially concerning for the tech industry, which has the highest employee turnover rate out of all business sectors, according to a report by LinkedIn. Without a succession plan in place, the remaining employees who need to take over tasks are left scrambling until a new hire arrives — and even then, it can take months to get that person up to speed.

But companies shouldn’t wait until an employee is about to resign or take leave; standardization and succession planning need to be ongoing efforts.

Employees should create living documents that outline the processes for how to accomplish given tasks — and no task is too small. Each best practice entry should include a summary, a schedule or trigger, and a detailed description of how the process needs to be completed.

Need another reason to record best practices? Think about the amount of time employees spend duplicating each other’s efforts. In the Panopto survey, two-thirds of respondents said they spent nearly six hours each week “reinventing the wheel” — investing time and energy attempting to solve an issue — only to realize later that someone else had already come up with a solution.

Training and Continuing Education

Fast-growing companies may find themselves constantly onboarding new employees.

Having a central repository containing all of a company’s training manuals can help new hires learn how to complete tasks faster without relying on as much assistance from coworkers.

A company’s knowledge base should also include any research papers, webinars, or other educational materials the company has created or acquired that can help current employees stay abreast of new technologies, learn about other areas of the company, and acquire skills they need to grow in their current positions.

Continuing education benefits everyone, but it can especially help retain those just starting out in their careers.

In a Gallup survey, 87 percent of millennial respondents said they rated “professional or career growth and development opportunities” as important to them in a job. But only only 39 percent “strongly agreed” that they had learned something new in the previous 30 days that they could use to do their jobs better. Improved access to a company’s educational materials can inspire employees to learn continuously and apply new skills to their everyday work.

As a seasoned entrepreneur, I’ve found that, no matter how many companies I’ve started, each one turns out to be a learning process. Your ability to document and learn from each failure, as well as each success, will determine whether your company can compete and thrive in today’s unpredictable, ever-changing economy.

Meticulous documentation allows companies to create more comprehensive succession plans and develop strategies for continuous improvement. And if you’re aiming for an acquisition, standardization assures potential buyers that your company can scale at the rate necessary during an exit.

About ReadWrite’s Editorial Process

The ReadWrite Editorial policy involves closely monitoring the tech industry for major developments, new product launches, AI breakthroughs, video game releases and other newsworthy events. Editors assign relevant stories to staff writers or freelance contributors with expertise in each particular topic area. Before publication, articles go through a rigorous round of editing for accuracy, clarity, and to ensure adherence to ReadWrite's style guidelines.

Greg Shepard

Greg Shepard is a serial angel investor and startup growth consultant who has spearheaded 12-15 company exits throughout his career. His former company, AffiliateTraction, was acquired by eBay Enterprise Marketing Solutions in January 2016 as a part of a cross-brand deal totaling $985M.

Get the biggest tech headlines of the day delivered to your inbox

    By signing up, you agree to our Terms and Privacy Policy. Unsubscribe anytime.

    Tech News

    Explore the latest in tech with our Tech News. We cut through the noise for concise, relevant updates, keeping you informed about the rapidly evolving tech landscape with curated content that separates signal from noise.

    In-Depth Tech Stories

    Explore tech impact in In-Depth Stories. Narrative data journalism offers comprehensive analyses, revealing stories behind data. Understand industry trends for a deeper perspective on tech's intricate relationships with society.

    Expert Reviews

    Empower decisions with Expert Reviews, merging industry expertise and insightful analysis. Delve into tech intricacies, get the best deals, and stay ahead with our trustworthy guide to navigating the ever-changing tech market.