How to Preserve Your Tribal Knowledge

IT Asset Management (ITAM) is an inherently multidisciplinary activity performed in an increasingly complex business and cultural environment. As in any discipline, high-quality decision-making is a critical success factor. It is built on domain knowledge and wisdom. ITAM is dependent on IT domain expertise and wisdom to be available when and where required.

Good decisions can be made based on accurate, relevant information. Excellent ones are informed by individual and tribal wisdom. Knowledge management systems are able to store large volumes of data and information recoverable with a few key clicks. There are really smart systems, even artificial intelligence, but wisdom is something we find challenging to transfer from one person to another, much less codifying for silicon-based storage.

Tribal knowledge (aka institutional knowledge) has been defined as the collective wisdom of an organization’s tribes and individuals. Knowledge, however, is not wisdom. Wisdom is the synthesis of knowledge and repeated experiences over time in a given domain. Tribal wisdom is a more accurate expression of the value of collective experience and individuals possessing wisdom are who we seek as decision makers and leaders. Although an individual with deep knowledge in a given domain is truly a subject matter expert (SME), what we seek are SME’s with wisdom. Although time and practice are not the only factors in development of expertise, significant deliberate practice is required, as popularized in the so-called 10,000 hour or 10 year rule. Wisdom is that plus insight, vision and other attributes not easily cataloged.

For organizations, the development of SME’s requires a significant investment over years. This investment is at risk in many cases due to the average tenure of employees, whether looking at the statistics through a generational or professional lens. Knowledge retention practices and communication of wisdom through the tribe are therefore strategic, yet challenging imperatives.

Development of experts starts with recruiting the best people and developing them over 5 to 10 years. When compared with the average 5 year tenure of IT professionals, there is a clear conflict, in that they tend to leave roughly once they’ve become expert. To make excellent management decisions, we need experts. To keep our experts we need to change the dynamics. What can we do to retain our best people?

The answer resides in our corporate culture, how we treat our most valued people and in how we manage our tribal knowledge.

Culturally, we must ensure that our governance and management map directly to our mission and values, that knowledge and wisdom are treated as strategic assets and where knowledge management is central to the mission from the top down. We must create a place where people want to stay, where the values they relate to as individuals drive the mission and where competitors have to jump a high bar to poach from us.

From a human capital perspective, we need to recognize the value of SME’s. Creating opportunities for them to pass on their wisdom through cross functional teams, knowledge sharing, shadowing and mentorship are essential. SME succession plans and individual contributor professional growth paths will contribute to value retention. Highly competitive compensation is an important key factor.

Knowledge capture, whether we’re speaking of a project cycle or a career cycle, is too-often deferred, instead of being embedded in everything we do. A recent study correlated poor knowledge management with a 6% average loss of revenue in 500 top European companies. That’s a very large number that speaks to, at minimum, the need to institute processes and practices that retain knowledge and transfer gained wisdom.

Some practices that have produced positive returns include utilizing social media focused on common work interests, storytelling about professional experiences and the use of retirees. Performing lessons learned exercises at phase gates, not only after projects end is highly valuable. Creation of subject matter expert indexes and resources provides a connecting mechanism between knowledge seekers and knowledge possessors.

Expert ITAM domain knowledge is more than simply a career’s worth of information at our fingertips. When domain knowledge is informed by repeated learning experiences, wisdom develops and forms the foundation of excellent decision making. Preserving that wisdom and passing it along to the tribe is fundamental to long term success; it’s a function of organizational culture. Central to that culture are the values in action that recognize subject matter expertise and experts.

About Andrew Olmsted

Mr. Olmsted drives infrastructure audit work and critical initiatives for IT Infrastructure at Blue Shield of CA. He is an enthusiastic proponent of organizational culture change as a prerequisite to reaching strategic objectives. In an IT career spanning over 30 years, he has focused on managing IT as a business in finance, healthcare and technology consulting organizations, as an executive and as an independent contributor. He is IAITAM-, ITIL-, COBIT5 and PMI-certified.