August 19, 2014  
 
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Tribal Knowledge

Written by Andrew Goldman for Gaebler Ventures

Do you have systems to back up your operating procedures or is that knowledge embedded in your employees' brains? Tribal knowledge can be a dangerous way for a growing business to operate. Make sure you have systems and back-up plans to avoid future headaches.

Typically when a small business starts up, they don't have the benefit of expensive systems in place.
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As a result, many small business owners rely on their employees to pick up the slack.

This works well if you have loyal employees. Small businesses are able to get the job done without formal systems and the employees feel they are valuable because of their great importance.

At this point, it could be said that your employees have "tribal knowledge" about your company and your operation. Instead of having a system on a computer or in a book, your system is in your employees' heads.

While this may work well enough when your business is starting out, if you plan on growth and expansion, tribal knowledge can be a dangerous system.

If an employee takes a vacation, sick day or quits, your company is going to suffer as a result. Any fine-tuned business cannot afford to operate in this manner. Your company should be able to function smoothly regardless of any one individual's presence. This does not mean that you will not have critical employees, but it does mean that others should have a working knowledge of their job function.

When you try to break the tribal knowledge cycle, you may encounter some resistance from your employees. Tribal knowledge gives employees a sense of value and importance.

Believe it or not, your employees may enjoy the fact that they hold exclusive knowledge. It gives them a sense of job security and a sense of importance. While this may be true from their point of view, it needs to be explained why others must also obtain this knowledge and information.

Plus, you can replace their sense of importance with reassurance and cross-training them with other skills. For example, your shipping supervisor may be reluctant to teach the production manager all the aspects of his/her job, but when your shipping supervisor learns the production manager's roles, he/she will feel more comfortable.

While cross-training is a good way to spread out the tribal knowledge within your company, it still does not entirely solve the problem.

You need to document and track your current processes to fully eliminate the problem of tribal knowledge. By documenting your system, you can avoid the reliance on individuals and easily move forward if the need arises. Obviously, you need to include the employees with the tribal knowledge in the documentation process. Make sure to reassure your employees and explain to them fully why this process is being undertaken.

A wise man once told me that "the sign of a good manager is that when you leave, everything still runs smoothly." You need to ask yourself if this is true of yourself and your other managers.

Without a doubt, especially with small businesses, the CEO and other top managers are extremely important. Despite this fact, there still should be cross-training, documentation and verbal communication among managers to ensure the company is not caught holding the ball if someone leaves or is absent.

By being proactive in avoiding tribal knowledge, your company will be in a much better position to grow and deal with employee turnover.

Andrew Goldman is an Isenberg School of Management MBA student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He has extensive experience working with small businesses on a consulting basis.

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