Potential Treatments for Institutional Knowledge

PUBLISHED ON OCT 22, 2023 : 543 words, 3 minute read — MISC

Critical information locked away in institutional knowledge (previously known as “tribal knowledge”) has cropped up in every workplace I’ve ever been a part of, and no one seems to have good solutions for it - whether that’s a team of 2, or a team of 50,000. This is my living reference doc for to explore potential ways to reduce the amount of institutional knowledge a group relies on. I want it to be a starting point for discussion, notes, and a place I can add information back to as I gain more experience and hear more perspectives on the topic.

📛 Problem 🔗︎

  • lots of information is stored in your coworkers brains & your brain that does not overlap
  • Many people don’t like documenting processes because they haven’t been burned by the Bus Number in the past
  • Documentation can quickly become stale
  • Not always easy to recognize what stuff you are doing on autopilot that other people won’t know about

👻 Ephemeral things we rely on, but probably shouldn’t 🔗︎

  • 🧠 Our brains
  • 👯 Easily being able to reach coworkers
  • Our terminal command history
  • Open browser windows
  • Open notes tabs
  • Chat search in Slack, etc. (If you can’t find it again, does it exist?)

🚌 Potential ways to combat the bus number in small teams 🔗︎

many of these work best when multiple team members are on board and helping contribute

  • When you write or see a question on Slack/Jira/email/etc., like ‘how to do X’ or ‘Why is X’ with a good answer, that’s a candidate for adding it to a more robust documentation source.
  • Whenever you ask a question, keep at minimum a personal document of the answers to not have to ask them again. Ideally, both parties will aim to recognize when a question + answer is worth adding to documentation.
  • Swapping roles on teams - if there is one person who always gets a certain type of work, change it up - make the least experienced person (in that domain) give it an attempt and have the expert & novice work together to document processes and gotchas.
  • Faking as if someone was on extended vacation? Won’t catch everything, becuase you’ll only catch whatever knowledge/situations crop up during that week.
    • Similar issue to when I had to change my default email, since I was losing my college account in a month. I was updating the accounts that were sending emails to me - but that only catches the ones that send somewhat frequent emails. I can’t rely on that method for accounts that might only email once a year, such as for taxes.
  • How to figure out the stuff that you don’t remember only one person knows about until it comes up, usually comes up infrequently, like the CO that Mike and I just did - we hadn’t though to include Celine in the assignment group until we were actually doing the CO.
  • Keep documentation proximate to where it would get used - at least for developers, that’s going to be often on the repo itself. Bare minimum you can link out to other sources, but I prefer having it right in the thick of things.

See Also