Tribal Knowledge

In my industry position I heard a lot about the dangers of “Tribal Knowledge”. This is a situation in which everyone in a group (or tribe) knows how to do a certain task, but it is not actually written down anywhere. Then, when one person is on mat leave, another is on vacation and the other has the flu, no-one from outside the tribe has any idea what to do. Hence all the standard operating protocols that outline, step by step, how to do everything from obtaining a security pass for a new employee, to launching a new product.

I ran into a really bad case of tribal knowledge last week. It started when I couldn’t log into a funding body’s website. My supervisor’s account was set up by his former secretary, who had not listed the user name and password in the usual place. I called the site’s help desk, and had a very helpful gentleman walk me through the process of obtaining the user name and resetting the password. We got as far as the verification question, which was

– wait for it –

the former secretary’s middle name.

Which no-one in the office knew.

It wasn’t in the banking details our accountant pulled up on her computer, and the only person with access to the full hard-copy HR file was away. A telephone call to this person directed me back to the accountant, to pick up a key that would give me access to another key, that would let me into the HR filing cabinet.

Which did not contain the right file.

We eventually found the file on Monday morning.

It did not contain the middle name.

We eventually managed to track the former secretary down and call her at home.

I really, really don’t want to go back to having an SOP for every. single. little. thing. But academia could learn a thing or two from industry about the dangers of tribal knowledge.

Incidentally, once I got into the funding body’s website, I wished I hadn’t. Every agency has different CV formats; I’m used to that. I’m not used to having to list information such as the reasoning behind the order of the authors and why the authors decided to publish this paper in the Journal of Blah rather than the Journal of Whatever, for every single paper my boss has published in the last six years. I have a hard enough time getting his raw publication list to fit into the strict page limits, even without all the additional information. Bah humbug.

About Cath@VWXYNot?

"one of the sillier science bloggers [...] I thought I should give a warning to the more staid members of the community." - Bob O'Hara, December 2010
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6 Responses to Tribal Knowledge

  1. Amanda says:

    Middle name?!? Why in the world would anyone choose that? That’s just bizarre.

  2. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Well it certainly is a question “that no-one else would know the answer to”, as most verification question prompts ask for. Which is all well and good until you are setting up an account on someone else’s behalf!

  3. Kyrsten says:

    I HATE tribal knowledge. In my position right now, it is the bane of my everyday existance. We are trying to get every person to have “a partner” who does something similar, but it always, always breaks down. It’s why I’ve been working on an internal Wiki for the past year. Still the bane of my existence though. People get all offended when you don’t automatically know something you “should”. Which just makes me mad.End rant…

  4. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    A buddy system??!! Awesome.

  5. microbiologist xx says:

    Our lab is awful about this. The person I inherited my thesis project from didn’t write anything down so I have had to reinvent the wheel multiple times. Actually…I guess he may have written stuff down, but considering he did not include a table of contents in any of his 6 notebooks, I might have overlooked the info.

  6. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Ugh, that sucks even more when it’s protocols and results and stuff rather than just passwords. Passwords can always be reset, it just would have meant bugging my supervisor to call the website help desk from his “vacation” on another continent.

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