Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Transforming Tribal Knowledge to Standard Process

Instrument PanelOrganizations lament over the risky dependence on Tribal Knowledge to run their business. Extracting the knowledge from the key individuals is not as simple as asking them to write down everything they know about a process. People holding the Keys to the Kingdom are frequently making heavy use of intuition and hard won experience that can’t be dumped to documentation immediately upon request.

A deliberate structured iterative process is needed to reveal, define, and understand the processes and criteria that people use to solve daily problems, make decisions, and manage in their specific operational areas.

Here is one generalized variation of a method to extract and structure tribal knowledge into a repeatable process complete with decision logic.

  1. Following the 80/20 rule, identify and document the 20% of the process that represents 80% of the normal conditions and decisions of the typical happy path.
  2. Create a visual holding place, if one doesn’t already exist, for the data (actions, issues, and decisions) associated with the process - probably in time sequence. This can be as simple as a spreadsheet.
  3. The objective of the visual system is to have a wider  perspective of the norm so that the exceptions and non-standard conditions are more readily exposed for investigation and clarification.
  4. Apply what I call pattern-based process improvement and creative slicing and dicing of the data to begin to fill in the missing pieces that are currently only understood by the people with the “keys to the kingdom”.

This method is best executed with participation between the mentor (process expert) and at least one other person with “outside the process” eyes to distinguish between the intuitive knowledge and explicit knowledge. The additional participants are part of the audit process to verify if the process is being standardized in a form that can be operated by other non-experts.


photo credit: ben.fitzgerald / CC BY 2.0


  1. You're right. The key of success is in us and it depends on how we can process our knowledge and skills to improve a business. We should have a strong mind to make it better.

  2. Great post. It leads us to have a strong determination to use our own ideas and intelligence as we build our own business.

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