The Culture Creator, part V

There is yet another culture creator we don’t consciously employ, and it’s called tribal knowledge.  

Tribal knowledge are those unique things about a people group that are taken for granted.  Things that that they “just know” but those on the outside of the tribe don’t know or understand.  Things that make the tribe who they are, nuances that define them and the way they do things.  This is why benchmarking or “best practices” rarely work because it doesn’t take into account tribal knowledge.

Yet tribal knowledge very much contributes to the culture of the group (family, organization, church, non-profit, etc.). Passing down thoughts, procedures, feelings, and ideologies from person to person, generation to generation, and worker to worker.  

“We’ve always done it this way” is the rally cry of those encapsulated with tribal knowledge.  They do something a certain way, but they don’t know why, and they never tried anything different. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it just is.  An excellent article on this can be found here:   https://hbr.org/2002/01/getting-it-right-the-second-time.

Trible knowledge is often perpetuated by storytelling.  Storytelling gives context without necessarily providing documentation.  For example, the founder of a company tells of how he started his company in his garage, making widgets and painting them with a charcoal grey powder coat.  What he doesn’t mention is that was the paint he used not because that was the best choice but what was available.  What was available then is now considered the best choice, but no one knows why.  The procedure is in the handbook and has become “law,” but no one has ever challenged the reason because they assume the reason had previously been challenged.  It could well be that there is a better paint that can be used, but why bother because what they’re using has been successful.  

The success of a certain way of doing things is built into the culture.  Thus, because it is a success they assume it can be duplicated.  But it could also be that the specific powder coat paint is usable and applicable in a particular climate but take it into another climate and not so much.  It doesn’t adhere, it doesn’t resist heat well, or a million other things that could affect its usability elsewhere.

The warning tribal knowledge brings in building culture is that some things just aren’t transferable, but you don’t necessarily know what those things are because they’re nuances that go unnoticed.  

The wisdom in tribal knowledge is to make the nuances known.  That’s why “why” is always a good question. 


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