I’ve worked in the procurement departments of some pretty large organizations. And a common problem among them was there being too much “tribal knowledge.”

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Tribal knowledge in business refers to knowledge that is known by certain people in a company that has not been documented or proliferated to everyone who needs it. The existence of tribal knowledge is problematic because the company will depend too heavily on just a few key individuals. This can result in those few people being bothered constantly by their coworkers who know them as the only source of knowledge on a topic or the company being harmed when the “enlightened few” leave the company.

Unfortunately, in my career in procurement departments, I never fully solved the tribal knowledge dilemma. But when the existence of tribal knowledge became apparent here at Next Level Purchasing, it was time to take action.

How have we handled converting tribal knowledge to company-wide knowledge?

Well, first we adopted the collaboration tool Google Wave from, of course, Google. Google Wave allows several people to collaborate on a document remotely, simultaneously, and in real time. It also has a pretty sophisticated audit trail so you know who did what, when, and it allows you to replay the creation of the document.

How do we go about coordinating the population of our Google Wave?

At every other staff meeting, I have a quiz-type challenge for the team. We have questions on small pieces of paper that are placed into a fishbowl. Sometimes these questions are created by me, sometimes I have the employees compose the questions. Each employee draws a question and is challenged to answer it in the meeting.

This process alone enlightens team members about our processes, etc. that they were unaware of. But then we document this knowledge afterwards in Google Wave to make the knowledge-sharing permanent. Each employee takes the questions that he or she drew and writes the answers in an appropriate section within our Wave.

Though we have only been doing this for a couple of months, our Wave has grown to 14 pages. Think about that. That’s 14 pages of knowledge that was isolated in the heads of individuals that is now available to the team!

We are now ready to start using our Wave for finding answers when we need them. Any time an employee has a question – either of their own, a prospective customer, or a student – their first step should be to check this “knowledge base” that we’re building.

Searching is a bit challenging as Google Wave allows you to “tag” certain sections that are indexed as links but, as far as we can tell, does not allow you to search within a Wave. We may end up simply dumping our knowledge into Word, but that’s OK.

The process of building our knowledge base has really helped us turn tribal knowledge into something that any employee now has access to. I can’t help but think that our approach could help any procurement department.

Is tribal knowledge a concern of yours? If so, how do you plan on addressing it?

To Your Career,
Charles Dominick, SPSM
President & Chief Procurement Officer
Next Level Purchasing, Inc.
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Charles Dominick, SPSM, SPSM2, SPSM3

Charles Dominick, SPSM, SPSM2, SPSM3 is an internationally-recognized business expert, legendary procurement thought leader, award-winning entrepreneur, and provocative blogger. Charles founded the Next Level Purchasing Association in 2000, oversaw its incredible growth, and successfully led the organization to its acquisition by the Certitrek Group in 2016. He continues to blog and provide advisory services for the NLPA on a part-time basis as he incubates his upcoming business innovations. Charles is also the co-author of the wildly popular, groundbreaking book, "The Procurement Game Plan: Winning Strategies & Techniques For Supply Management Professionals."

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