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Almost every small-to-midsized business (SMB) has their own version of someone we’ll call “Linda.” Linda can be an office manager, an accountant, an IT professional, even the CEO—her title doesn’t matter. What’s important is that Linda knows everything: she knows the names of every contact at every important client, the clause information for every major contract, the key codes for every job site, and how to fix the coffee maker in the break room when it starts making that weird noise.
Linda is the repository for what business analysts call “tribal knowledge:” knowledge that people in the organization accumulate through experience and exposure to company procedures but is never written down or formalized. SMBs are especially likely to rely on tribal knowledge, since responsibilities are distributed communally and everyone needs to know a little bit of everything.
Small businesses may have only one such person, but medium-sized and larger often have a Linda or two per team or department. These people become very important to a business running smoothly, but that importance comes with a lot of pressure—and opens businesses up to issues if things come up.
Have you ever played a game of Telephone, where one person whispers a phrase into the ear of the next, and so on down the line? If you have, you’ve probably heard how “transistor radio” can turn into “traditional video” and then into “train melon congo.”
Linda might know exactly how to apply contract discounts to a quote, but she’s only the first person in the chain. The people she trains directly will pick up the process, but that information might be incomplete. If there are errors or missing steps, those carry on to the next person and so on.
This issue is especially important if a process requires collaboration between different departments. If Sales has one understanding of the process of drafting a contract and Legal has a different method, it can create confusion or conflict. Documenting processes and making them easily accessible not only takes the load off Linda, it also creates a reference point that anyone can use.
Risks knowledge loss
Life happens. Spouses get jobs in different cities, kids are born, people win the lottery. Linda sometimes has to leave—and if she takes her knowledge with her, that can be a big blow to a small-to-midsized business. This can be especially problematic when training new people or replacements, since they have to recreate information and processes from scratch. During the COVID-19 pandemic, 96 percent of companies lost critical knowledge just from staffing changes.
Making an effort to record tribal knowledge not only protects companies from losing this important information, it also relieves some of the pressure on people like Linda. If Linda knows everything, Linda has to be constantly available, either physically or by phone or email. Being constantly available can be taxing and create resentment and might increase the chances of Linda looking for a different position that requires less commitment.
Delays training time
In every job, there’s a moment where new hires feel like they’ve “made it.” They’ve been exposed to the business long enough to absorb the knowledge that isn’t written down—in short, they’ve become part of the tribe. This is a great moment but when it happens isn’t easily pinned down—HR professionals say that fully onboarding new employees can take anywhere from three to six months or even more than a year, depending on the complexity of the role.
The Linda in an organization is great for training and sharing this information, but not having it written down can extend this onboarding process, making it difficult for new hires to grasp processes. Successful training early in a new hire’s experience is one of the biggest factors in their performance and has a major impact on whether or not they will stay with a business long-term.
Organization-specific knowledge can never be fully recorded. Knowing customer preferences, having personal contacts in other businesses, all of these establish the character of a small-to-midsized business and help differentiate them from their competition. Businesses will always need their Lindas.
But Lindas also need a break every once in a while; they need to know that they can take a sick day or go to their kid’s graduation without things falling apart without them. By recording and centralizing important processes, SMBs not only protect themselves against losing important information, they also improve the workplace for people like Linda.
And when Linda’s happy, everyone’s happy.