The Perils of Tribal Knowledge, Part Four

Tribes moved from word-of-mouth to records and documents to improve control of their herds, learn what were the best foods for them, raise the live birth rate, and so on. They also improved on the barter system by standardizing worth of animals, tools, and other goods and establishing “fair” exchange rates.

Money was a further attempt to standardize, as well as make transactions more accurate and convenient. And, of course, these necessitated special skills like accounting, which standardized and simplified monitoring and measurement.

Such improvement spread to other areas. Tales passed on from generation to generation became “recorded history”.

Expansive text complemented paintings, drawings, and illustrations. Education began to spread beyond the elite. Mercantilism took hold. Craftsmen formed guilds to ensure better quality by providing uniform training in skilled crafts like shipbuilding, manufacturing, and masonry, as well as to ensure steady employment.

Medieval guildsmen
Medieval guildsmen

With the rise of literacy and education came the growth of standardization. Productivity increased significantly in the ensuing centuries, and much of it had to do with improved communication, much of it in written form. Unfortunately, we seem to have peaked more than 50 years ago. The rate of change has increased exponentially while the diffusion of knowledge has declined precipitously.

Even now, business is waffling back and forth between tribal knowledge and thorough, accurate, and timely documentation. Documentation is losing, because it’s wrongly perceived as a “cost center”. Yet, we have seen so many times throughout history how clear, concise documentation is far preferable to passing on tribal knowledge.

Documentation is a more reliable form of communication – standardized, reliable, consistent, fact-based, and timely. Documentation takes many forms – words, pictures, 3D models, prototypes, and even audiovisual. So, why do we ignore history rather than learn from it?

If you think you have the answer, let me know.


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Posted in Better communication, Change management, Education and Training, Measurement and Analysis

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