Tribal Knowledge in the Project Office | PMAlliance Project Management Blog

Tribal knowledge. Every project office has it, though many PMP®s don’t even realize it. It’s that deep vein of historical context and lessons learned that team members tap into when their conventional data channels fall short. Notoriously difficult to nail down and aggregate, tribal knowledge can be a huge benefit to the group, but only if it’s readily accessible. Consider these tips for identifying, capturing, and storing the valuable information that already exists inside your project office.

What is tribal knowledge?
Tribal knowledge is the broad term for all those little bits of information PMP®s gather over the course of their careers, but which they don’t usually document in any formal way. Sometimes tribal knowledge relates to vendors—which ones can be counted on to come through in a pinch or which have gained reputations for submitting too many change orders, for example. Similar historical information might also exist in other areas, such as why one old piece of equipment or software system was left in place while another was upgraded. Typically this data makes its way into the project documentation but occasionally it doesn’t, either because it doesn’t seem important enough to submit as a formal entry or because busy PMP®s simply address the issue as part of the day’s work and don’t give it much thought afterward.

Why tribal knowledge is important
Historical data is useful no matter what type of project your team is executing. In addition to run-of-the-mill problem resolution, tribal knowledge may be particularly helpful in addressing issues that were identified during previous projects but were not fully documented (the fix probably wasn’t recorded, either). In instances where gaps exist in project documentation, access to tribal knowledge is a crucial asset that can fill in the blanks. Why were certain decisions made? How were negotiations handled? What drove the compromises each stakeholder was ultimately willing to make? Why were problems addressed the way they were? Without tribal knowledge, even the more seasoned members of the project office could find that what’s been written down over the years is incomplete, and team members may still be missing vital pieces of information.

Gathering your Project Team’s tribal knowledge
Pulling together all of the various pieces of data your PMP®s have stored in their heads (or in their files) doesn’t need to be an overwhelming task. Even a relatively simple document management program can be used to capture information about the various aspects of project planning and execution. More comprehensive software suites are also available to help organize the team’s entire knowledge base into a searchable structure. The key is to solicit information from everyone on the team, regardless of their experience level or area of responsibility, and to get all of that data into one place. That may translate into an online repository or you may opt for traditional paper files, but either way it should be a single location that’s easily accessible.

Keeping tribal knowledge up to date
The body of tribal knowledge housed within your project office never stops growing, and it’s important to put processes in place that will help keep your master database current. Once you’ve done a first pass at harvesting the team’s tribal knowledge, review the documentation from past projects and look for areas where additional information can be captured. Consider also adding tribal knowledge transfer as a formal part of the post-project review phase. This gives team members an opportunity to add data to the master knowledge base while it’s still fresh in their minds, while also ensuring that valuable tribal knowledge isn’t lost if a key PMP® leaves the organization.

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