The ongoing retirement of many of our colleagues has cast a spotlight on this month’s topic: tribal knowledge. As designers and engineers with 30 or 40 years of experience start pricing condos in Boca Raton, the entire industry is wondering: How will we hand down the knowledge acquired by these “silverbacks” to the next generation of designers? How do we know we’re not handing down tribal knowledge to the new crop of designers?
If we’re going to discuss tribal knowledge, perhaps a definition is in order. iSixSigma has spent a lot of time studying tribal knowledge, and the company defines the term this way:
Tribal knowledge is any information pertaining to a product or service process that resides only in the minds of the employees. The information many reside with one or many employees, and it may vary between employees, but it is undocumented in nature.
“Undocumented” means the method may or may not be the most efficient way of performing the work. It may not even be an effective or correct way to perform the work. It also means multiple employees are likely to perform the work in different ways, based on their own version of tribal knowledge.
I’ll buy that; once it’s documented, it ceases to be tribal knowledge. I especially like the part about employees all performing tasks in different ways based on their own tribal knowledge.
The term “tribal” conjures up images of island dwellers passing down myths and legends over millennia. Let’s face it: Designers are basically a tribe, like the headhunters of Borneo. Your numbers are dwindling, you speak your own language, and no one really understands what you do all day.
A CAD manager shared this illustrative tribal knowledge story with me: One of his senior designers started designing boards in the ’80s, and his mentor had told him that every board needed at least 100 decoupling capacitors. The designer diligently sprinkled decaps like pixie dust on every board for 30 years. When the manager asked why he put so many decaps on every design, the designer said, “That’s how I was taught.” He kept decap distributors in business for years.
Tribal knowledge is present in every organization, no matter the size. Tribal knowledge isn’t necessarily bad; all the processes that Bell Labs pioneered in the ’60s and ’70s started out as tribal knowledge. But there’s a lot of bad tribal knowledge floating around out there. How do we distinguish tribal knowledge from documented facts?
In the March 2023 issue of Design007 Magazine, our expert contributors will provide readers with the tools and methodologies needed to identify tribal knowledge, as well as when to question such information, and how to document and transform tribal knowledge into a process.
We begin by interviewing Tamara Jovanovic, a designer who recently completed her master’s degree in electrical engineering. She discusses how she identifies tribal knowledge, and when it’s time to dig deeper when presented with suspect information. Next, IPC instructor Kris Moyer explains the road signs that lead him to questionable data, and why you should ask experts to cite their sources. Alun Morgan lays out the need for better documentation for PCB materials.
Our columnists had quite a bit to say about tribal knowledge and their opinions varied. Michael Ford says it’s almost always negative. Tim Haag believes tribal knowledge can be good, bad, accurate, or inaccurate. Martyn Gaudion discusses how to create an “informal information culture,” and John Watson explains why every designer needs to be ready to step up and help counter bad information. Kelly Dack relates the tale of the “Five CAD Monkeys,” and Joe Fjelstad shares a personal view of his experience with undocumented data.
On other topics, we have columns from Barry Olney, Matt Stevenson, and Vern Solberg. Anaya Vardya wraps up his series on final finishes.
Don’t miss our IPC APEX EXPO special section, including interviews with IPC Design Competition contestants, as well as Kris Moyer, who explains the reasoning behind this year’s more complex design and how he’ll approach the competition next year.
See you next month.
This column originally appeared in the March 2023 issue of Design007 Magazine.