Tribal Knowledge

While reading through my monthly yard of magazines I came across an article that sparked my interest. It wasn’t the whole article, or even a complete section, it was two paragraphs that grabbed hold of my attention.  The point the author was making was that in the aviation maintenance industry, thought I think it holds true for many industries, pass-down is an endangered skill set.

For those who don’t know, pass-down, typically found in law enforcement or in the military, is when a shift changes hands the person going off-shift meets for a few minutes with the person going on-shift and gives them a briefing on what transpired and what new bits of information may be of importance or value to the next shift.

Pass-down is a simple process and can be vitally important in dangerous environments. In aircraft maintenance  when a particular job will take multiple shifts to complete, taking the time to pass along information about the previous shift can prevent things from being missed, or provide a clue on a difficult problem that will save the next shift a lot of time and frustration. In short it can save money and lives.

In the short term it is fairly obvious how this can be an important part of many industries saving time and money by passing along information and lessons learned from one person or team to the next. Where this becomes really beneficial is in the long term. It is that shared knowledge base that can keep us from having to relearn the same tasks over and over again. By now you are probably going “ya, duh” but here’s the rub, it happens far less than you might think.

Accumulated knowledge does happen, and it manifests in many ways, books, documents, magazines, websites, wikies, and more, but the volume of what doesn’t make it to those resources is staggering. There is so much OJT knowledge that can only be found through experience and working side-by-side with someone who ether had it passed down ti them or had to learn it on their own.

As a society we have thirst for knowledge, or at least experience, in our hobbies and recreational pursuits we are more than happy to pass along information, it seems to be very different in our professional lives. It seems as though we treat those bits of knowledge as trade secrets that we have teased out of our jobs. Something that will make us look good before reviews, or let us shine above our fellow workers.

Accumulate this store of knowledge, we stash it away for a rainy day. I understand the mechanics and psychology of it, it is a convoluted combination of motivations, but it really isn’t helpful to us, our employers/clients, or our fellow travelers down the path of our chosen career. What we should be doing is mentoring, not only the skills that we have learned, but the pride and ethics of a job well done.

In truth, I think the decline of pass-down is more a symptom of the money-above-all-else attitude that seems to be pervasive in business. You still find active participants in pass-down among those whose lives are at stake every shift but in the day-to-day lives of the non-lifethreatened worker there is little incentive. Loyalty and trust are in short supply on both sides of the employer/employee relationship and this two way street doesn’t seem to see much traffic these days.

I believe there are five ways to show commitment to my craft/trade.

  • To always do the best that I can
  • To take ownership in my work
  • To continue to learn and hone my craft
  • To encourage those who show interest and promise
  • To always practice my craft/trade with honor and integrity

Following this path, at lest for me, is how I combat this money-first attitude. Sure I want to make a profit, but I am willing to take a few points off the top to maintain my personal standards and integrity. Are you?