Tribal Knowledge and IT Culture

While “tribal knowledge” has become a commonplace reference for often hard won, domain specific expertise, the broader implications of “IT tribes” is more complex, more subtle, and can be a challenging roadblock to progress.

IT groups have largely evolved on an academic model in which skill sets are grouped together not only in logical functions, but which often assume less than logical cultural attributes. These are skill groups analogous to the French Department, the German Department, Earth Science, and Mathematics, etc. in universities—groups defined by common areas of expertise, common areas of interests typically reinforced by common thought leaders (e.g., in this case high tech analysts, standards groups, etc.), and ultimately compacted by political boundaries that more often than not tend to codify these “group” identities.

The prevalence and political orneriness of IT domains in network management, systems management, database management, application management, application development, etc. are so self evident as to have already become popular “tribal” cartoons. EMA consulting, research, and just plain common sense reinforces the fact many of these “tribes” are the most powerful and the most politically destructive in large corporations where huge territories (perhaps more like medieval fiefdoms than tribes) have been staked out and are guarded with introverted sets of rules, politics and governance.

And while best practices, such as the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL), are beginning to make significant changes by defining a common language to support processes that cut across domains and by promoting “business” rather than pure play “technology” alignment, there are many more miles to go before the damage done by IT tribal complacency (think traditional siloed ways of working) is a thing of the past.

Work we did several years ago exposed that not only are these separate groups often complacent in their isolation many are often hostile to each other. In this case, a look at how service desk personnel viewed operations professionals and vice versa revealed that these “tribal cartoons” actually become subtexts for superstitions that can significantly impact progress across IT groups. Service Desk personnel typically referred to Operations as “lost in technology,” “indifferent to their customers,” and even “egotistical engineers,” while Operations personnel often responded that they viewed Service Desk personnel as “technically unsophisticated” and, in so many words, “largely superfluous.”

Just this June, EMA asked network professionals if they were willing to share performance information with professionals outside their organization. And even after the rise of ITIL and the growth of CMDB Systems 70% said that, “No, they weren’t.” Interestingly enough, by far the most dominant reason for this was that “we have never done this before.” A second and arguably more telling argument was that “no one else would understand it.”

Nonetheless, this same research from June tracked a strong rise in triage teams to analyze tough problems in application performance. In many cases, these teams were actually driven from the networking group! And both data and focal interviews exposed the fact that certain management solutions—typically those looking at application flows across the network—were now being used to support cross domain problem isolation. It was also interesting to learn that while many of these teams had designated stakeholders (though even more were ad hoc), almost none had documented processes or formalized executive support.

These are just a few examples of the kinds of trends of which you should be aware: Embedded resistance to change on the one hand, or, in contrast, a predominantly grassroots effort driven by pragmatism rather than top-down legislation, to bridge the chasms across IT tribal thinking. CMDB initiatives often expose these issues and sometimes get lost by appearing to threaten these various constituencies with the specter that they must all now live in a glass bowl, and all be exposed in a far more granular way to the judgments of each other.

The evolutions from “tribes” to “collaborative constituencies” is the most significant transformation that IT has ever gone through. It is even more of a meteor fallen to earth than the transition from mainframe to distributed computing. But it is more complex, more subtle, and will unfold over a longer period of time. And while ITIL is a huge catalyst for change, alone it is not enough. There are strong political, cultural and technological-architectural dimensions to this transformation that you can either promote, or ignore, or worst of all, resist.

In a time when global business competitiveness and cost pressures are driving requirements for business alignment and efficiency through the roof, it’s time for you to become more proactive in promoting this type of evolution. And the first step is being aware of it, and doing an honest assessment of where you stand.

Dennis Drogseth is vice president of Boulder, Colo.-based Enterprise Management Associates (, an industry research firm focused on IT management. Dennis can reached at [email protected]