Sunday 28 June 2009

Two tribes - two communities - two jargons

This blog post made me think about the nature of communities of practice in business, by thinking of them as tribes.

A tribe (according to wikipedia) is a social group of humans connected by a shared system of values and organized for mutual care, defense, and survival beyond that which could be attained by a lone individual or family. Tribes can often share a common language or dialect, can share common customs, and can share common ancestry.

In many ways, communities of practice in a business share some characteristics of tribes. Let me illustrate this with two tribes I know well from the Oil Industry - Drillers and Geologists (and the stereotypes I show here are exaggerated, and rather out of date!)

  • They share different values. Traditionally, geologists are scientists - they are interested in hypotheses and theories. Drillers are engineers, they like to do stuff and build stuff. Geologists think in millions of years, Drillers think in feet per hour. Drillers say geologists have three hands - "If you ask a geologist for an answer, he says "on the one hand it could be this, on the other hand it could be that, and on the other hand it could be something else". Geologists think Drillers just want to "Make Hole".

  • They speak a different language, and that language is a technical language. It is Jargon. Geologists speak of underthrust plays, of turbidite overbanks, of secondary calcite cement. Drillers talk of BHAs, top drive assemblies, packers, tubing and foam cement (this is not the same sort of cement the geologists talk about).

  • They probably also have different customs, though here I am on less certain ground. Geologists like field trips, drillers like golf. Geologists draw maps, drillers draw graphs. I am sure there are others!
Both drillers and geologists have their communities of practice. These are self-organised voluntary support groups which exist for sharing knowledge. In may ways, to quote wikipedia, they are "organized for mutual care, defense, and survival beyond that which could be attained by a lone individual". The care, defence and survival are assured by pooling knowledge, to allow the individual access to the knowledge they need to take care of business, defend against problems and issues, and survive in a tough and highly paced business environment.
Triablism in communities is no problem provided it is constructive, and provided it focuses on care, defence and survival. It's only a problem when the tribalism turns into non-cooperation or even conflict with other tribes - something which may be a risk if the community "tribes" are reinforced by the wrong organisational structures. So what happens in business if two "tribes" go to war?

This can be highly damaging. When I started in the oil sector, geologists and drillers were in different departments. The communities therefore were strengthened by organisational silos. We communicated by exchanging reports (which were, of course, written in a different jargon). We blamed each other when things went wrong. We could hide behind our different values, different customs, different language.

This situation could not be allowed to continue. Geologists and drillers were put into multidisciplinary teams (along with the reservoir engineers and the petrophysicists). They had to develop a common language, which was greatly facilitated by the development of 3D earth models, where the position of the rocks and the position of the drillbit could be visualised in 3D. They had to develop shared values, which meant a trade-off between "making hole" and "collecting data to test theories", in order to deliver the best business result to the organisation. They needed to start to share customs, share learning, and start to support and care for each other.

Communities in companies have a lot in common with tribes, and in many ways they are tribes united by a common jargon. These jargon-tribes - these communities of practice - intersect with the multidisciplinary teams at the level of the individual worker, and give him or her access to the specialist knowledge they need, in order to interact with all the members of all the other tribes who make up their team. These two structures - the team and the tribe - form the two dimensions of knowledge management within an organisation (for more detail, see the video on this page - its in the middle of the bottom row)

So some mechanism is needed to allow the communities to collaborate, and that mechanism is the team based approach. It is the team leaders job to recognise the tribes, and to build the shared values, shared language and shared customs that allow the two tribes to work together as one, and apply their knowledge in service of the business.


Dianna said...

Hi Nick, love the analogy and the behavior comparisons. Do you think,though, that the team leader role can also be fulfilled, at least in the short term, by a person in the role of knowledge manager? In that capacity, I have played the role of "brokering" and translating for cross-disciplinary teams & communities.

Nick Milton said...

Hi Dianna.

I personally think the team leader role and the "knowledge manager" roles are separate. The knowledge manager role is to ensure the effective and efficient flow of knowledge. The team leader role is to build and manage (or lead) the team, which goes way beyond just worrying about the knowledge aspect, and needs to address team dynamics, work practices, delivery, progress chasing etc. I would keep the roles separate, although sometimes both roles may be taken by the same individual.

Anonymous said...

A legendary Geologist Said:

“Company man is obviously completely useless. The only thing he does is to call office each day and ask: Hey Buddy can I now load the rubbish on boat”

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