With Tribal Knowledge, Trust but Verify

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Tamara Jovanovic is a design engineer with Happiest Baby, a manufacturer of smart baby beds that alert parents if the infant needs attention and soothes the baby back to sleep. She also recently completed her master’s degree in electrical engineering by studying around her work schedule.

Since Tamara has been absorbing new information from the halls of academia and her workplace, we asked for her thoughts on differentiating between tribal knowledge and documented fact. Is tribal knowledge a friend, foe, or a little of both?

Andy Shaughnessy: Tamara, being a recent grad school student and working in the industry as a designer, you probably have some thoughts on tribal knowledge.

Tamara Jovanovic: As a person who started really young, in the beginning all you seek is help and validation that you're doing a good job or confirmation that you're not making mistakes.

In those first few years, tribal knowledge is welcome. As a young person, you're fresh and eager to learn. You're trying to understand the ins and outs of your job and the industry. With time, you gain some experience, and you realize that suddenly, you have this knowledge that is your own.

You slowly start to see certain things that may be outdated or that there are better ways to do things. However, I don't think tribal knowledge is a “fail,” or necessarily bad. It's a great starting point, but the tech industry progresses so fast and there are new technologies and improvements coming out all the time. I need to do my own research.

Barry Matties: Coming into the industry as a young person, and coworkers were sharing their knowledge, did you question it, or did you just accept it?

Jovanovic: A little of both, really. At my company, it’s not like they say, “Here’s how we do things. You must follow these rules.” It’s more like, “You’re young; here’s what I know and how I do it.” From there on, it’s on me how I use that information. It’s more of a positive way of sharing experiences and knowledge among each other.

We’ve always had a very young and small team, so we work very closely, and we are glad to get each other's input because you can look at something for hours and not realize that there is a small mistake right in front of you. A fresh set of eyes might spot such things immediately. We work together to evolve as a team and adapt better processes that would help save us time and money.

We have a very good culture of taking what we've already done with a grain of salt and seeing if we can improve it.

To read this entire conversation, which appeared in the March 2023 issue of Design007 Magazine, click here.


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