The 7 Deadly Diseases of DevOps: #3 – “Tribal Knowledge”

In a recent webinarAnders Wallgren (Electric Cloud CTO) and John Willis (Electric Cloud advisor and co-author of The DevOps Handbook) discussed the “7 Deadly Diseases of DevOps.” Before we dive into the third part of our series, “Tribal Knowledge”, here’s a quick recap of each of the seven DevOps “diseases” laid out by Willis and Wallgren.

1) Invisible Work 

2) Management System Toil 

3) Tribal Knowledge 

4) Misalignment of Incentives 

5) Incongruent Organizational Design 

6) Managing Complexity 

7) Security and Compliance Theater 

The third disease, “tribal knowledge” is all about information living in silos. Common in large, geographically dispersed organizations, some internal experts may hold on to knowledge or best practices, and take on more work themselves rather than educating others. This leads to employee churn, burn out and can even scare away fresh talent who feel alienated from the tribal knowledge sphere. Another thing to consider, is that if important information exists in the mind of only certain team members, does it really exist at all? What happens when these people leave? There are additional downstream impacts on velocity and quality of software delivery. Here’s what Wallgren and Willis had to say about this disease and how it is negatively impacting IT organizations today:


Deadly DevOps Disease #3: Tribal Knowledge    

Willis describes tribal knowledge by explaining a situation in which a type of employee, named “Bob,” is the keeper of information on how to do specific tasks within an organization. Instead of sharing his knowledge, Bob takes those tasks on himself, creating churn and burnout. Willis adds: “What you have to do is not only identify the Bob’s or Brent’s within your organization, but if you’re only capturing 50 percent of the work you don’t know which one is doing value add work or non-value-add work. You have to actually institutionalize tribal knowledge.

While collaboration tools can be one way to combat tribal knowledge, Wallgren addresses Slack and issues that can still arise from using similar tools: “Even with Slack I find that it’s not a perfect solution to tribal knowledge because one of the phenomenon’s I see happening with our own use of Slack is that people will ask questions in one-to-one channels. That to me is the same as walking into that person’s office and having a conversation one-to-one. The rest of the organization doesn’t benefit from it because you didn’t do it in a public channel or in a populated channel. So, even with a tool, you have to figure out how to do it the right way.”

Chiming in on the collaboration tools discussion, Willis adds his agreement in being careful which tools you choose and why: “You can use AI, or you can actually start adding the human element into the system in a much deeper way that makes AI even stronger. You can’t just tack on a bunch of tools. You have to create dotted lines turning into solid lines to directional advice on how to do the things we know are right.”

Wallgren shares the downsides of wikis: “One of my pet peeves with wikis is they’re often out of date. Wikis share the way you did things six months ago or 18 months ago but since then it’s changed and maybe it’s in a trivial way. ‘We run with this argument now instead of that argument or in this machine instead of that machine.’ Sometimes it’s more fundamental, but oftentimes the old information is still there, and assuming you can find it on the wiki, it’s out of date.”


For more insights into the seven deadly diseases of DevOps, watch the full webinar.

Stay tuned for our next post on Misalignment of Incentives!












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Gabriel Martinez

Director of Product Marketing at Electric Cloud
Gabriel Martinez is a friendly, neighborhood product marketer that likes DevOps and writes fancy words about it so others will like it too. Outside of his continuous delivery crusade; Gabriel is dad, Scrabble champion, and music lover.
Gabriel Martinez
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