Tribal Knowledge 2.0

How connections between talent development, daily operations, and new partnership models are defining the next era of modern business (and led us to Game of Pods)

Here’s a scenario:
You’ve gone back in time. It’s 1979, you’re on the hit game show Family Feud and host Richard Dawson, charming as ever, has just finished introducing your family through a flurry of jokes, flirts, and jabs. 

It’s your turn at the buzzer, competing with another contestant to quickly answer the following: “According to our survey, most American executives say their most important asset is this…”

You slam the buzzer. 

“People!” (Good Answer.) Of course, it’s people. It’s always “people.”

From airlines to defense contractors to startups to grocery stores, no matter the industry, the “our best asset” trope has been around for a while now. 

And, of course, there’s truth in the trope. People matter quite a bit. Without people, there’s no business. Saying they matter most importantly may add to employee satisfaction — a small signal from the top that “we see you” — but it’s also, hopefully, true.

From a PR standpoint, the trope works pretty well too. It humanizes the business. It signals an investment in individuals because the company loves those individuals.  

Fair enough. Trope or not, it’s a good position to take. 

For us, though, as a services-oriented company, the focus on people has a bit more of a direct and obvious tie to the business. 

We literally sell the diverse & varied skills of human beings. Individuals, as experts, usually in teams. 

Intertwine those skills with viewpoint, background, process, network, technology & tools, global positioning, partnerships and culture, and you have Cognizant. 

We’ve always been hyper-focused on our people because, inevitably, so are our clients

The skills of our people are intimately tied to our business’s core purpose. We’re “building the modern enterprise to make lives better.” This means many things to us but what it certainly means, rooted in that word “modern,” is that technology focuses are core to our work. 

And because we’re in this ultra-modern tech services space, we’ve seen something happening in the last decade that’s a critical lesson for all modern organizations to pay attention to. It has to do with people: The accelerating complexity of technical demands and how that’s reshaping our idea of Tribal Knowledge.

Kinks in the People Supply Chain.

Spin it all we want, Cognizant is in the people business. Our clients hire us to back or lead their most technical initiatives because they trust that we have the right skills to drive measurable impact at optimal cost. It’s what we do.

To have those ‘right skills’ we’ve always had to consider industry-level market trends, predict what’s on the horizon for tech, and ensure that we have the people in place to deliver for clients before they start asking. In other words, fight the talent war and maintain a healthy people supply chain. 

Now, in that war for talent there are two primary ways to build an army:
recruit new experts or aggressively upskill the people you have. 

And guess what? For some very digital-era reasons, the difficulty of both tactics has accelerated for about a decade.

In their “Mastering Hypergrowth” report, the World Economic Forum partnered with EY to explore the ways that “hypergrowth organizations” — those that have leveraged the Fourth Industrial Revolution to innovate on business models and capture previously unheard-of market share — think and operate. 

The report’s Talent discussion stands out. As the section begins “Talent is perhaps the most significant factor for hypergrowth companies.”

With accelerating technology availability to innovate-off-of, the convergence of tech trends across markets, and “quickly changing environments” putting pressures on leadership to consistently shape & reshape culture, the role of talent is more in-focus than ever. 

As the section concludes, “[Within Hypergrowth organizations] talent profiles are needed to support the phase or purpose of the company. Without adaptable talent, or when very specialized talent is required, management must enable entry/exit processes to maintain the talent fit.”

Back to that war for talent in a digital era, upskilling is more and more necessary, and recruiting specialized talent more difficult for exactly these reasons. The in-demand skills are changing fast. It’s getting hard to keep up.

Okay, Tribal Knowledge.

Answer it with me now: What’s our most important asset?

You got it. 

Tribal Knowledge is still mentioned now and then in business publications. Those things the long-tenured, soon to retire managers only know. The on-the-job tricks and tactics that make work easier and productivity more predictable. 

The good printer, this VP’s favorite football team, secret hacks that get things done faster… It all feels kind of outdated, doesn’t it?

Tribal knowledge sounds outdated because it factually is outdated. 

The archetypal college-drop-out billionaire. 

The niece that can hack. 

The nephew with a massive social following. 

The rising-stars in business who are breaking things. 

Even if begrudgingly, these are the personas we culturally value today. Those rejecting old norms, never learning the phrase ‘Tribal Knowledge,’ and successfully innovating because they don’t really care for the old ways of doing things. It’s not about youth, it’s about a hunger for fresh thinking. The tribe’s changing.

But in this modern war for technical talent, where proactive and aggressive upskilling is key to crossing that skills-gap, tribal knowledge isn’t dead —  it’s just evolving.

The Courting Phase of Developing Talent & Leading Delivery

The craft of delivering digital products is hot right now. Plenty of tools, plenty of philosophies. Critical to software engineering teams, especially. 

As touched on earlier, being in the services business, we’re a bit obsessive about the ways we work. It’s our IP — the magic recipe that elevates our great people and makes our partnership worth paying for. 

Our team works on thousands of digital initiatives every single day. 

What we’ve found as we’ve rapidly grown is that the model has an inherent risk of becoming more and more imperfect over time and at scale. Projects become harder to manage. It’s something we’ve had to solve.

There are skills gaps and model fragility all at once. 

As the World Economic Forum showed, this is a natural problem for scaling digital businesses. Due to the diverse and highly technical nature of our work at Cognizant, we just happen to be a microcosm of this.

Approaches that work for one technology may not work for another. For one type of product, not the next. Today, but maybe not tomorrow. Processes deployed with a client of low digital maturity aren’t quite as appropriate for the digital native – and vice versa. 

Change management and agility must be baked into the delivery model and talent development is intimately connected to this. By connecting talent development to delivery, a new era for Tribal Knowledge is coming into view. 

What data do our people generate, across this global organization, that we should capture and codify for the rest to learn? What skills-deficits are we identifying in small, previously uncaught ways that we can proactively solve for at scale — before they become gaps? Can we project manage a fluid, evolving system? Can we upskill our people constantly so their skills are always relevant, so they’re more engaged in their career growth, and so our services are exceptional, always?

By reshaping our view of Tribal Knowledge and emphasizing constant communication, the capture of great work, dissemination, and transparency, we can begin to answer all of these questions. 

This can’t just be c-suite philosophy, though. It must be built into the company — and technology gives us options.

Buy vs. Build? 

Knowledge Management Systems and Content Management Systems are a good start for many businesses. It’s always surprising to me how behind so many organizations are in this area — and how suboptimal their internal command of data still is considering the many out-of-the-box options out there. 

Moreover, the contractor and vendor world is bigger than ever. For most organizations, the WEF’s Hypergrowth talent-problem is partly solved through vendors like us and contractors. Trust me, most of the top tech giants you’d name in a Family Feud lightning round emphasize this kind of workforce heavily in their operations. 

But for us, the existing platforms simply aren’t enough. We can’t rely on contractors or vendors. We are the vendors. 

Plus, our people are our most important asset. We’ve emphasized investment in their growth, career development, and happiness since our inception. Just like our work with our clients, we’ve asked “how can technology be deployed to make things better? What can we build?”

Tribal Knowledge 2.0 is Here. Or, “Why We Built Game of Pods”

The convergence of process & people is here. By capturing the real-time excellence of our global team and thinking in terms of continuous improvement, we’re thinking in Tribal Knowledge 2.0 terms and putting it to practice. 

For us, this philosophy has spawned the development of our Game of Pods platform. A platform that supports our on-the-ground delivery teams in their work, through what we call the “Delivery World,” while in parallel supporting our talent development within the “Talent World.” 

We’re expanding Game of Pods usage across Cognizant delivery teams and individual members in a paced rollout throughout 2021 and beyond. As on-the-ground delivery teams face challenges and define solutions, or reach blockers and bust them, or excite our clients and reach outcomes in wholly new ways, these are captured & cataloged in the form of step-based “Quests” that other teams can model their behavior around real-time. 

This is a critical support system for modern software development as complexity increases almost daily. The distributed network effect on knowledge sharing is unlocking new outcomes for our teams. 

And the Quests model is deployed within the Talent World as well. Here, actual challenges found in delivery (ex. New standards rolled out in Apple’s Swift programming language that iOS developers need to understand) are solved at a community level and then turned into quests for individuals to take on — a critical step in their personal development and a powerful step for our client delivery. 

But this is just a peek at what Game of Pods offers to our teams and our clients. We invite you to learn more about the platform here and welcome you to follow our journey as the platform evolves. 

How Will You Tackle the Talent Challenge?

Without a doubt, the considerations are many. From culture, to skills-gaps, to partnership models, to change management, to forecasting, for any company thriving in the Fourth Industrial Revolution talent is a significant factor with existential implications. 

The starting point, for most, will be strong and long-standing partnership models that unlock agility and proactive innovation without concern for skills gaps. It’s a model that works and is more important than ever to keep strong. But, for culture, purpose, competitive advantage, and more, full-time employees matter just as much. I encourage you to ask, “how are we managing knowledge?” Consider connecting your daily operations to talent development in new ways and consider Tribal Knowledge in a new light. 

After all, your most important asset is people. And you’re one of them.

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