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Knowledge Just Might Save Your Life

April 8, 2014

The Wall starts off as little more than a raised curb; a few names engraved in the black granite. As we walked down it was as if The Wall rather than we were moving. Standing at the base of the deepest part, The Wall was over ten feet tall . . .and covered with all those names.

(Photo credit: digital salutations)

I knew that guy.


That guy right there. I served with him.

Oh. . .

This was my first visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I was attending with my friend Jim Abbott. Jim was the local Washington DC rep for WordPerfect Corporation. And he was a Vietnam Veteran. It was somewhat overwhelming to be standing in front of those 58,000 names with someone who, but for the grace of God might have joined them. I’m a history buff and Jim was one of those people willing to talk about his experience.

The most important thing I learned in Vietnam was that knowledge was power. The rest of the guys in the unit were very interested in keeping me alive.

We typically think of people who are information black holes as a bad thing. In business we don’t want information bottlenecks. When only a few people know how to do something it’s often called “tribal knowledge.” The information isn’t written down, it only exists in the heads of the experts.

As a project manager, I have to treat tribal knowledge very carefully. The problem is that it is normally the technical experts who hold the tribal knowledge. Engineers and programmers are terrible at documentation. They know their code, or their systems and documentation is often viewed as wasted effort.

Would you write down your own phone number? Or directions to your house? Of course not. That’s how technical people think of their systems. Why document what you know? Of course, we end up programming numbers into a phone and then tend to forget them. We move to a new address and no longer remember exactly how to get to our old house. We certainly don’t remember well enough to describe it to someone else.

But, as a PM if I push too hard against the Tribal Knowledge, I risk alienating the very people I need to help me do my job. I tend to do lots of my own documentation. This practice in turns leads to another type of information sharing. The person with the documentation tends to become known as the person to ask. If they don’t know the answer they know who to ask.

But in all cases, we want to avoid having just one guy know a key piece of information. I mean, what happens if he gets hit by a bus, or catches a bullet in the jungle?

My friend explained why he was so valuable to his unit.

We used microwave transmitters and receivers for our radios at the forward landing zones. Depending on how far you were from the base, you needed to set the gaps to different distances. The army produced a booklet with tables to help you determine the correct gaps. The tables were wrong.

So, how did you set them up?

I was the only guy in my unit with enough math ability to derive the correct values. No way was I going to teach that to anyone else. Our unit would drop in and secure an LZ. Once it was secure they’d fly me in on a helicopter. I’d set up the radio and then they’d fly me back behind the lines as fast as possible. My unit was very interested in keeping my alive.

I guess if it was a matter of life and death, I might do a little less sharing as well. Fortunately, we don’t have to dodge bullets in our data centers.

To Jim and all the veterans, especially the guys who served in Vietnam, a grateful nation thanks you.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and thirteen children.

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