Interesting story I heard on NPR a couple of years ago. (Oh, for those not in the US, NPR is a privately and publicly funded non-profit organization that serves as a national syndicator for some 900 public radio stations in the U.S., often associated with universities or other forms of learning.)  The story was around Holiday Traditions.

While the gist was the Winter holidays, Christmas, Hanukkuh, New Year’s, etc., they talked about other Holidays as well. The guests being interviewed mentioned how family “traditions” are really, on average, a generation old. People associate doing something for a given Holiday if their family, when they were children, did that thing for the same Holiday. In turn, their children will associate doing what ever their family does for Holidays as “Traditional.”

Whilst I was still actively competing in pipe bands and teaching workshops for drumming in pipe bands, I remember a panel discussion with a group of pipers and drummers from the US, Canada, Ireland and Scotland. We were talking about styles of drumming and interpreting music.

We got pulled in two significant directions, both of which I found fascinating and I wish I could have been in a place to take notes. We talked on how things can influence our interpretation of music and how we approach music. We talked about how jazz had influenced great drummers in the pipe band world from the 1940’s and 50’s. We talked about how emigration from Ireland and Scotland had brought musicians to the US and Canada and how they had taught people what they had learned.

The result was many people and pipe bands in the US and Canada tended to inherit an understanding that was, at best, behind the curve of leaders in the world of pipe band were by the 1960’s and 70’s. The Legion and Community pipe bands in North America tended to get taught “this is how we did it in…” one of the regiments in the British Army.

This got latched on to as “traditional.”  The people they taught said the same thing to others they in turn taught.

I remember teaching a band that intended to begin competing some basic technique for bass and tenor drumming. There was a fair amount of resistance because I was teaching them stuff that was “wrong.” Their argument was “This is how the British Army does it.” I asked which regiment – then pulled out video tapes of the Edinburgh Tattoo, massed Pipes and Drums of the Scottish Division beating retreat and the Scots Guards Trooping the Colours. None of the tenor drummers did anything remotely similar to what they were doing.

Tradition had shifted. Memories had failed as the knowledge was passed on.

Working with some testers a while back there was a problem. The parameters used to run the job they needed run to verify some changes made way up-stream in the process did not seem to be working.

I asked them what they were seeing.  They were pretty confused. The people who had worked on this same set of parameters had given them instructions around what to do.  Essentially, they needed to change the date in the command line and “that is all.”

Except it wasn’t “all.”

The job, the one that had not changed at all, was failing on a bad parameter. It wasn’t running “correctly,” it simply wasn’t running. Nothing was being processed. The people who had run it the last couple of times were looking at it. They were asking the people who had run it before them. They were looking at the notes and instructions.

They looked to see if “something had changed” that would prevent it from running. They looked at the configuration. The “unhelpful” error message gave them no information or guidance. Then, after several days of fits and starts, a light went on.

“Look. This says {blah blah blah} and has a period inside the quotes. What if we add a period?”


The combination of “everyone knows how to do this” and half-remembered meaning and importance of one thong effectively slowed work on this by several calendar days. Instead of sailing through as most people expected, we got hung up on people trusting to half remembered information because the entire team, except for the folks doing this the first time, knew exactly what needed to be done. The entire team knew that “all you had to do was…”

The entire team knew about the documentation. They knew the intent. They knew the “tradition.”

They did not remember why.

Ya want an example of this, “tribal knowledge” in a “fun” vein? Go watch “The Lone Ranger” – the one with Johnny Depp as Tonto. All the weird stuff Tonto is telling the Ranger. All the stuff that makes people, including the Ranger, go “huh? what?”

Then, as the Ranger is sitting with the Comanche Elders and says something Tonto had told him. They look at each other and ask “Who told you this?”

The “tribal knowledge” the Ranger got from Tonto was … accurate only for Tonto’s interpretation and world view. No one else had that vision or interpretation. To everyone one else, it was not merely wrong.  It was nonsense.

When you are sharing tribal knowledge with other people, how certain are you that you are sharing it accurately? How certain are you that the “why” is being understood?

Is the information you are sharing with other people on testing knowledge, wrong or nonsense?