Surviving on the Tribal Knowledge of the Few

| October 20th, 2009 | , ,

I’ve been corresponding with an acquaintance through LinkedIn, discussing how a small creative business should adopt a process to manage a growing development team and an ever-increasing amount of work. When a creative group grows exponentially in size and complexity of work in a small amount of time, the need for a formal process and tools becomes dire. This situation is not unique to this particular group. Pelago went through the same growing pains several years ago.

In a small business environment everyone has to wear several hats. Despite the cross coverage, a lot of important information usually ends up in the minds of individuals. For example, at Pelago, I’d always handled system administration, while Cameron was our regular expressions guru, Jaime the Javascript king, and Michael was in charge of DNS. If one of us was off the grid or had left Pelago, the rest of us would be scrambling to fill in the gaps of missing information.

Pelago had to learn how to transfer knowledge from the few into the minds of the many, or at least make the knowledge easily accessible. We went through a series of project management methods to handle the flow of information before finally deciding to roll our own web-based software. What we realized was that our story was not unique and that if we could build a set of tools to handle our process, other small creative groups might find the same success from our online offering. You could say the following is a short history lesson on where we’ve been and how we’ve evolved our process and web-based project management software into what they are today.

In the beginning…

When we first started out nine years ago, there were no web-based project management tools. There wasn’t even a cloud to support them. We managed our projects using MS Project because that seemed to be how everyone else did it. We kept all our project notes in a filing cabinet, using one folder per project to contain such information as server passwords, commands for restarting daemons, and printouts of approved design comps. If you’ve ever seen the movie WarGames you know how easily hackable this system can be. Granted our projects weren’t as much a target as a bored high schooler’s GPA, the data could have been more secure, perhaps even more centralized. To collaborate on design comps and client contracts we shared out a folder on my desktop. Eventually the analog information made its way to the shared folder, but it was still difficult to track down and we were still relying on an unencrypted single point of failure.

The file server

It wasn’t long before we got serious about web development and serious about our server infrastructure at the office. We built a linux-based file server and put it on the network. We now had a high level of security and could share out folders on our Windows network using Samba. In addition, we could lock down folders based on user groups so that we could control who had access to which files. Installing a tape drive gave us a backup system we could take offsite. We were now fully redundant, but the information we were trying to share was still taking up residence in the minds of the few. The main problem was that no one had any real incentive to document anything. So we began our search for web-based software that would not only help us manage projects, but also enable us to share our knowledge with one another in a centralized and easily accessible place.

Open source web-based project management software

Our first attempt to build a web-based app mirrored the efforts of many other web design and development companies like our own. We scoured the web for an open source web-based tool that approximated what we needed. Once we found something we installed it on our server and then proceeded to duct-tape features onto it and to tweak the features it already had to better suit our needs. We ended up with software resembling Frankenstein, but it worked. Our productivity began to increase. We were getting better at tracking our time, adding notes to projects and managing larger tasks. However, something was still missing. We had taken software that was intended to be used in the way it had been built and tried to transmogrify it into something it wasn’t. While more of our individual areas of expertise were becoming more communal there were still gaps in the flow of information. This was right about the time that Basecamp came onto the scene, so we started trying it out and looking around for a web-based alternative we could use for collaboration and project management.

Rolling our own

When we began our search for online software to manage our needs, there just wasn’t much available. And products like Basecamp were too simple for our needs. So we decided to roll our own. Our needs could not have been unique to just us. Certainly there had to be others out there who needed something more than Basecamp, but not something as convoluted and complex and MS Project. So we built Intervals and haven’t looked back since.

When we first started using Intervals inside our office our billable hours increased by 30%. In addition, our processes become more defined and regimented. Each task we tracked had its history of actions, documents and time. If we wanted to know where a bug fix was at or how a new feature was coming along, we consulted the task where we would find the information we needed. And because our designers and developers were already working on a task in the context of a web-based app, it made it easy to add their notes while they were working. Information required at the project level was stored in project notes, where it could be encrypted and made viewable only to those deemed necessary.

Now when we need to access information we can easily get it all in one place. That isn’t to say that Intervals has completely fixed our original issues of knowledge containment. We still have our experts who own their own space, for example, Cameron will always be the guru of regular expressions. But now he can log his techniques and samples of his code where we can all learn from him. We do ping him on those particularly nasty regex’s, but it’s a lot less than we used to.

I’m not saying that web-based project management software is going to handle process and collaboration for you, but it does go a long way in facilitating small business workflow. Coupled with a motivated team that works and collaborates well together, online productivity tools like Intervals can help establish and maintain process, and provides a centralized store of information for the sharing of knowledge.

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A collection of useful tips, tales and opinions based on decades of collective experience designing and developing web sites and web-based applications.

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Intervals is online time, task and project management software built by and for web designers, developers and creatives.
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John Reeve

John is a co-founder, web designer and developer at Pelago. His blog posts are inspired by everyday encounters with designers, developers, creatives and small businesses in general. John is an avid reader and road cyclist.
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Michael Payne

Michael is a co-founder and product architect at Pelago. His contributions stem from experiences managing the development process behind web sites and web-based applications such as Intervals. Michael drives a 1990 Volkswagen Carat with a rebuilt 2.4 liter engine from GoWesty.
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