What is Tribal Knowledge and How Do You Capture It?

In most companies, there is a large amount of knowledge about products, customers, and processes that are only known to certain employees. This information is called tribal knowledge and it is a problem that many companies are either unaware of or unconcerned about.

“Tribal knowledge” is a term that refers to any information that is not widely known by other employees within a company. It is not documented and exists only in the minds of certain people. It is often information that is used in reference to producing a product or service and it is a big problem in rapidly growing companies.

The problem with tribal knowledge is that if information only exists in the minds a few people then it may as well not exist at all. If you have one long-term employee who is the only person who knows how to do a lot of things, what happens when that person leaves?

If the information isn’t documented then no one knows about it. And if no one but a few people knows about it, then it may as well not exist at all. Tribal knowledge is a barrier to sustainable, long-term growth so capturing it should be your company’s highest priority.

Problems with Tribal Knowledge

Every company is comprised of different departments or teams that have their own methods for accomplishing certain tasks. Over the years, these employees will develop their own knowledge and insights into different processes.

This tribal knowledge can be an asset to your company in many ways. Obviously, you want employees who are knowledgeable and just know how to do their jobs effectively. But the problem comes in when companies develop an over-reliance on certain employees. Here are four of the biggest problems with tribal knowledge:

  • When employees leave, they take this tribal knowledge with them

Every month, over a quarter-million Americans will turn 65 and move even closer to retirement. And when they retire, they take all the knowledge they have learned over the years with them. Ironically, even though these are the most experienced and knowledgeable employees in the company, most companies do not value them the way they value new employees.

There is a lot of useful tribal knowledge but just as often, tribal knowledge is incorrect. This becomes problematic when newer employees are incorrectly trained by long-term employees. If certain software or equipment is used inaccurately then this can pose serious risks to the product, service, or the safety of employees.

  • Tribal knowledge can be an excuse to avoid automation

Even today, many businesses are still very averse to the idea of automation and still rely on time-consuming manual processes. If management is not interested in using automation to improve the quality and speed of their processes then the problem of tribal knowledge will usually persist.

  • Employees can hoard information for job security

Occasionally, certain employees will either intentionally or unintentionally put themselves in the position of being the only person who knows how to fix a problem or perform a task. This tribal knowledge gives them job security because they put themselves in the position of being indispensable to the company.

How to Capture Tribal Knowledge

Your company already has a formal employee training plan in place where you explain basic job functions. And you most likely have an employee handbook that explains your company’s policies and procedures. But what about the information that exists only in the minds of certain employees? What would happen if that information were to suddenly disappear?

Often, tribal knowledge is passed down by word of mouth and while this can work for a little while, it is not a sustainable process for retaining important company information. Here are four ways you can begin to capture tribal knowledge:

  • Identify and utilize the most knowledgeable employees

To begin, you should identify the employees with the most knowledge about your services or products. Certain employees will have knowledge, tips, and tricks about your company that no one else has access to. These employees are invaluable to your company and capturing this knowledge should be a high priority.

  • Identify the available tribal knowledge

As we have already identified, some of the tribal knowledge you will want to hang onto and some you won’t. Identify the knowledge available in different departments or teams and look at what is working and what isn’t.

  • Document the knowledge you want to keep

If you can’t document the available information, then you won’t be able to successfully train your newest employees. Commit to documenting the knowledge you want to retain for training purposes. However, be aware that this could be a lengthy process.

  • Confront the knowledge gap

You need to minimize the knowledge gap between the more experienced employees and the newer employees. A lot of the tribal knowledge will be training resources that can help your newer employees be more efficient and knowledgeable about their job.

Conclusion

Tribal knowledge is information that is known by certain individuals or groups of individuals within a company but it is undocumented and is not common knowledge to everyone. It often involves processes that contribute significantly to the quality of a product or service.

While it’s something present in most companies, it can be a major threat. Every manager wants knowledgeable employees who they just “get it” and don’t need any hand-holding. However, what happens if those people were to leave? If certain key employees were to leave the company, they would take that knowledge with them.

Tribal knowledge is often created unintentionally and is common in most organizations. Companies must be diligent about capturing this information and making it readily available to all employees.


Have you had any personal experience with tribal knowledge? How did you overcome it or embrace it? Let us know in the comments!

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One thought on “What is Tribal Knowledge and How Do You Capture It?


  1. Dhruvakumar Shukla Reply

    Very good article ! I agree that Tribal knowledge and information is one of the basic foundation of success and ease of operation in any manufacturing facility across the globe. Only few people/persons are well aware with the ultimate result of it i.e. Quality of the Product so it is always desired right ?
    But, here is the thing. Such knowledge or simple procedure to carry out or perform the activities, now we need to document it so that it becomes the procedural document or we can say SOP or WI for that particular manufacturing facility. As such, it is good to have Tribal Knowledge (TN) within the company/facility….however, it is equally important to document it, share it, using frequently as training resource tool, awareness program in order to have it established !

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