Tribal Knowledge: Definition, Benefits, and How to Capture It

In this guide, we cover what is tribal knowledge, the benefits, downsides, and how to begin capturing it at your workplace.

Written by: David Oragui

Published: June 09 2020

What is Tribal Knowledge

Tribal knowledge is the unwritten knowledge in your organization. Think of it as being like the myths and legends passed down through the generations of your ancestors, spoken around the campfire, and changing over the years. 

The form of the narrative evolves, but the essential story remains the same. This same mysterious process creates the tribal knowledge of your organization. 

Unfortunately, in order for new hires to access this knowledge, they must learn your informal people networks and get to know the individual Knowledge Champions in order to reach their full productivity. 

We’ll discuss some of the problems related to this approach in a later section. 

Having access to tribal knowledge is like the difference between a trainee cook following a complex recipe and a Michelin star chef with a store of intangible skills and experience who leads the way in the culinary arts. 

Anyone can follow a recipe if you give them the correct steps and ingredients. The Michelin star chef, on the other hand, will turn their dish into a sought-after product that wealthy customers will pay thousands of dollars to sample. 

That’s the crucial difference between documented organizational knowledge and the implicit skills and experience of your most specialized workers: heightened productivity and profits. “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest,” said former US President Ben Franklin, and his wisdom still rings true today!

A Definition of Tribal Knowledge

Leonard Bertain offers a definition of tribal knowledge from an organization’s perspective. He describes it as “the collective wisdom of the organization. It is the sum of all the knowledge and capabilities of all the people.”

Your tribal knowledge may be related to people, products, and processes, and form part of your Intellectual Property (IP). This kind of information makes up a crucial portion of the total value your organization has to offer in the marketplace, is an important intangible asset, and confers a competitive edge in your industry.

In a nutshell, tribal knowledge is any knowledge in your organization that has not been documented. Like tacit knowledge, tribal knowledge is stored in the heads of your employees, who have received it from local members of the “tribe”. 

This knowledge is typically transferred informally, for example, when, at the end of the working day, one member of a team discusses with another how they spotted and solved a problem that they had seen and resolved before.

Not only must we capture this knowledge for future use and make sure we don’t lose it, but we should make sure that anyone who needs access to this knowledge can find it. 

A formal sharing of tribal knowledge requires codification (in this context, systematic thinking about what knowledge should be transferred to whom and how it should be expressed), documentation, and knowledge transfer. This may be via training programs, brown bag lunches or webinars, or mentorships.

Although bringing people together is an important way to share tribal knowledge, we can also capture and store this knowledge for future use. By doing so, we bring economies of scale and reduce the chance of error in knowledge transfer and knowledge loss. 

In the case of our Michelin star chef, his knowledge could be passed on to hundreds of students, rather than the few he was training directly. Producing the documentation requires careful knowledge capture but can provide enormous benefits.

Let’s examine some of those benefits, and why tribal knowledge currently exists within your organization. 

The Benefits of Tribal Knowledge

While possessing a large store of tribal knowledge may seem inefficient at first, there are some important benefits. 

You can supercharge your team’s productivity by capturing your tribal knowledge and thereby making it explicit and accessible. 

Your intangible assets are increasingly an important determining factor in gaining a competitive edge within your industry, and in ensuring that customers continue to consider you a leading, innovative brand. 

Your aim should not be to eliminate tribal knowledge, but instead to make as much of it as explicit as possible so that everyone in your organization can benefit, and not just the local tribe members.

Knowledge needs to be shared in order to create a coherent and effective customer experience, and therefore benefit stakeholders outside your company. 

Tribal knowledge is great, but you need to get to the stage where your customers receive exactly the same standard of service every time, no matter whom they interact with. In achieving this, the customer experience will improve.

The Downsides of Tribal Knowledge

Unfortunately, some of your organization’s tribal knowledge will be based on assumptions that have never been challenged. 

People know they should do something, but they might have no idea why they’re doing it, or whether a particular process has become outdated. 

Knowledge is also lost in translation, and it’s challenging to convert tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge.

In any organization, there can be knowledge silos and great difficulty in finding the right information. Your people frequently create outputs that have already been produced somewhere else in the organization. 

In fact, 90% of the time knowledge workers devote to creating new reports or products is actually spent recreating knowledge that already exists within the company. 

Therefore, it’s often the case that your employees are severely limited in their productivity when the situation could quite easily be changed. You also can’t automate processes that rely on human beings being involved, again hampering productivity and increasing costs. 

Most errors also come from humans themselves, so you’re risking damage to your reputation and potentially significant financial losses if something goes extremely awry. 

Customers may not benefit from a consistent experience, because their experience depends on which agent they are transferred to when they contact your business. Inconsistency looks unprofessional and will lower your Customer Satisfaction Score. 

Ultimately, it’s not particularly easy to assess your total intangible assets and resources without quantifying tribal knowledge in some way. It has immense value, but we can’t measure it in the same way as other assets. Hence many Knowledge Management (KM) initiatives will fail. 

How to Capture Tribal Knowledge

Making tribal knowledge explicit means we can assess exactly what knowledge we currently possess, identify important gaps, and plan how we can best fill those gaps. 

When key members of the team leave, your tribal knowledge leaves with them, and you’ll potentially experience a downfall in productivity. Allowing your tribal knowledge to escape is also a surefire way to risk big mistakes happening. 

Just consider this oil company that accidentally allowed 900,000 liters of oil to flow into the ocean following the departure of a key employee. You don’t want that kind of corporate crisis on your hands. 

Although it’s better to avoid any of your experienced senior employees leaving in the first place, it’s generally unavoidable. 

While a strong workplace culture and employee benefits are important ways to retain staff, there will always be those who leave work in order to fulfill caring responsibilities, move on to a different industry, get sick, or retire. 

We have to plan for these contingencies by ensuring tribal knowledge is transferred from the heads of these employees into a shared resource. 

1. Develop a Knowledge Management Strategy

Having a knowledge management strategy is the best solution for capturing tribal knowledge. In addition, you need to encourage a strong knowledge sharing culture and empower employees to spend time documenting. 

While there are many different methodologies that can be applied, a few things to keep in mind when creating a KM strategy for your business is:

  • Proper alignment coming from the top-down
  • Have the appropriate resources allocated 
  • Take into account the unique culture and communication patterns of your workforce

2. Identify Key Employees with Tribal Knowledge

Knowledge Champions are the key employees who possess most of your tribal knowledge. You nominate them to lead your KM effort and put them in charge of documenting their knowledge. 

In the beginning, employees will need strong incentives to share their knowledge and document it. Make knowledge-sharing one of their KPIs, and assess them on how effectively they’ve shared during their quarterly reviews. 

3. Collate Available Tribal Knowledge

Once your Knowledge Champions have documented your tribal knowledge, it’s time to find out what assets you have.

Conduct a thorough audit of your documentation to find out exactly what tribal knowledge exists in your organization. “To know what you know and what you do not know, that is true knowledge,” said the Chinese philosopher Confucius, and he was quite right. 

When you have completed your audit, make sure you have identified the areas where knowledge is lacking, and implement appropriate learning and development initiatives. 

4. Docs or it Didn’t Happen

Tribal knowledge needs to be documented, or it basically didn’t happen. It needs to be documented as part of a formal process to make it explicit, readily shareable, knowledge. This documentation should be done regularly and consistently.

The Knowledge Centered Service methodology can help you with continuous process improvement and encourage employees to document as they go. Documentation becomes part of the Double Loop (developed by Chris Argyle) and the relevant documentation is formed alongside your evolving processes. 

5. Choose the Right Software

Once you have identified your KM strategy and formulated a plan to implement it, it’s time to think about which technology would be most appropriate. 

While the groundwork of your strategy is going to relate primarily to people, you have to make the correct choice of knowledge management software in order to execute your KM initiative correctly. Employees have cited a lack of appropriate technologies as the biggest hindrance to their workplace engagement and productivity. 

Helpjuice is knowledge base software that has been optimized for content search and discovery. Your users will benefit from the Information Architecture of a dedicated knowledge base and top-notch support when it comes to developing your ideal solution. 

Over to You!

You’ll never be able to document all of your tribal knowledge since more is being created all the time. 

Don’t fret, however, you can still get to a stage where you have made a significant chunk of your tribal knowledge explicit. Your organization’s productivity will improve, employee morale rise, and profits increase. 

So, instead of encouraging your employees to use simple “recipes” to get their job done, relying on an excessive amount of improvisation, encourage them to capture tribal knowledge instead. 

Make it available to everyone, so all your employees can become “Michelin star chefs” who excel in your company. 

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