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GuidesEmployee experienceWhat is tribal knowledge, and how can you retain it?

What is tribal knowledge, and how can you retain it?

Last updated

31 January 2024

Author

Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Warren Jonas ACC

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Tribal knowledge is a valuable resource in any organization. To make the most of it, you need to know what it is, why it’s important, and how it operates in your organization.

What is tribal knowledge?

Tribal knowledge refers to all the informal, unwritten, and unofficial rules, practices, skills, and norms in an organization. Just as traditional tribes have customs passed down from one generation to the next, a modern organization has its own set of unspoken rules. These are firmly in place even though they don’t form part of official policy.

Tribal knowledge vs. other company knowledge

Formal company policies are written down in handbooks and on websites. They are also openly discussed in meetings.

Tribal knowledge, on the other hand, consists of information that people know implicitly but don’t usually talk about openly.  Such knowledge and practices can have a strong influence on behavior.

Tribal knowledge often refers to unwritten skills and practices that may help a company produce better products or services.

What causes tribal knowledge in businesses

Tribal practices can develop in professional settings for several reasons.

Casual conversations

Knowledge is often shared informally as people talk and work together. For example, more experienced employees share tips with newer recruits, and people discuss work and procedures at lunch and during breaks.

These types of interactions can have a real impact on the workplace. However, they are usually informal and seldom written down or codified into an official policy or rulebook.

Trial and error

Whether preparing food, operating a machine, or running software, employees develop their own methods and habits. They may try several approaches when carrying out their daily tasks, eventually settling on one that works best for them.

These practices may not be disclosed or only casually discussed with co-workers, preventing other employees from accessing useful insights.

Knowledge hoarding

In some cases, tribal knowledge may be withheld from the wider company for selfish reasons. An employee or team may prefer to maintain exclusive abilities for the sake of job security status or egotistical reasons.

If only one employee knows how to use a certain machine or operate a program, they have special value. The downside is that if this person is out sick or leaves the organization, others have to learn this information from scratch.

Disadvantages of tribal knowledge

Informal knowledge and practices are helpful in some instances and detrimental in others. Let’s take a look at the disadvantages of tribal knowledge:

Compromises quality or safety

Informal methods for doing things may not conform with company policy, possibly compromising quality or safety.  Employees may cut corners or use shortcuts to reduce their workload or complete tasks faster.

Inconsistency

Outcomes and results may be inconsistent when different people and departments have tribal knowledge and apply their own methods. This isn’t desirable for companies wanting to build a brand and create standardized products and services.

The benefits of capturing and documenting tribal knowledge

Capturing tribal knowledge so that it becomes part of your organization’s official skill set or policy is beneficial in the following ways:

Improves efficiency and consistency

Shared knowledge can be used to create best practices that everyone can use.  Information shared throughout an organization is more useful than when it’s only known by select individuals. Productivity and efficiency increase when everyone is on an equal footing.

Creates a more open company culture

Tribal knowledge can create silos where information is protected rather than shared openly. Aside from reducing efficiency, this can create an attitude of unhealthy competitiveness between individuals and teams. Encouraging a more open attitude can help create a more positive company culture.

Future-proofs the organization

When tribal knowledge is captured, it becomes part of the company’s collective wisdom, whereas knowledge restricted to certain people only has limited benefit to an organization.

People retire or leave for different reasons and take their skills with them. So, when senior members withhold information, they inadvertently hinder progress. They try to make themselves indispensable, stifling the development of others.

How to capture and share tribal knowledge

Follow these steps to capture and share tribal knowledge:

Identify tribal knowledge and the people who have it

The first step is to identify what types of tribal knowledge you want to capture and the team members that possess it.

Consider which skills or processes are essential for the organization. Ask employees to describe in detail how they perform tasks. You can ask them in interviews or meetings or have them document their processes step by step.

Capture it in an accessible format

To turn tribal knowledge into official institutional knowledge, it needs to be in an easily accessible and digestible format.

For example, a concise course that can be shared in a video or PDF document is an efficient format. For more complex topics, you can create live in-person or virtual training.

Encourage a culture of collaboration

The best strategy for preventing tribal knowledge from spreading in the future is to build a culture of collaboration. Here are some tools and practices you can use:

  • A mentorship program—mentors pass knowledge on to newer employees

  • Praising and rewarding innovative practices to encourage employees to share rather than hoard knowledge

  • Digital tools that make collaboration easy

  • Encouraging teamwork by building cross-functional teams (teams whose members have diverse skill sets)

  • In small teams, daily check-ins are highly effective for knowledge sharing, giving each member a safe space to voice their thoughts. This practice fosters a learning environment and encourages continuous process enhancement.

Tribal knowledge best practices

Here are some guidelines to help you make the most of tribal knowledge:

  • Incentivize knowledge sharing through informal rewards, such as praise, or more concrete rewards, such as gifting the employee lunch.

  • Create a centralized source of information. A cloud-based document that everyone in the organization can easily access is ideal.

  • Make a habit of documenting organizational knowledge. New technology and processes require you to consistently update your storehouse of knowledge.

  • Integrate the established process into systems and tools for consistent enforcement by all team members.

FAQs

What is the difference between tribal knowledge and tacit knowledge?

Tribal and tacit knowledge overlap, but there are differences.

Tacit knowledge is the kind of informal personal knowledge that’s difficult to document or share. For example, a more experienced employee might perform tasks faster and more efficiently than a new hire. However, this could also involve tribal knowledge.

What is another word for tribal knowledge?

Tribal knowledge is also known as institutional knowledge, informal knowledge, or legacy knowledge.

What is the opposite of tribal knowledge?

Terms that describe the opposite of tribal knowledge include explicit knowledge, formal knowledge, and codified knowledge.

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