Home  ›   Blog   ›  Tribal Knowledge: A Comprehensive Guide

Tribal Knowledge: A Comprehensive Guide

Tribal Knowledge Definition, Benefits, and How to Capture It

When you list the challenges your business faces, recording every bit of information that exists within the company is probably one of the top rankers. 

It goes without saying that it is not possible to record all the wisdom your employees have gained over a period of time. 

A lot of information only exists with individuals and is not formally documented anywhere. This information is referred to as tribal knowledge

Think about the proficiency developed by an employee in a particular subject over a period of time. Another example can be the unique tips and tricks developed by an employee to perform a task faster or carry out a process more efficiently. 

This is valuable information that goes out the door once an employee leaves.  Organizations that ignore such information put their overall success in jeopardy by risking the loss of knowledge that only resides with certain individuals. 

This detailed guide strives to address the key questions that you may have about tribal knowledge. We begin with tribal knowledge definition and then gradually learn how to capture it effectively.

What Is Tribal Knowledge?

Tribal knowledge encompasses all the knowledge that is unrecorded and not widely known. Such information is usually shared by word of mouth. If captured and utilized correctly, this collective wisdom can be a great asset to the organization.

Over time, individuals develop their own way of executing tasks efficiently. For instance, a long-term employee gains more insights into processes and a deeper understanding of operations. As a result, they are able to produce better results.

Such knowledgeable employees have significant experience working with your organization and know their way around tasks. Over time, these employees develop their own tips and tricks to perform processes and tasks in a way that’s both time-saving and highly efficient. 

As this information is exclusive to a few employees, it is only shared in informal networks.  

Why Is Tribal Knowledge Important for Your Organization?

Knowledge, in any form whatsoever, is a valuable resource for a business.

Tribal knowledge in the workplace presents substantial room for employees to learn from others and consequently improve their performance. It facilitates the sharing of insights that could help employees perform better in their jobs. 

Along with enhancing workplace productivity for existing employees, preservation of tribal knowledge is also important for employee onboarding.

Let’s consider an example of tribal knowledge to understand its implication. 

An experienced product manager who has worked on a product for the last 10 years has a detailed knowledge of its features, benefits, as well as nuances. He or she is the go-to person for anyone who needs information about the product. 

This employee knows the tips and tricks of creating and launching a product from scratch. Through years of experience, a product manager devises his own unique ways of dealing with product development roadblocks and ensuring a successful launch.  As this expertise isn’t documented anywhere, it can only be shared orally. 

As this is not documented anywhere, the product manager imparts it orally through training sessions or mentorship programs. In this case, expertise that was once limited to a single individual has been relayed to a group of people, who can now leverage the insights to maximize their performance. 

On the opposite side, if this employee chooses to leave the company, all the expertise will also be lost. Therefore, every organization requires a formal approach to collecting and disseminating tribal knowledge to prevent losing important information.

Properly documenting tribal knowledge can help you maximize the efficiency of your workplace. This ensures that there is no disparity in the availability of information. By sharing valuable ideas and insights in a workplace that otherwise resides with only a few people in the organization, you can establish a level playing field for everyone in the organization. 

Tribal vs. Tacit Knowledge

Before moving ahead, it is crucial to establish the difference between tribal and tacit knowledge.

Any organization has explicit and tacit knowledge of its products, services, processes, and customers. Explicit knowledge is carefully documented and has a clear process of being shared. This includes step-by-step instructions for performing tasks, FAQs, or other types of information that can be easily recorded and shared.

Tacit knowledge, on the other hand, cannot be documented and is challenging to share. It consists of the knowledge, insights, and wisdom that employees gain overtime during their tenure in a company. Tacit knowledge also involves the expertise, methodologies, and subjective knowledge acquired through personal experience.

Although closely related, tribal and tacit knowledge are not the same. 

Tacit knowledge can be thought of as personal expertise that an individual acquires over the years. Tribal knowledge is more concerned with information that is available to a select group of employees and is shared through oral communication. 

Benefits of Tribal Knowledge

Capitalizing on hidden knowledge can result in highly profitable outcomes. Here are the most striking benefits that demonstrate the importance of tribal knowledge:

1. Improves Employee Efficiency 

Tribal knowledge is acquired through trial and error. It has been tried and tested to produce satisfactory outcomes. Effective sharing of tribal knowledge helps employees optimize their work by learning the best possible way to complete a process. 

2. Boosts Collaborative Learning 

Tribal knowledge provides the opportunity to transfer knowledge and ideas with team members. This exchange of ideas provides room for everyone to grow professionally and learn from each others’ experiences.

3. Better Decision Making & Competitive Advantage  

The exchange of tribal knowledge is an opportunity for employees to utilize the shared information to make more informed decisions. It enhances the overall effectiveness of business operations and provides a competitive advantage in the marketplace. 

Drawbacks of Tribal Knowledge 

Although highly useful, tribal knowledge isn’t free of shortcomings. Relying too heavily on tribal knowledge poses certain challenges for a business, such as:

1. Unavailability of Employees Causes Inefficiency

The absence of the most knowledgeable employee can halt operations entirely or reduce their effectiveness. Tribal knowledge is at the mercy of the people who have it. If these employees choose to quit the organization, the knowledge is lost forever. Changes in staffing can cause loss of critical company information. 

2. Ineffective Sharing

Tribal knowledge, if and when shared, is communicated via word of mouth. This can lead to parts being left out and room for misinterpretation. Therefore, one of the major problems concerning tribal knowledge is that there is no standardization or verification of the information being floated around.

3. Verbalizing Intuition & Experienced Learning is Challenging 

Certain nuances and skills can only be learned practically. Moreover, abilities such as intuitively knowing the right time to perform a task or discovering strategies that would have the most optimal results can only be achieved with adequate experience. Putting such learning into words is a monumental challenge in itself. 

4. Hoarding Information Consciously or Unconsciously

There might be instances where employees consciously choose not to share information with other people. In other cases, they might just assume that the information is common knowledge and never bring it up. Either way, essential information gets withheld and remains hidden from most people in the organization. 

5. Knowledge Gaps in Training

Every organization lays emphasis on employee training. A significant amount of information present in employees’ minds is passed on orally. However, since there isn’t a formalized structure to record this information, a lot of it gets overlooked during training, leading to gaps in the knowledge of new hires. 

How to Capture Tribal Knowledge

The annual employee turnover in the private industry for the year 2021 was 52.4%.

This statistic is concerning if you consider the amount of undocumented information lost due to employees leaving. For this reason, effectively capturing tribal knowledge should be a part of your knowledge management strategy

Here are some of the practical ways to capture tribal knowledge and make it accessible across your organization: 

1. Get in Touch With Specialized Employees 

Reach out to the key knowledge holders from each department in your organization. Employees with the most experience will have valuable information to offer in terms of product knowledge, customer insights, tips and tricks for conducting processes, etc. 

You can ask them to share their day-to-day activities and the steps they undertake to complete tasks. Share your existing documentation with employees and find out what information is missing from it. Identify the people who are everyone’s first thought when it comes to a certain product or service and capture their tribal knowledge. 

2. Identify Tribal Knowledge

Once you have identified the most knowledgeable employees in your organization, the next step is to identify the parts of tribal knowledge that are available and usable. 

Collect tribal knowledge from experienced employees and determine which parts of the information are worth retaining and what parts can be left out. Choose the most appropriate way to document this knowledge. 

For instance, you might want to create a video library or create written documentation for tasks and processes based on your team’s needs. 

3. Create a Knowledge Base

Create a knowledge repository by investing in the best knowledge base software for your business. Building an internal knowledge base can reduce information silos and make knowledge accessible for employees across the organization, helping them enhance their performance. 

A knowledge base consolidates all the institutional knowledge and enhances its searchability. Anyone in the team can contribute to the knowledge base, making it a collaborative effort and enhancing its richness. 

Here is a quick video explaining all the features and benefits of an internal knowledge base:

4. Build a Learning-Focused Culture

Encourage employees to share information and work in alignment with each other towards meeting business goals. Start mentorship programs where new hires can learn from experienced professionals by working side by side with them. New employees can document the information that they gain from shadowing the experts. 

You can also organize training sessions that allow employees to hone their skills by learning from other people in the organization. Create an open work environment where it is easy for employees to communicate.

Tribal Knowledge Examples

Your employees can read extensively about various processes and acquire significant explicit knowledge. However, knowing how to put this knowledge into practice can only be learned through experience. Technical expertise follows the same rules and requires practical learning. 

Employees who have been with an organization for a long time gather knowledge through experimentation and an enhanced understanding of the processes.

There are several instances that demonstrate how tribal knowledge can be implemented to boost work efficiency. Here are some examples of tribal knowledge to help you understand it in more detail: 

  1. Product managers know the best opportunity to launch a new product through years of experience and observation of the industry. 
  2. A sales executive with years of experience knowing instinctively about the right time for the lead to move to the next stage of the sales process.
  3. Marketing experts know effective words to be used in the outreach efforts so that the message appeals to the target audience. 

Capture Tribal Knowledge to Heighten Business Productivity

Tribal knowledge, as established already, may be hard to capture, but it is not impossible. 

Leveraging this knowledge effectively can enhance the productivity of your workforce, contributing to increased profits. It also saves you from the loss of key information when a knowledgeable employee leaves the organization.

Capturing tribal information and making it accessible to everyone in the team is critical. 

A robust knowledge base management system such as ProProfs Knowledge Base can help you with the process. It enables you to collate critical information and insights in one place, so any team member can access it without any trouble. Moreover, team members can contribute to the knowledge-sharing process and collaborate more efficiently using the tool. 

To sum up, tribal knowledge is extremely important, and organizations that tend to overlook it are at the risk of losing out on key insights. Start capturing tribal knowledge today so you never have to worry about the loss of sensitive business information!

FREE. All Features. FOREVER!

Try our Forever FREE account with all premium features!

About the author

Bryan Wills is a seasoned expert in knowledge management with over a decade of experience in the field. His expertise extends across various domains, including Security & Compliance, User Management, Knowledge Management, Software Documentation, and Customer Support. His writings not only reflect his deep understanding of these subjects but also offer practical solutions and strategies to help organizations enhance their knowledge management processes. Bryan’s work has been published in GetFeedback, CustomerThink, and Apruve.