Explained: What is tribal knowledge?

Published: Thursday, October 8th, 2020

What is tribal knowledge?

Ever heard of the term tribal knowledge? In short, it’s unwritten information only a select few employees know. It’s the ‘know-how’ of how things operate in a company, where documents are located and even how to shake the coffee machine in the right way every time the filter gets stuck. This knowledge is typically unwritten and passed verbally from old team members to new.

For this reason, tribal knowledge raises a number of issues and associated costs such as:

  • The risk that the tribal knowledge holders may walk out the door at any stage. (Wave goodbye to crucial information in the space of a notice period!)

  • No one source of truth. Knowledge passed verbally may change unknowingly over time and the true message can become muddled. It's similar to how a game of Chinese Whispers works!

  • When this knowledge is needed, it has to be passed on through hours of training and any clarification issues needs the original tribal knowledge holder to be continually involved.

Tribal knowledge is an extremely valuable intangible asset and organisations should make every effort to formally capture this detail. We have created a four-step process to ace your knowledge management plan and squash tribal knowledge!

  1. Assess the information gaps The first step is to determine the gap between the written and unwritten knowledge within a team or process. You should continually review the information kept ensuring it covers all the relevant information needed for a role to be performed.
  1. Identify the holders of the knowledge Once you have assessed the knowledge gaps - you must identify and seek out the tribal knowledge holders. It’s important to also evaluate the risk associated with critical knowledge being held by one individual only and cost of losing that knowledge.
  1. Verify the knowledge and its application Tribal knowledge is susceptible to change over time as it is passed from one team member to another. Carefully fact-check the knowledge for accuracy. Trial runs of processes using the tribal knowledge provided can quickly pinpoint inaccuracies. The application of the knowledge provided is also crucial. Often tribal knowledge may be a short-cut or verbal cheat sheet and organisations should be comfortable that any process is not being circumvented.
  1. Document as you go Take the time to appropriately document and map the tribal knowledge captured. Creating an audit trail ensures this knowledge can be validated at any stage and gives an organisation additional comfort that is has reduced its risk of knowledge loss or ‘brain drain’ to an acceptable level.

And, finally - use a knowledge management system! Want to know the best way to manage tribal knowledge? You guessed it, an effective knowledge management system. Tribal knowledge is no more, and your most valuable asset is easily shared within your organisation between all your team.

Convinced you now need a solution for your own tribal knowledge woes? Look no further, talk to us about our knowledge management solutions and we can help connect your digital dots.