What Is Tribal Knowledge? And How to Start Capturing It

By Disha Sharma

Your business’s knowledge capital — made up of intangible knowledge assets — is at more risk than you can imagine. Because a significant part of it lives in your employees’ heads, most of it isn’t documented. It’s also exclusive to a few select people in your organization.

This unshared (and often unwritten) wisdom is called tribal knowledge. It lies with a “tribe” or a group of a select few people and remains reserved to them. If it gets shared (and to whatever degree), the medium is mostly oral.

This knowledge — which represents the collective wisdom that a few of your people earn from spending years in your industry or company — flees when your employees leave. They take it along with them, sometimes to their new jobs or simply to their post-retirement lives.

You, for sure, lose it, forever. And you should care.

Why is tribal knowledge crucial for an organization?

Although tribal knowledge is seen as a threat to developing a culture of knowledge sharing in a company — as a few people seem to be “hoarding” it — it’s an asset.  

It’s the very niche wisdom that people gain after years of “figuring things out.” It has many benefits.

It goes beyond documentation. When you document your business’s processes and procedures, you’re mostly documenting common or standard knowledge. But companies often run into instances that don’t fit in standard processes and procedures. Tribal knowledge tells how to handle these.  

It helps with training. Documenting tribal knowledge can help you get your new resources up to speed with your expert staff rapidly. They can fast-track their way to becoming a pro. This doesn’t just improve their performance but lessens the load on your more experienced team members. 

It boosts productivity. Documenting tribal knowledge makes it accessible to all. Doing so helps people help themselves without having to depend on others. Having a solution handy and instantly also frees up their time for working on the core business operations.

Tribal knowledge examples

Tribal knowledge can take many forms. 

For a SaaS business, tribal knowledge might be the “acumen” a few of its salespeople developed in handling the common objections that prospects share. 

Or, it could be the “tact” that its most successful account managers learned to handle escalations and save critical accounts from switching.

For a global enterprise, tribal knowledge could lie with its operations team of a particular region that almost always works at a higher efficiency or gives the fastest resolution rate.

In technical industries like manufacturing, tribal knowledge could be the exclusive technological know-how that technicians develop from years of experience working with a set of machines. 

A noteworthy example of using tribal knowledge comes from Xerox. 

Eureka, Xerox’s database with 30,000 records of tribal knowledge assets, has saved the company $100M. In one instance, a Xerox engineer in Brazil used a Montreal-based technician’s tip and resolved a customer’s issue by replacing a 50 cent fuse where he originally intended to offer a $40,000 replacement.

Julian Orr, a former anthropologist at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, explains that Xerox’s service reps know their machines “as shepherds know their sheep.”

“While everyone else assumes one machine is like the next, a rep knows each by its peculiarities and sorts out general failings from particular ones.” Eureka is a product of crowdsourced tribal knowledge.

Capturing tribal knowledge can benefit you too in similar ways, in documenting the subtleties. 

Before we see the exact steps you can follow to capture it, let’s understand how tribal knowledge differs from tacit and institutional knowledge.

Tribal knowledge vs. tacit knowledge

To understand the difference between tribal and tacit knowledge, go back to the tribal knowledge examples from above. 

Note that wisdom that powers better sales acumen or a more efficient way of working or how machines can be debugged can be documented, shared, and learned. It’s all codifiable knowledge.

Tacit knowledge, on the other hand, can’t be codified because the person owning it can’t express it. In the book, The Tacit Dimension, author Michael Polanyi (who has also given the term “tacit knowledge”) says that “one can know more than one can tell.”

This inarticulate knowledge is tacit knowledge. It’s real and practical, but you can’t embed it into your company’s knowledge memory, because it transcends the realm of objective knowledge. We’re talking about things like intuition here. Think hunches. Or perceptions. And insights. Basically, all the things that “one just knows.”

Tribal knowledge vs. institutional knowledge

A business’s institutional knowledge comprises all its documented and undocumented knowledge. 

Examples of documented knowledge in a business’s institutional knowledge mix are knowledge assets about its processes, SOPs, documentation, knowledge bases (internal and external), training manuals, playbooks, databases, etc. 

And one example of undocumented knowledge assets here is the knowledge your employees carry, making tribal knowledge a subset of your institutional knowledge. 

How to Capture Tribal Knowledge in three easy steps 

Before setting out to capture tribal knowledge, develop the right mindset. Refrain from thinking of people who have it as “hoarders.”

Because, in all likelihood, they may not be keeping it to themselves on purpose.

Perhaps, you lack a way to document it. And maybe, because it’s only invoked a few times, the motivation to document doesn’t exist. 

Also, stop looking for “the politically correct term for tribal knowledge.” Disassociate it from all negative concoctions and treat it just like scattered knowledge that needs to be captured.

Step #1: Identify the people who might possess it

In general, all the key resources contributing to your core business operations have rich tribal knowledge. 

All the “go-to” people in your company, too, have deep tribal knowledge.

These could be your:

  • Star salespersons
  • Top-rated customer service agents
  •  Talented technicians
  •  Experienced marketers
  •  Resourceful employees 

You get the idea.

To identify such sources of tribal knowledge, think about the impact on your business if someone were to go on a sabbatical or leave your company. How hard would your operations get hit? Identify these people and capture what they know while they’re working with you.

Step #2 Determine what tribal knowledge they hold

Once you identify the people who can offer rich domain knowledge, determine what you want to learn from them.

This is the knowledge that processes and procedures DON’T capture. 

For example, if you run a SaaS business and have a very efficient project manager, tell them to write a post on their workday – starting with their sign in to check out. This knowledge could set the foundation for training newer managers or the new hire who’d take their place if they were to leave.

Step #3 Document the tribal knowledge they hold

Because tribal knowledge assets take many forms, there’s no single format that works for each. 

So, look at the nature of the knowledge base asset you want to capture and choose a suitable format for it.

Sometimes you might choose to interview your key resources and maintain a video library with all the knowledge. 

At other times, you could request your trained resources to write records for each non-production activity they undertake. 

You might also ask your new resource to shadow your experienced resources and journal their knowledge.

You get the idea.

Using a knowledge base to document tribal knowledge

As you can imagine, your knowledge base assets can end up on different platforms:

  • You might host the knowledge you capture using video on YouTube.
  • Your records could live in spreadsheets.
  • You could document your journal entries in Google docs.

When your knowledge resides in silos, your employees can’t find it when they need it. To use this knowledge and to build upon it, bring it all together using an internal knowledge base. Or better still, create a company-wide Wikipedia, offering all the knowledge you have to all your employees.

Wrapping it up…

When you don’t approach institutionalizing your business’s tribal knowledge properly, you can end up making your employees feel like you’re collecting their knowledge to replace them.  And they could become easily replaceable when their collective knowledge is pooled. 

So, take the effort to explain why this isn’t the case and how detribalizing knowledge is good even for them. 

Also, look for ways to incentivize the process. For example, you can give your employees points for documenting every unusual instance that a fellow employee approached them to help with. Or, each time they add some knowledge to the pool that a colleague approached them for. Let your employees exchange their points for a thing of value, like an Amazon gift card. You can also run a leaderboard and reward people who share their knowledge generously.

Quality knowledge sharing can only happen when you capture all your codifiable knowledge and make it accessible. Unlike what you might have believed, a good part of tribal knowledge is codifiable and can be seamlessly integrated into your company’s knowledge memory. So start now!

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