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Corey Brown


What Is Tribal Knowledge?

Understanding a skills-gap risk

Published: Tuesday, May 26, 2020 - 12:02

Many industrial businesses have heard of the dangers of relying on tribal knowledge. But what exactly does tribal knowledge mean? How does tribal knowledge impact an organization? How do you capture tribal knowledge?

Organizations spend substantial time and resources developing the knowledge and skills of their workforce. Although some of this gets translated into procedures and policies, most of it resides in the heads of experienced individuals or functional experts.

The application, and therefore value, of this knowledge is limited by the capacity of a few select people. We define tribal knowledge as valuable information that has accumulated through informal channels, which remains undocumented and isolated from the rest of the organization.

Tribal Knowledge—valuable information that has accumulated through informal channels that remains undocumented and isolated from the rest of the organization

Tribal knowledge vs. other company knowledge

There are plenty of alternative terms for tribal knowledge: institutional knowledge, tacit knowledge, and legacy knowledge, to name a few. Although the definitions for these lack consensus, we see the main distinctions revolving around:
• How the knowledge was formed
• How easily the knowledge can be transferred

Rather than burdening ourselves with the nuances of technical terms, broadly speaking, a company’s information is split up into the following two camps.

Explicit knowledge
Explicit or tangible knowledge is the concrete information that comprises essential information and data. Things like standardized procedures and safety protocols are documented by necessity and are crucial to operations. This knowledge is easy to store and pass between people because it exists in the form of documents, records, or reports.

Implicit knowledge
Implicit or intangible knowledge includes personal stories, skills, and intuition-based learning that are accrued through experience, in-person training, or mentorship. This type of knowledge is more difficult to communicate and often remains siloed or lost. The bulk of tribal knowledge falls in this group.

How tribal knowledge forms

When implicit knowledge remains in the heads of individuals, tribal knowledge forms. These individuals are referred to as knowledge “gatekeepers” because they hold valuable information behind a wall. Gatekeepers are your more experienced employees, the go-to experts whom you rely on to solve issues. Employees who perform skilled or specialized tasks are also candidates for knowledge gatekeepers.

“If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.”
 —Henry Ford 

Is tribal knowledge bad?

Tribal knowledge isn’t inherently bad. It accumulates naturally in every workplace and is the result of continuous improvement and learning. However, communication between teams, shifts, or locations can become isolated, and that is when tribal knowledge is a risk. Companies waste valuable time solving problems again... and again. Best practices are left siloed, rather than shared as a group asset.

Especially as manufacturing feels the burden of the skills gap, an over-reliance on tribal knowledge will have a severe impact on performance as the working generations shift. Baby Boomers are retiring at an unprecedented rate of 10,000 workers per day. This mass exodus of experienced workers will hurt businesses that have failed to capture tribal knowledge before it walks out the door.

Capture tribal knowledge now

Knowing how to successfully capture tribal knowledge is a strategy that all industrial businesses will need to develop to communicate essential information and bridge the skills gap to prevent downtime, waste, or rework. Unfortunately, most companies don’t discover their reliance on tribal knowledge until it’s too late.

When a machine breaks down during a night shift, or company experts leave, you can find yourself in a knowledge deficit. The pain of a knowledge deficit isn’t felt until operations are halted, or product quality takes a turn for the worse. Solving the skills gap on the factory floor is essential to avoid these problems and to proactively address the talent shortage.

First published May 1, 2020, on the Dozuki blog.


About The Author

Corey Brown’s picture

Corey Brown

Corey Brown is the lead researcher and editor for manufacturing resources on Dozuki.com. With a background in engineering and technical communication, Corey specializes in quality management, standard work, and lean manufacturing.