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How to Combat the Challenges of Tribal Knowledge

Have you ever had a coworker or a leader expect you to know something without you having any way of knowing it? As if you’ve been left out of a secret you were suppose to be in on? If so, you’ve been the victim of the tribal knowledge trap, a lack of proper communication that affects companies large and small.

With a growing millennial workforce and the retirement of many Baby Boomers and Gen Xers over the coming years, companies are trying to encourage and increase the knowledge transfer between those newer to the workforce and the veterans.

To identify and improve the lack of proper communication in your organization we will discuss exactly what tribal knowledge is, its pros and cons, and how to leverage it in today’s work environments.

What is Tribal Knowledge?

Tribal knowledge is knowledge that is known to an organization, yet not documented.

Think of your most senior team members. They have a wealth of knowledge about how and why things are done certain ways in an organization. You may say it’s just intrinsically known to them, but there is a fine line between the benefits of this type of tribal knowledge and it becoming a hindrance for the company as a whole.

The challenge here is tapping into that knowledge, documenting it in a way that makes sense and then disseminating it to the individuals that need to be in the know or benefit from the knowledge.

Knowledge Relevancy

There is a lot of talk about how tribal knowledge is a hinderance, but there is a time and place when it is appropriate for certain knowledge to remain in silos.

Think about knowledge that is shared amongst members of the same team. A marketing team will have knowledge that is not known or shared with IT, HR, or Customer Services because it isn’t relevant to the job functions of those other teams.

Within that same marketing team there may be someone whose job is to focus solely on social media while another focuses on demand gen. Each has a basic working knowledge of what the other is doing but is not so specialized in their knowledge that they could pick up the work of their colleague and know 100% what to do. And that’s a good thing. After all, you want your teams to consist of specialists and not jacks of all trades.

When Tribal Knowledge Becomes a Challenge

While certain levels of tribal knowledge are necessary to maintain differentiation among departments and job roles, there are downsides when not enough information or the wrong information is shared.

Gatekeepers

Take another team within that same organization and look at the most senior member of that team.

  • Are there things that they just “do” because they’ve always done it and it’s just “easier” for them to do it?
  • Do they share their processes and know-how with other team members?

If not, then tribal knowledge is becoming a hindrance to your immediate team and a larger conversation on what is necessary to know should happen.

While small traces of tribal knowledge can be a good thing to separate differences amongst teams within an organization, gatekeeping within a team can cause problems. There are vary degrees of gatekeepers in the workforce.

Some fall in the category simply because of longevity on the job and years of knowledge kept without writing it down to individuals who hold onto knowledge for personal gain. Whatever the case may be, having an open and honest conversation about the transfer of knowledge is key to success.

Incorrect Information

Another challenge of tribal knowledge is that the information could be incorrect. Certain team members may remember facts or information differently and continue to perform tasks based on that incorrect or outdated knowledge.

If this is the case, your organization might need a good way to verify and document information. So, how exactly do you begin this process?

How to Transfer Tribal Knowledge

In order to set your organization up for success in capturing and transferring tribal knowledge, it’s recommended that you work with leaders to establish a standard process for documentation.

Are there tools that you already use as an organization that would aid in this effort? Think of tools that your sales, marketing, and leadership teams use to collaborate with.

For example, do your sales reps utilize Google Drive to share email templates, call scripts, and other “cheat sheets” with new reps? If so, this may be a great opportunity to implement a performance support app for on-boarding and continuous learning where older reps can help support new reps with relevant content.

If you are going to use a system for an entire organization, it is important for it to be relevant and not just a dump zone of all knowledge. It needs to provide actual value.

“Demand for tribal knowledge is ad-hoc and situational and the answer must be succinct, on-point and accessible in the moment, otherwise tribal knowledge is marginal value.” (Mark Gibson)

The key to any successful transfer of tribal knowledge is to find a process that works for you and your organization. And while it may take a few attempts to find the process that works best, the long term benefits of capturing and sharing this knowledge will be invaluable.

Ready to transfer tribal knowledge?

Check out our performance support and continuous learning app, Loop!

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