What is Tribal Knowledge and How to Capture it Before It’s Too Late

Andy Cook
June 17, 2024
What is Tribal Knowledge and How to Capture it Before It’s Too Late

Think about these two employees at a company like yours:

The seasoned employee who knows how to pull the monthly reports using a certain software program.

You have a new hire who used the exact same software at their previous company.

However, the new hire won’t be able to replicate the same reports right away. They still need to know the business metrics, where the raw data sources are located, and the exact formatting that your company prefers.

The fact that the new employee knew the software program for reports would be considered general knowledge. However, where the exact data resources are located and the formatting preferences — those are examples of tribal knowledge at an individual level.

Capturing this tribal knowledge involves creating step-by-step guides, video tutorials, or detailed documentation within your knowledge management system, ensuring that anyone can replicate the process seamlessly.

In the book The Tribal Knowledge Paradigm, Leonard Bertain offers a definition of tribal knowledge from an organization’s perspective. He describes it as “the collective wisdom of the organization. It is the sum of all the knowledge and capabilities of all the people.”

What that definition doesn’t address is the fact that a significant amount of the knowledge and wisdom might be known, but remains unwritten. That is a problem. If something isn’t documented, no one knows about it other than those who currently store in their brains.

Why is tribal knowledge important for an organization?

Tribal knowledge is an example of an intangible asset, and as research has shown intangible assets are increasingly becoming a major source of competitive advantage for organizations and a decisive factor of business success.

The type of knowledge, referred to as tacit knowledge, that is held by your more experienced employees is exactly the stuff like knowing to turn the key in a certain way while pulling the handle towards you, but that have to do with how your organization operates.

t’s things like how to handle an angry customer, how to deploy code to the server, and how to pull that certain report. It’s the knowledge that turns a good organization into a great one.

However, one big difference is that tribal knowledge is more easily documented than tacit knowledge.

“Tribal knowledge borrows many of the characteristics of tacit knowledge in that it is
transferred through socialization and mentoring. Both are shared by word of mouth, but unlike
tacit knowledge, tribal knowledge is more easily communicated. Tacit knowledge is often skill
based and difficult to put into words,” said Chris Binder, from the La Salle University Digital Commons.

The problem is that these experienced employees leave their companies without passing on the bulk of their knowledge, skills, and wisdom that they’ve collected over the last 10-20 years.

This phenomenon is otherwise known as brain drain, and it typically means losing a lot of tribal knowledge.

For example, there might only be just one employee who knows a huge amount of information about the security systems in place to protect your organization from software threats.

They helped build the original system 20 years ago and have been an integral part of its maintenance ever since. If she leaves abruptly and there is no backup plan, all that information could leave with her.

When they leave to retire, all the knowledge retires with them, and because the know-how, or tribal knowledge, hasn’t been documented it gets lost and is incredibly hard to replace.

How to capture tribal knowledge before it is lost

It might seem like a rather daunting prospect having to extract knowledge from all of your employee’s heads but there are ways that you capture tribal knowledge before it is lost.

Identify who holds the tribal knowledge

Firstly, take some time to identify the individuals who actually hold the tribal knowledge. Start with employees who have been part of your organization for the longest.

An example of someone who holds tribal knowledge? Think of engineers who’ve been with the organization for 10, 20, 30+ years. They’ve probably worked on products and systems that aren’t even in use anymore or using tools and practices that are no longer taught but might still be useful in emergency or unique circumstances.

Determine what tribal knowledge they hold

Figuring out what your experienced employees know, that most other people don’t know can be a tricky process if you’re approaching it from a reactive perspective (hence the importance of documenting tribal knowledge as you go).

For example, say you run an online app building platform for large companies. They build their app on your platform and make changes to it whenever they need. You occasionally help them out with bits of code and advanced tweaks, because you know… you like helping your clients.

Say that in a few years time there’s only you left from the original Development team, and you get reports that your largest, oldest clients can’t log into their apps.

All of your QA tests and code checks are coming through as clear, and you can’t remember what your colleague did with those few lines of code to help out that one client a few years ago. You might have even know the solution at one point, but it’s been year’s since you needed to use that knowledge and you forgot. Either way, it’s a problem.

That knowledge is the type of knowledge you need to siphon out of your experienced employees, or even out of your own head for future use. The hidden, discreet lines of code or subtle idiosyncrasies in your systems.

Document the tribal knowledge as you go

Documenting tribal knowledge is both the responsibility of management and of the individual employees. There are different ways you can approach the process, but it’s important that it actually happens above all else. Common techniques include:

Narrating your thoughts and processes as you carry out the work

A hack to quickly record anything you might need in the future is to record it using one of the apps on your phone. Chances are you might never need the history, but it’s extremely handy to have if you do and is a lot faster to just record your stream of consciousness than publishing a written document.

Capture your work by recording it or writing it down

Ideally, you’d write down a document with the know-how someone working on the system might need to know in the future. Documents are easily shareable, scannable and also are searchable. Documentation doesn’t need to be robust or perfect either. A good strategy is to quickly document anything relevant and leave the document in a rough state. If more people use the document, you can improve it as a team as you go. That way you don’t spend time documenting for document’s sake, but over time you end up with robust documentation for your team on the issues that matter.

Leverage AI and Automation to capture tribal knowledge

Modern AI and automation tools play a pivotal role in capturing and organizing tribal knowledge. AI can analyze patterns in communication and documentation, identifying key pieces of knowledge that are often referenced but not formally documented.

Automation tools can prompt employees to document their processes regularly, suggest updates to existing documentation, and even automatically categorize and tag knowledge articles.

This ensures that tribal knowledge is continuously captured and updated, reducing the risk of losing critical information.

Tettra’s AI Assistant, Kai, significantly enhances the process of capturing tribal knowledge. Kai automatically suggests relevant content updates and identifies gaps in documentation by analyzing usage patterns and user interactions.

This proactive approach ensures that critical knowledge is documented promptly and accurately, reducing reliance on individual memory and minimizing information silos. Kai’s integration with platforms like Slack and MS Teams streamlines the process, making it easy for team members to contribute and access knowledge seamlessly, thereby fostering a culture of continuous knowledge sharing and improvement.

More knowledge management tips from Tettra:

Use a knowledge management system like Tettra

Using a knowledge management platform often makes it easier to organize and share collective knowledge because the platform connects to the systems you already have in use.

Tettra offers a full suite of tools for sharing knowledge. With Tettra, you’ll get: 

  • AI-powered knowledge base softwarehttps://tettra.com/kai-ai-tettra/Edit to document answers
  • Q&A workflowhttps://tettra.com/internal-qa-software/Edit to capture questions
  • Knowledge management featureshttps://tettra.com/knowledge-management-system-software/Edit to keep content up to date.
  • Integrationshttps://tettra.com/integrations/Edit with Slack, Google Docs, Github and Zapier to help your team answer and capture knowledge quickly 

A good knowledge management system should have the following properties:

  • Easy to use – Simpler a knowledge management system are faster for your team to learn and easier for them to use. A system that everyone can use and has access to update the content will result in more up-to-date documentation overall.
  • Integrated – It’s a waste of time to recreate documentation that you’ve already written in another place like Google Docs, Dropbox or Github. A good system will let you import your existing content and keep your formatting too. It should also be integrated with where your team is communicating like over email or in Slack.
  • Smart – It’s easy for knowledge to go out of date. Modern knowledge management tools will help you keep content up to date by suggesting you update or archive pages based on your team’s usage of the content.

If you’re in the market for a modern knowledge management and sharing system, start your free knowledge base with Tettra.