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

Andy Cook
February 16, 2018

You’ll probably be more familiar with the concept of tribal knowledge than you realize. Let’s say you’ve taken a weekend trip away to another city to visit a good friend of yours. He’s out of town until tomorrow so he left his house keys above the door.

“Make yourself at home,” the message on your phone reads.

You hastily plunge the key into the door and twist but to no avail. The door won’t open. You turn it both ways. Still no luck. You call up your buddy and he tells you, “oh, don’t worry – just pull the handle tight and turn the wiggle the key a little to the left. You’ll hear it click!” Just like magic, the door now opens.

The fact that you knew to use the key to open the door would be considered general knowledge. However, the pull and wiggle is knowledge that only your friend has; it’s an example of tribal knowledge at an individual level.

As we’ll explore, the consequences of tribal knowledge can be significant. What if your friend had left his phone behind and you had no way of contacting him – would you have broken into his flat, or rented a room in a hotel? Both have frustrating and detrimental downsides.

In his 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. It’s things like how to handle an angry customer, how to deploy code to the server, or even who to ask to get the soap refilled in the bathroom. It’s the knowledge that turns a good organization into a great one.

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 the tribal knowledge holders

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.

Use a knowledge management system

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. 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,  then check out Tettra. We built it from the ground up to address all the above issues with most knowledge management systems and wikis.  We’re sure your team will love it and we hope you give it a try.