During the first days at work (as part of the onboarding process), a new employee undergoes a series of training sessions and receives the necessary information – about the company, the team, responsibilities, goals to achieve, ways of doing things, etc. This expertise usually comprises meticulously refined documents, presentations, instructions available on the company and team drive.
Tribal knowledge in an organization – table of contents:
However, in addition to the official principles of a company or organization, there is another, less formal and more covert know-how that has a similar impact on the effectiveness of implemented activities as any agreed procedures – the so-called tribal knowledge. In today’s article, we’ll focus on tribal knowledge in the organizational context. We’ll show its benefits, and limitations as well as ways to extract it to enhance your business performance.
What is tribal knowledge?
Tribal knowledge refers to informal, practical information, skills or tips that are accumulated within an organization or community, but not in documented or widely available form. It is typically passed on verbally during interactions between individual group members.
In the case of business, tribal knowledge develops as a result of experiences, practices, beliefs and habits within a group of people, often based on long-term relationships and cooperation. It can involve, among other things, nuances, unusual cases, complex problems, valuable solutions or practical tricks that members of an organization acquire in the course of their work and interactions with others (e.g., in customer relations).
What are the benefits of tribal knowledge?
Informal and undocumented information frequently shapes an organization’s practices, decisions and performance to a similar degree as official news. Here, we should point out that they primarily involve ways of dealing with unusual or complex issues not listed in formal documents, which can help resolve difficult situations quickly and efficiently. At the same time, they facilitate workflow and affect the quality of products delivered or services provided. Additional benefits associated with tribal knowledge include:
- Efficient use of resources (saving time, money and energy),
- Enhanced work performance (avoiding making the same mistakes as previous employees).
- Strengthening the relationship between employees (the transmission of information requires interaction),
- Increasing flexibility (pursuing alternative approaches and courses of action in situations where standard methods are not effective),
- Providing context (informal information usually includes stories that help understand why the company adopts certain practices or makes particular decisions).
What are the limitations of tribal knowledge?
While there is no doubt that tribal knowledge – since it contains context not available in official documents – is extremely valuable, it comes with certain limitations. The most crucial involve:
- The possible departure of an employee – if informal information is not passed on to others (e.g., in the form of internal training or mentoring meetings), it is very likely that with the departure of a valuable employee, the information itself will disappear from the organization.
- Lack of consistency – individual group members may have different interpretations and approaches to the same problems, which can lead to a lack of consistency in the organization’s activities.
- Difficulties in scalability – with information and skills transferred orally or in other informal ways, difficulties can be encountered when large numbers of employees need transferring.
- Lack of innovation – people who rely on traditional, familiar practices may express resistance to change and hold back new ideas, solutions and innovations.
- Limited application in new contexts – information held is often tailored to specific conditions, making it difficult or inappropriate to transfer to new situations (especially in the case of a dynamically changing business environment and customer expectations and needs).
How do you get tribal knowledge from your employees?
One of the project and team management tools to obtain such tribal knowledge in your company is Firmbee. With its check-in features, you can create recurring and automated questions to send to your team members (all of them, or just a select few). Such questions will help you in keeping up with the experiences and insights of individual employees and enable you to create an updated knowledge base.
Managing tribal knowledge is a key challenge for organizations that want to make effective use of the informal intelligence accumulated within teams. In this regard, measures such as implementing mentoring programs (to transfer experience from senior employees), organizing regular meetings and discussions (to ensure that information can be transferred, e.g. through case studies), or looking for ways to document (e.g. in the form of FAQs, case studies or internal guides), among others, will certainly help.
However, all activities implemented must aim to create a culture of sharing and appreciation of the diversity of skills and perspectives. Only in this way will the company be able to effectively use the types available, while minimizing the risks involved.