Tribal Knowledge: Everything You Need To Know

Learn How To Combat Knowledge Gatekeeping

If you left your company tomorrow, could someone step straight into your shoes and keep your role moving without a hitch? Or are there details, processes, and shortcuts that are only exclusive to you, that only you know about? Are those bits and pieces essential for the business to run smoothly and productively? If so, you’re the owner of tribal knowledge, which instantly makes you one of the most important resources for the success of the company.

What Is Tribal Knowledge?

Tribal knowledge is unwritten knowledge that is only known by a select “tribe” of people. In business, it refers to the collective knowledge and skills that are unique to an organization and its employees. Tribal knowledge is undocumented and often unshared, allowing it to be easily lost when employees leave. It may be widely known throughout an organization, or it may be siloed within certain departments, teams, or individuals. People who withhold tribal knowledge from others are known as “gatekeepers.”

Examples

Tribal knowledge in businesses can exist in various forms. Some examples of tribal knowledge that commonly occur in businesses include:

  • Account passwords
  • Tricks or shortcuts for using pieces of technology
  • Internal processes or setups
  • Advantageous relationships and connections
  • Knowledge learned from the success or failure of previous projects
  • Knowing common blockers or enablers of projects
  • Some trade secrets

Causes Of Tribal Knowledge In Businesses

There are both positive and negative reasons that may cause tribal knowledge to build in businesses. All businesses will accumulate tribal knowledge over the course of time. Every time that colleagues work together, they are likely to learn from each other. Similarly, every time someone works on a project and observes its outcome, they have a chance to take away new understandings and reflections.

Companies often hire individuals specifically for their set of unique knowledge and the skills that they bring to the team. However, companies can also suppress the sharing of knowledge, resulting in it becoming tribal and siloed. Unless companies are diligent about documenting processes, employees will rarely take the initiative to create tedious documentation, even for important processes.

Managers can also implicitly or explicitly encourage the withholding of knowledge by dividing employees, encourage competition over teamwork, and modeling gatekeeping themselves. Lastly, employees may purposely withhold knowledge to improve their job security by making themselves indispensable to a company.

The Drawbacks Of Tribal Knowledge

Tribal knowledge itself is not inherently bad, as it can often give organizations an edge over their competitors if managed well. However, if it remains locked behind the gatekeepers within an organization, it can become a force that cripples the growth of a company. Excessive amounts of tribal knowledge locked up within a small number of individuals can result in:

  1. Lack of innovation and automation
  2. Intense frustration in employees who feel locked out
  3. Poor communication between teams and team members
  4. A culture of competitiveness and secrecy
  5. The loss of critical knowledge if employees leave
  6. Lengthy and inefficient onboarding periods
  7. Projects delayed by the non-availability of gatekeepers

For a company to become a powerhouse of growth, innovation, and success, it must avoid the siloing and gatekeeping of important knowledge within its workforce.

The Benefits Of Capturing Tribal Knowledge

If tribal knowledge is recognized and a company strives to capture it in easy, shareable formats, that company can achieve significant benefits.

1. Future-Proofing

No employee stays forever. Even hoarding knowledge for job security won’t stop an employee from retiring or moving on. Losing an employee with tribal knowledge can cost companies thousands of dollars in lost productivity. By ensuring that no one person has exclusive, critical knowledge, a company can protect itself from the damage caused by losing a gatekeeper.

2. Increased Productivity And Innovation

When tribal knowledge is widely shared within a company, all employees can benefit from knowing more productive ways of working. Furthermore, with more opportunities for input, you may be able to innovate, improve, automate or streamline long-standing processes and methods.

3. Collaborative Company Culture

Companies that encourage knowledge sharing and collaboration are usually far more healthy and appealing for current and potential employees. Employees who feel respected, rewarded, and actively invested in by their employers are likely to be more loyal and to work harder than those who are feeling locked out or insecure.

How To Capture And Share Tribal Knowledge

Capturing and sharing tribal knowledge in a business requires consistent effort and the right technology. Companies of all sizes can do this in a cost-effective manner in just a few steps.

1. Identify Tribal Knowledge

To capture and share tribal knowledge, the first step is to identify it! The best way to do this is to go directly to your teams and ask what knowledge they think should be shared more, or what they’d like to know more about. You might do this through a survey, in one on one conversations, or in group discussions. Once you’ve asked, it’s important to follow through in facilitating more knowledge sharing to avoid disillusionment.

2. Capture It In Short, Shareable Courses

Too many companies rely on dry, tedious documentation formats to capture important processes and information. The responsibility to learn tribal knowledge then falls on employees who have to suffer through these documents to find it. Instead of this, try directing your team to create short digital courses. With the knowledge now available in an enjoyable format, you can assign courses to team members to complete at a time and place that’s convenient for them—on their phone, tablet, or desktop computer.

3. Encourage A Culture Of Collaboration

With a clear process set up to capture and share tribal knowledge in the business, it’s critical to follow through by implementing a culture that values ​​collaboration. Any initiative must match the company culture in order to succeed. Team leaders and managers should actively model and reward knowledge sharing, discussions, and teamwork on a day-to-day basis.

Start Benefiting From Tribal Knowledge In Business Today

Tribal knowledge can be the secret sauce that gives companies the edge over their competitors. However, when it is hoarded by just a few people, it can negatively impact growth, productivity, innovation, and employee satisfaction.

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