What is Tribal Knowledge and how not to loose it?

In manufacturing, tribal knowledge is information specific to an organization and its members. It is often difficult to capture and document, as it is passed down orally from one employee to another. This knowledge can be precious for businesses, as it can give them a competitive edge in the market.
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Published on:
21 October 2022
Updated on:
14 February 2024

Tribal knowledge can be something as simple as a company’ process or the way a particular product is made. It can also be more general information about the industry, such as market trends or customer preferences. This type of knowledge is often difficult to capture because it is not always written down or formalized in any way. Instead, it is passed down from one employee to another through oral tradition.

In this article, we will discuss what tribal knowledge is and how you can capture it in your organization. So, let’s begin:

What Is Tribal Knowledge?

Tribal knowledge is the collective wisdom of a group of people. It’s the sum of what everyone in the group knows, and it’s often passed down from generation to generation.

It can be helpful when making decisions, but it can also be dangerous. That’s because it’s not always accurate and can lead to groupthink.

The term “tribal knowledge” was first coined by anthropologist Margaret Mead in the 1940s. She used it to describe how information is passed down within a tribe or community.

Mead observed that tribal knowledge often contains a lot of wisdom but can also be inaccurate. That’s because it’s based on personal experiences and stories, rather than facts.

Tribal knowledge can be found in many different cultures around the world. Sometimes, it’s used to help people survive in harsh environments. In other cases, it’s used to keep traditions alive. In either case, tribal knowledge is integral to a culture’s history.

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Problems Of Unretained Tribal Knowledge

Tribal knowledge can be defined as the collective body of information that is known by a group but not documented. It is often passed down through generations, either through oral traditions or informal mentorship. While tribal knowledge can be an invaluable asset, it can also pose serious problems when not retained.

1. Can Be Easily Lost

One of the most serious problems with tribal knowledge is that it can be lost when members of the group who have this knowledge leave. This can happen when people retire, move to another company, or even die. When this happens, the knowledge goes with them and is not passed on to others. This can create a serious skills gap within the organization.

2. Difficult To Replicate

Another problem with tribal knowledge is that it can be challenging to replicate. This is because it is often based on personal experience and intuition rather than formal training or documentation. As a result, it can be hard for others to understand or use tribal knowledge even if they have access to it.

3. Can Lead To Inefficiency

Tribal knowledge can also lead to inefficiency because it is often based on personal preferences and opinions. For example, two people may have different ways of doing the same task, but only one of them knows the “right” way to do it. This can create confusion and frustration, leading to wasted time and resources.

4. Can Foster A Sense Of Elitism

Tribal knowledge can also foster a sense of elitism among group members. This is because it often makes people feel like they are part of an exclusive club. This can lead to tension and conflict, and ultimately undermine teamwork and collaboration. While tribal knowledge can be a valuable asset, it is crucial to know the potential problems it can create.

5. Can Be A Barrier To Innovation

Tribal knowledge can also hinder innovation since it relies on tradition and convention rather than new ideas or methods. As a result, it can be difficult to challenge the status quo or develop new ways of doing things.

Benefits Of Retaining Tribal Knowledge

Despite the challenges tribal knowledge faces, it can be extremely valuable and should be captured whenever possible. Here are some of the benefits of retaining tribal knowledge:

1. It Can Provide A Competitive Advantage:

Tribal knowledge is often unique to a particular group or organization and can give them a leg up on the competition. Suppose that your company has developed a new way of manufacturing a product that is more efficient than the methods used by your competitors. This tribal knowledge can give you a significant advantage in the marketplace.

2. It Can Improve Decision-Making:

It can help people make better decisions by providing them with information and insights they would not have otherwise had access to. For example, let’s say you’re considering launching a new product. Tribal knowledge can help you anticipate potential problems and identify potential solutions. This can help you avoid costly mistakes and make better decisions overall.

3. Promote Creativity And Innovation:

When people are aware of the tribal knowledge within their organization, they can be more creative and innovative in their thinking. This is because they have a better understanding of the group’s collective wisdom and can draw on this knowledge to come up with new ideas.

4. Encourage Collaboration:

Tribal knowledge can encourage collaboration among employees because it gives them a shared understanding of the company’s history and culture. This knowledge can also help build trust and respect among team members, which can lead to more effective collaboration.

5. Enhance Communication:

It can help enhance communication within an organization by providing a common language and understanding among employees. This can be especially helpful in large organizations with many different departments and divisions. By understanding the tribal knowledge of the company, employees can communicate and work together more effectively.

There are many benefits of retaining tribal knowledge. These are just a few essential benefits your organization can experience by capturing and preserving this type of knowledge.

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How To Capture Tribal Knowledge

Capturing tribal knowledge is vital to the success of any organization. Here are some of the most effective ways to do it:

1. Encourage Employees To Document Their Work:

Asking employees to document their work is another excellent way to capture tribal knowledge. This can be done through various methods, such as writing and creating work instructions, or even recording audio notes. Employees can share their knowledge with others in the organization by documenting their work.

2. Encourage Tribal Knowledge Sharing Through Mentorship Programs:

Mentorship programs are a great way to encourage tribal knowledge sharing. By pairing more experienced employees with newer employees, you can create an environment where knowledge is shared and transferred. Not only will this help newer employees learn the ropes, but it will also help more experienced employees feel valued and appreciated.

3. Make Use Of Knowledge Management Tools And Systems:

There are a variety of knowledge management tools and systems available that can help you capture tribal knowledge. These tools can help you organize and store information so that it can be easily accessed by those who need it. For instance, you can use a knowledge management system to create a central repository for tribal knowledge.

4. Create A Culture Of Knowledge Sharing:

Creating a culture of knowledge sharing is essential to capturing tribal knowledge. Encourage employees to share their knowledge with others, and ensure that information is accessible to those who need it. When everyone is on the same page, it will be easier to capture and transfer tribal knowledge.

5. Make Tribal Knowledge Part Of Your Onboarding Process:

Make sure that tribal knowledge is part of your onboarding process for new employees. This way, they can hit the ground running and be up to speed on the organization’s culture and values.

6. Promote Employee Input And Feedback:

Encouraging employee input and feedback is crucial to capturing tribal knowledge. You can ensure that tribal knowledge is accurate and up-to-date by soliciting feedback. Plus, employees will feel appreciated and valued when their input is sought after.

These are just a few ways to capture tribal knowledge. By taking these steps, you can ensure that your organization has the knowledge it needs to be successful.

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