A Comprehensive Guide on Tribal knowledge and how it is Beneficial in 2021

With so many different companies and businesses operating in the organizational paradigm, there are bound to be varying knowledge sources spanning across the board.

Some of these knowledge sources can be the same for all of the companies like a law or a rule of the organizational paradigm, but some of the other knowledge sources can be unique to each company, and that is known as Tribal Knowledge. Let us explain it further.

What is Tribal Knowledge?

Tribal knowledge refers to any sort of knowledge or information which is only accessible to the people within a company or organization. This means that this knowledge is not widely known and is only accessible to the people that understand the culture and the workings of that company.

This information is not of a singular kind and can be any type of data like passwords, best processes and practices, and even some abstract knowledge about the company.

The most peculiar thing about this knowledge is that it is not written in any form of memo or document, and is only shared through word-of-mouth communication.

One thing you might have noticed is that if you have worked at an office for a long time, you are most likely to develop your tricks and methods to make sure that at the end of the day your work is completed no matter what.

You are able to do that because you know how everything at the office i.e., the people and the other resources, works and how you can use them or utilize them in such a way that your work is not disturbed and everything goes according to plan.

For example, if you are using the office printer for a while then you know how much time it takes to print or how many strikes does it take to get it going if it gets stuck (yeah, our printer sucks too 😉).

Most people don’t get to know about these things till they have spent a while at the office, but for your sake, let’s just say that you got to learn these things when you first came to the office because some kind soul mentioned it to you.

This knowledge of the printer working and other things like this is called Tribal knowledge, because only you, as a part of the company, knows about it and not anyone else, who isn’t.

The Tribal Knowledge Paradox

Leonard Bertain is the author of the book “The Tribal Knowledge Paradox”, which describes this incredible concept as “the collective wisdom of the organization”.

This author describes it further as,

“It is knowledge of the informal power structure and process or how things work and how they ought to.”

This definition is quite useful, but let us take a deeper look at some of the key points that the author is trying to tell us.

  • One of the things that the concept states are that the Tribal knowledge of any company or business is informal and it is not written in any documented form
  • Tribal knowledge is not written in stone and can be quite incorrect and useless at times because some of the people do the wrong thing thinking that it is correct, so as a part of the company, it is up to you to use that tribal knowledge or not
  • Another thing that is quite important to note is that the Tribal knowledge is quite collective, but that doesn’t mean that this information is shared by all of the people in the organizational paradigm, it means that every person in the company contributes to it

The Complications Connected to Unretained Tribal Knowledge

One important thing to note while we ponder on Tribal knowledge is that it is entirely up to the people to determine whether or not they want to use a particular piece of Tribal Knowledge or not. This process is called “capturing” tribal knowledge.

What this means is that by definition Tribal knowledge is undocumented, but what you deem important in the whole shebang, you should create some sort of documentation for it.

We know that this might feel like a colossal burden for you because who would want to document so much information that may or may not be useful? But you need to understand that if you don’t document it, it can cause all sorts of headaches and roadblocks down the line.

Let’s now discuss those headaches and the roadblocks that can affect your future endeavors.

1. Wasted Time and Repeated Labor

One important rule that you should always keep in mind, no matter which company you go to, is to ask around for help if you are struggling to fix a work-related issue.

You do that because chances are that someone in the company might have faced a similar problem in their work before you, and they can help you solve the issue quite easily.

One other thing that you should note is that not all of the problems and their solutions are documented by the company. Many of the issues are faced by the employees and they solve them without any help from anyone.

So, it is a good approach to document such issues and their solutions, otherwise, the newer employees are going to waste their time and their skills to solve the problems that have been solved already.

2. Faulty Onboarding Processes

Another important aspect of Tribal knowledge is that in some companies’ recruits are reliant on Tribal knowledge to solve their issues. This happens when they are not provided with any resources or instruction on how to deal with their problems.

This reliance on Tribal knowledge might be the result of some companies hiring their recruits on the basis of sink-or-swim onboarding, which basically means that you have to solve the issue before you without any help otherwise you’re in trouble.

This onboarding process is quite harsh, but it lowers the burden on veteran employees that are being contacted by the recruits all the time for their help.

Benefits of Tribal Knowledge

benefits-of-trbal-knowledge

Let’s now take a look at some of the benefits of Tribal Knowledge and how it can help you in your work.

1. Setting Up Effective Onboarding

We know that in most of the companies, the older or the veteran employees of the company have learned a lot on the job without any help from anyone, but it is not important that the new employees of the company have to go through the same routine of learning.

One thing that you can do as a manager or a member of the upper management is that you should ask the veteran employees to write some onboarding materials for the recruits so that any of the problems that they may face at the beginning of the future can be resolved quickly.

In doing all of this, you are easily able to document the tribal knowledge that your team has, which also helps the recruits to perform their duties with their highest potential possible, from day one.

2. Holding on to Important Information

You need to keep in mind that nothing in a company remains the same, and there are always personnel or resources shifting from one status to the other. For example, people don’t always stay at the same job and they retire, or they change roles or even take periods of leave to refresh.

This is all well and good because the company can function with or without them. What’s important is that the information that they have should be documented in some shape or form.

Because all of the recruits that have to take over, should know their predecessors i.e., the passwords, techniques, or the knowledge about the processes of the employees, otherwise your company and its development processes are in trouble.

3. Helping All of the Team Members to Perform Better

One toxic thing about Tribal Knowledge is that it is unpredictable and can spread across the company like wildfire. That means that all of the information whether good or bad is transferred from unofficial channels to all of the employees of the company.

The bad information can often include incorrect practices and shortcuts that the employees use and mess up their work.

So, to make sure that this mishap doesn’t happen, you should always look over the whole information and sift through it to distinguish what is good or bad. This will help the employees to make sure what they are using before they use it.

Conclusion

This was our guide on what Tribal knowledge is and what it contains. If you think that we missed some important point and it should be a part of this article, let us know and we will get back to your ASAP.


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Frank Miller
Frank is a senior editor and productivity enthusiast. Loves hunting and reviewing new tools. When he's not writing he's normally cooking, gardening or reading.

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