What is Tribal Knowledge: Benefits & How to Capture It

anjan sarkar
November 30, 2022
min read
September 19, 2023
Photo credit
Tribal knowledge refers to the unspoken wisdom of how a company runs. By capturing that knowledge, you can build stronger teams and increase individual confidence.
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Newcomers in any company are confused as they walk in the door. They don't want to make mistakes on assignments or efforts that they're unfamiliar with.

And it can be frustrating to learn that the information you spent hours gathering was already in the hidden subfolder of Google drive — simply because no one pointed out it was there. 

The fast-paced evolution of businesses, especially small to medium-sized companies, means we're constantly losing time and efficiency on regrouping and regathering previously used, updated and checked data.

We all know the story. One person leaves, another one comes along and no written or oral mediators can help both transition processes without affecting the company's rhythm. 

The unspoken wisdom of little things is known as tribal knowledge. This umbrella term can refer to data guides, passwords and any other type of helpful information that is important for completing internal assignments in the company. 

What is tribal knowledge?

Unwritten but important information for the company is considered tribal knowledge. It refers to the most essential information that workers/teams need to know to perform their assignments.

Also known as hidden knowledge, this information can be interpreted as an urban form of folklore culture, but in a corporate margin. 

The essential assignments and solutions don't change, but their explanation and exemplary performance will vary.

Sometimes a worker eager to leave the company will leave the newbie hanging dry, and other employees that are maybe transferring sectors but are leaving on good terms will take on the extra few minutes to guide you through the process of your work. 

This can be as meaningless as the seating order in an internal staff meeting or as significant as the tone of voice when communicating with a particular client. Of course, every situation is different, but the extra pressure added increases the chance of burnout among newly employed staff. 

Let's take an example

New junior market researcher needs to fully understand the scope of their assignments. In a small company, employees often work well outside their respective titles and market researchers are writers, editors, and social media managers. A small digital agency will likely have several clients with different requests, timelines, and overall marketing strategies. The newly employed researcher might need some time to adjust to the working rhythm and their performance will probably be slightly off for the first few weeks without a proper tutor.

Now, to avoid a decrease in performance, team leaders and company owners need to consider the best way to share their experience and knowledge with their coworkers, especially when they are new. Learning about good business process flows and finding ways how to implement those strategies with tribal knowledge can be quite fruitful when done right. 

The many advantages of tribal knowledge

Depending on how complex or old your company is, there will be more or less tribal knowledge for a new employee to acquire.

Owning a large base of unwritten expertise may seem like something that comes only as a consequence of employees changing. However, this natural formation of a tribal society within a company and all of the intern rituals can help improve the entire team's productivity. 

Consider defining the scope of these abstract assets and you can have a competitive advantage in the dense market. Enriching a corporate culture can increase your brand presence and significantly improve the customer journey

1. Ensuring the company's viability 

Employees aren't eternal. Even hoarding information for the sake of job stability will not prevent a person from resigning or retiring.

Losing the services of a key employee with tribal knowledge could be prejudicial for the company both from financial and productivity standpoints.

By extending and democratizing access to valuable information through a knowledge base, enterprises will ensure continuity, and therefore crucial data will no longer be reserved exclusively for a single individual.

2. Creating a synergetic work environment

Find small segments that can enhance the crude, pre-set form in any corporate formation- from brainstorming ideas for marketing campaigns to at least one or two team-building events annually. 

Allowing the entire team to participate in the process will create a sense of unity within the company. This can help identify what exactly ‘standard practice’ mean for your company, and have useful onboarding materials for new employees. 

3. Routine or standard practice

Positive performance, cataloging systems, or even an excellent way to create or memorize passwords for social media can be a part of the tribal culture. Learning to find these snippets of information among workers can seem a bit confusing, but approaching and interacting with the immaterial segments of corporate culture can help form such routines during the process.

This can lessen the process of changing between workers, training new ones, and letting old ones go. 

4. Onboarding materials

Young companies can sometimes face a dead-end in their performance process, but over time, this becomes easier as the entire staff gathers more experience.

After a company reaches its first milestone, good practice would be to reflect on the past, learn from the mistakes and note what steps can be taken to avoid repeating them. Creating onboarding materials can help future employees acquire all of the necessary skills faster. This will allow any new members of the team to push the boundaries of their performance without jeopardizing the quality of the product, possibly bettering it for more customer retention and management

Common issues with tribal knowledge

Bad habits and performances quickly take a track record among employees who may not be satisfied with the working conditions, culture, or other aspects of the company.

Most of the time, people producing content or data within an enterprise are recreating something that has already been done. Of course, sometimes the updated versions of data tables, excel files for data entry, or work routines may be more efficient, but if not quantified, there is no way to be certain of this.

Onboarding challenges

Sometimes new people can stumble upon the negative face of unwritten knowledge or an employee damaging the company. People who are not satisfied, lazy, or aware of such delicate matters can impact the performance of others in the long run. Inefficient mentoring, not checked by peers, and two or more people can be damaging team productivity. 

Lost knowledge 

The term "lost in translation" could implicitly be used here as it can be challenging to change the experience into standard practice.

Depending on the skill scope of the individual, as well as the clarity of instructions, there is an array of outcome possibilities. Also, by recreating the same performance patterns, the company can not progress with experience, customer service, etc.

Poor customer experience

Increased human error in performance because of miscommunication will impact client relations fast.

Lack of consistency in customer experience may cause dissatisfaction. Having inconsistent services can ultimately look bad on the company's review page. 

How can tribal knowledge be captured?

Tribal knowledge can be necessary for a company's culture and performance.

When left unwritten, there is a considerable risk that it can negatively impact company performance and productivity. Losing information consequently affects time and can cause inconsistent results. This can be as insignificant as wasting hours manually inputting data in excel files to your top performing employee leaving all of a sudden. 

Staff & recruitment

Forming a good team takes time, and young growing companies should consider investing in training new people for their firm.

Even though no one can make someone else share information against their will, by establishing trust and good communication as a baseline for collaboration, the staff just might provide all hands on deck. Problems will always happen, and depending on the approach to the issue, some of them will resolve faster, and some slower.

Some recruits may take more time, but be thorough, while others are flyers and get things done on a tight deadline. Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages. 

Select & nurture important information

Data entry, market research and market analysis may be specific to your company's niche or even more specific to your brand.

In this day and age, people switching working positions and careers is not an uncommon thing. By focusing on the most important segments of every role, a company or a team should take the time to gather information and review the performance process for any role.

Sharing this type of information using a well-organized workflow among workers can enhance their bonds, affirm the work culture and solidify the knowledge that would otherwise go to waste.

Take note of specific performance systems, ideas or even cataloging techniques. Once approved, employees can even feel a boost of confidence and become even more productive.

Tools like Scribe can help you capture processes as they happen, turning your work into step-by-step guides — instantly. Here's how.

Make some notes

As simple as this sounds, after identifying the most vital information of tribal knowledge, finding the best way to store it may be tricky. The process should start by selecting one or a few people that will have access to all of the information and try to organize it according to some priorities.

Keep in mind that this information would best serve the company's interest if a logical system supports it. 

Organize the process

Make a timeline for a course that will help newcomers to go through everything gradually.

Giving them a pdf file or video tutorial does not ensure they will understand how to make the most of this power.Tools, trial assignments and feedback are the most important segments of an efficient plan to harness unwritten company knowledge. 

In the meantime, it would be good to review the materials and include performance reviews from your staff.

This can be done in person through meetings, or if there's some corporate tension, people should have the opportunity to express their opinion in a way that feels the most comfortable to them.

It might be an anonymous box where everyone should provide a printed summary of their impressions on monthly, quarterly, or weekly performances. 

Final thoughts on tribal knowledge

Introducing the concept of tribal knowledge to a young company may sound like something from a creative workshop and seem like it has no factual value.

However, when you consider the importance of work culture overall and how information among people goes well beyond corporate talk, it is safe to say that there can be a significant portion of the information that companies can use to enhance their performance

There is a plethora of methods and frames tribal culture can be harnessed, as well as how it can impact a company.

Taking the first steps and introducing this concept to your HR, team leads, or all of your workers will show initiative. The best way to implement these strategies is to start by finding common ground with familiar aspects. Using the support of the entire staff, especially for small companies, can be fruitful as everyone involved can add his bit and have that sense of validation in the workplace. 

Author Bio

Alladdine Djaidani is an internet marketer and founder of Hustler Ethos. He likes to help companies rank on google and drive growth without breaking the bank.
Alladdine Djaidani is an internet marketer and founder of Hustler Ethos. He likes to help companies rank on google and drive growth without breaking the bank.

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