Tribal Knowledge Problems: Inception, Examples & Solution!

Updated September 11th, 2023
Tribal Knowledge Problems

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The term tribal knowledge originates from ancient tribes where knowledge about survival, cultural practices, or hunting was passed down from generation to generation orally. The problem with tribal knowledge is that it often leads to “knowledge loss, inconsistency, difficulties in onboarding new employees, inefficiency, and scalability issues within organizations.”

In a modern organizational context, tribal knowledge can refer to any knowledge that’s not widely accessible or officially recorded but is crucial for the organization’s operation.

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In this article, we will understand the various aspects of tribal knowledge including its examples, problems and causes. Without further ado, let’s dive in!

Table of contents #

  1. What is tribal knowledge?
  2. Reasons why tribal knowledge is important
  3. Examples of tribal knowledge
  4. How is tribal knowledge created in the workspace? 4 Root causes!
  5. Key problems with tribal knowledge
  6. Making tribal knowledge shared knowledge
  7. Recap: What have we learnt so far?
  8. Related reads

What is tribal knowledge? #

Tribal knowledge is an unstructured and often unspoken form of understanding or information that is shared within a group, community, or organization. It includes everything from best practices and procedures to workarounds and undocumented know-how that members have accumulated over time.

It’s often passed down verbally, or through shared experiences or observation, rather than being formally documented or structured.

Now, let’s understand the importance of tribal knowledge for organizations.

3 Reasons why tribal knowledge is important for your organization #

As businesses strive for innovation, adaptability, and sustainable growth in today’s competitive environment, the recognition of the importance of tribal knowledge has taken center stage. Here are three reasons why:

  1. Efficiency and productivity
  2. Culture and shared understanding
  3. Competitive advantage

Let’s look into each one of them briefly:

1. Efficiency and productivity #

Employees who have been with an organization for a long time might know the quickest ways to accomplish tasks or solve problems based on their experience, which isn’t written in any official guidebook.

2. Culture and shared understanding #

Tribal knowledge helps foster a sense of community and shared understanding within a group or organization. It often encapsulates the ‘way we do things here’ and helps to shape the culture of the organization.

3. Competitive advantage #

In some cases, tribal knowledge can provide a unique competitive advantage. It might include unique insights about the customer, creative approaches to solving problems, or innovative uses of technology that are not widely known outside the organization.

However, while tribal knowledge can be a valuable asset, it also poses some risks. Since it’s not formally documented, it’s susceptible to being lost when people leave the organization. It can also lead to inconsistencies in how work is performed, and make it more difficult for new employees to get up to speed.

What are the examples of tribal knowledge? #

Now, let’s look at some examples of tribal knowledge for gaining a clear understanding of what it actually is.

Here they are:

#1 In a software development company, developers may have specific knowledge about why certain codes were written in a certain way or why certain architectural decisions were made that aren’t documented anywhere.

If these developers leave the company, this crucial knowledge (aka tribal knowledge) may be lost, potentially leading to inefficiencies or mistakes down the line.

#2 In a restaurant, a seasoned chef may know exactly how to prepare a signature dish to perfection without following a written recipe.

This knowledge might include the ideal heat for the stove, the best time to add certain ingredients or the perfect way to present the dish. If the chef leaves without passing on this knowledge (tribal knowledge), the quality of the dish may suffer.

In both cases, capturing tribal knowledge and turning it into formal, shared knowledge can help preserve these invaluable assets for the organization.

How is tribal knowledge created in the workspace? 4 Root casues! #

Tribal knowledge in a workspace is created over time through experiences, interactions, and practices that are not officially documented. It often stems from shared experiences, informal interactions, and problem-solving activities. Here’s how it usually happens:

  1. Experiences and lessons
  2. Problem-solving
  3. Informal interactions
  4. Observation and imitation

Now, let’s understand each cause with an example.

1. Experiences and lessons #

As employees work on projects or tasks, they encounter various situations where they need to find solutions or make decisions. They learn from these experiences, and the lessons they learn become part of the tribal knowledge.

For example, a sales representative who successfully navigates a complex negotiation with a client learns valuable negotiation tactics and strategies that may not be part of the company’s official sales training program.

2. Problem solving #

When employees encounter problems, they often need to find creative solutions. These solutions may not be part of any official procedure or documented in any formal way, but they become part of the shared understanding among employees.

For instance, in a software development team, a developer may come up with a novel workaround to address a recurring software bug that has not been officially addressed yet.

3. Informal interactions #

Much of tribal knowledge is passed on through informal interactions among employees. This can include conversations at the water cooler, chats during lunch breaks, or casual discussions in the office.

For example, during a coffee break, a veteran employee might share an effective time-saving technique with a newer colleague, such as using checklists/frameworks to streamline tasks in a software application.

4. Observation and limitation #

New employees often learn about their roles and responsibilities by observing and imitating more experienced employees. This includes learning about best practices, shortcuts, or workarounds that are not part of the official procedures.

For instance, a junior graphic designer might observe how a senior designer organizes their project files and adopts similar practices to improve their own workflow. This observational learning helps bridge the gap between theoretical knowledge and practical application.

5 Key problems with tribal knowledge #

While tribal knowledge holds immense value, it is not without its challenges and potential drawbacks. Organizations must be aware of these issues to effectively manage and leverage tribal knowledge.

The problems with tribal knowledge are:

  1. Knowledge loss
  2. Inconsistency
  3. Difficulties onboarding new employees
  4. Inefficiency
  5. Scalability issues

Let’s understand each one quickly.

1. Knowledge loss #

When an employee with substantial tribal knowledge leaves an organization, the unique insights, experiences, and understanding they have left with them. This may lead to significant challenges in maintaining certain processes or understanding why certain decisions were made in the past.

Companies can mitigate this risk by encouraging the documentation of important processes and insights.

2. Inconsistency #

Since tribal knowledge is based on personal experience and shared through social interaction, there may be multiple versions or interpretations of the same piece of knowledge within an organization. This can lead to inconsistency in how tasks are performed or how decisions are made.

For example, two teams might approach the same problem in different ways, leading to inefficiencies or conflicts.

3. Difficulties onboarding new employees #

New employees usually go through an orientation or training period where they learn about their role and the organization. If important knowledge is not documented and is instead part of the organization’s tribal knowledge, it can be challenging for new hires to learn everything they need to know.

They may struggle to understand certain processes or the reasoning behind specific procedures, which can extend their training period and slow down their integration into the team.

4. Inefficiency #

Employees might repeatedly encounter and solve the same problems because the solutions aren’t documented and shared. This can lead to wasted time and resources.

Additionally, the lack of a centralized source of knowledge can lead to redundancies and missed opportunities for collaboration.

5. Scalability issues #

As organizations grow, relying on tribal knowledge can become increasingly untenable. It’s much harder to disseminate this type of knowledge to a large number of people, which can create bottlenecks and impede growth.

In light of these problems, many organizations are making efforts to capture and document tribal knowledge to preserve it and make it more widely accessible. This can involve creating formal processes for knowledge sharing, encouraging employees to document their experiences and insights, and using tools like wikis or knowledge management systems to store and share this knowledge.

Making tribal knowledge shared knowledge: How data catalogs can enable it? #

Capturing tribal knowledge is the process of identifying, documenting, and sharing valuable expertise and insights held by specific individuals or small groups within an organization. This knowledge is often informal, undocumented, and difficult to access by others.

By transforming tribal knowledge into shared knowledge, organizations can foster collaboration, improve efficiency, and ensure business continuity. To achieve this, a structured approach is necessary, and utilizing a data catalog can greatly facilitate the process.

So, how to capture tribal knowledge efficiently?

Here’s how: Advent of data catalog #

A data catalog is a workspace that serves as a context, control, collaboration, and action plane integrating your entire data estate, diverse data users, and divergent data use cases. Here’s how a data catalog can aid in capturing tribal knowledge:

  1. Centralized knowledge repository

A data catalog provides a centralized repository to store documented tribal knowledge. This repository acts as a single source of truth, making it easier for employees to access and contribute to the knowledge pool.

The catalog’s organized structure allows for quick and efficient retrieval of information.

  1. Metadata management

The data catalog enables organizations to add metadata, such as tags, categories, and descriptions, to each piece of documented knowledge.

This metadata helps in indexing and categorizing the knowledge, making it more discoverable and understandable for users.

  1. Search and discovery

With a data catalog’s advanced search capabilities, employees can quickly find relevant tribal knowledge.

The catalog’s search function allows users to use keywords and filters to narrow down their search, saving time and effort in locating specific information.

  1. Collaboration and contribution

Data catalogs promote collaboration by allowing multiple users to contribute to the knowledge repository.

Employees can add their insights, experiences, and expertise, ensuring that the tribal knowledge is continuously updated and enriched by collective contributions.

  1. Version control and audit trails

Data catalogs often come with version control features and audit trails. This ensures that changes to the documented knowledge are tracked, and previous versions can be accessed if needed.

It adds a layer of security and accountability to the knowledge management process.

  1. Integration with existing systems

Data catalogs can integrate with other organizational systems, such as project management tools, databases, and analytics platforms.

This integration allows for seamless access to knowledge, connecting data points and providing a comprehensive understanding of the information.

  1. Onboarding and training support

When new employees join the organization, the data catalog serves as an invaluable resource during onboarding and training.

It offers a structured way for new hires to access essential knowledge, best practices, and insights, helping them become productive more quickly.

  1. Continuous improvement

As the organization evolves, the data catalog facilitates ongoing improvement of the shared knowledge.

By monitoring usage patterns, identifying knowledge gaps, and receiving user feedback, organizations can ensure that the knowledge repository remains up-to-date and relevant.

In short, capturing tribal knowledge is a vital step toward harnessing the collective intelligence of an organization. Utilizing a data catalog streamlines the process, making it easier to document, organize, and share tribal knowledge.

With enhanced accessibility and collaboration, the organization can cultivate a culture of knowledge-sharing and empower its workforce with the expertise needed to thrive in a rapidly changing business landscape.

Recap: What have we learnt so far? #

While tribal knowledge promotes efficiency, productivity, and a unique organizational culture, it also presents challenges, such as knowledge loss, inconsistency, and difficulties in onboarding new employees.

To address these issues and leverage the potential of tribal knowledge, organizations are adopting structured approaches to capture and transform it into shared knowledge. Data catalogs have emerged as invaluable tools in this endeavor.

By offering a centralized knowledge repository, supporting metadata management, and enabling powerful search and discovery capabilities, data catalogs streamline the process of documenting and organizing tribal knowledge.

Bottom line: Through the advent of data catalogs, organizations can unlock the hidden potential of tribal knowledge and propel themselves toward a future of collective intelligence and growth.

Are you looking for a data catalog for your organization — you might want to check out Atlan. You won’t regret checking it out!

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