Clear and effective communication helps businesses achieve efficiency and accuracy in both internal and external operations. As such, it is imperative to identify barriers and find solutions for having better communication and knowledge transfer. An important obstacle to knowledge transfer and overall Enterprise Operations is Tribal Knowledge.
Tribal Knowledge is defined as information known to an organization that has not been documented or is not shared outside of a silo.(Tribal Knowledge) Because this information is not properly documented it cannot be effectively communicated to other people and silos within the enterprise, creating hindrance in everyday work. For example, there are usually experienced individuals in all companies that have expertise in certain subject matters and they are the “go-to person” when issues arise. In the absence of these individuals, businesses face many challenges in completing their tasks. This is only one of many aspects in which tribal knowledge is a disadvantage.
Companies have much to gain from combating tribal knowledge, from optimal New Hire Training to reducing redundant enterprise operations. If experiences and observations from veteran employees of the company in regards to practices from previous management were documented in a venue known as a “single source of truth”, operational managers would have a level of operational transparency over their projects, reducing failed work, and reducing redundant work. This can save management time and resources on projects that are known to fail or have a low ROI. Combating Tribal knowledge is also beneficial for training new employees. If key processes, reasonings, and methods of conduct that experienced employees have developed were to be discovered and documented, newly hired employees would be able to practice them and improve their skills instead of learning by trial and error. (Collins)
Often cross-functional teams and business units develop a silo mentality and tend to withhold information and communication from their counterparts. This type of Tribal Knowledge negatively impacts the projects these groups are working on and the company as a whole. In the first instance, withholding information from others working on the same project prevents efficiency and progress. In the second instance, it diminishes the feeling of unity and replaces the common organizational goal with group and silo focused goals that are not aligned with each other. (Dowling)[MZ1]
There are some myths and misconceptions that favor the idea of Tribal knowledge. Often, experienced employees who have spent years with the company may unjustly fear that sharing their expertise and knowledge will render them replaceable and as a result, tend to withhold information.(Wortman) As in the previous example, the first step to solving Tribal Knowledge is sometimes not a technical issue, but a psychological and ideological issue that can be addressed through “Occupational Change Management” (aka OCM).
With tenure at positions becoming shorter and shorter, and with more and more veteran employees retiring, combating tribal knowledge has evolved from being a benefit and a core competence to a threat to the life line of companies that are apathetic towards the subject.
Collins, Michael. “A Strategy to Capture Tribal Knowledge | IndustryWeek.” Industry Week, 23 May 2016, www.industryweek.com/talent/recruiting-retention/article/22007278/a-strategy-to-capture-tribal-knowledge.
Dowling, Daniel. “Tribal Knowledge: Why It Matters and How to Preserve It.” Medium, The Executive Brief, 17 Mar. 2017, medium.com/the-zecutiv-brief/tribal-knowledge-why-it-matters-and-how-to-preserve-it-3b2461138add.
Tribal Knowledge. BusinessDictionary.com. WebFinance, Inc. June 01, 2020 <http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/tribal-knowledge.html>.
Wortman, Joanne. “Tribal Knowledge Is a Risk in Your Organization.” Workflow Management Software by Integrify, 17 Jan. 2017, www.integrify.com/blog/posts/business-risk-hidden-pockets-tribal-knowledge/.