The Human Element: Why Tribal Knowledge Matters

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As defined by iSixSigma:

“Tribal knowledge is any unwritten information that is not commonly known by others within a company. This term is used most when referencing information that may need to be known by others in order to produce quality product or service.”

Organizations across the country, and across the world, are wrestling with ‘grey out’ as their skilled workers are retiring and taking valuable tribal knowledge with them. In fact, According to Statistics Canada, our population is aging extremely rapidly with Canadians over the age of 65  now outnumbering those who are under the age of 15. Valuable procedural and equipment knowledge, known only to workers on the last tactical mile, is at risk due to a lack of tools capable of capturing, analyzing, and sharing this data.

Lansdowne Stadium in Ottawa, Ontario is a prime example of how the loss of tribal knowledge could impact an organization. Since the mid-1970s, the stadium has employed the services of Hughes, who maintains the playing surfaces including the arena ice and Astroturf. Through more than 40 years of experience, Hughes has become the defacto expert in practically every system and process. He knows every inch of the property, every piece of machinery, and every procedural idiosyncrasy. His experience is vast, and yet when he retires his knowledge will go with him. There are no systems in place to capture what he knows, or to impart his expertise on to other members of the organization.

Ultimately the loss of this critical enterprise knowledge can have far-reaching effects, especially for industries that experience frequent turnaround in their technical staff or operate complex legacy machinery. Conversely,

when properly captured and managed, tribal knowledge can bring significant value to an organization.

For example, it can translate into lower maintenance and repair costs as troubleshooting and know-how is made available to the wider workforce. It can also manifest in the form of lower training costs as knowledge stores, such as equipment manuals and training documentation, are being garnished with the front-line knowledge of veteran skilled workers. And, finally, employee morale and retention can be positively affected by learning from the experiences of like-minded workers. The transferal of human knowledge instills a sense of community and reverence which textbook knowledge does not.

Though the issue of capturing tribal knowledge is no small matter, there are 5 steps we recommend when pursuing this initiative:

  1. Identify the experts: In every organization, there are those who possess a greater degree of knowledge than those around them. This can be due to experience, training, competency, or other factors. These individuals are invaluable and should be identified as such.
  2. Identify the pain points: Determine which systems, procedures, or operations are most threatened by the loss of tribal knowledge.
  3. Capture: Establish systems that allow for the automated capture of knowledge from the previously identified experts and pain points. These systems need to be intuitive and non-disruptive to a user’s workflow in order to maximize effectiveness.
  4. Spread: Once captured, digitized tribal knowledge must be accessible by the wider organization from a central repository. Knowledge is tribal only if it shared with the tribe.
  5. Maintain: Like all things, this captured knowledge requires upkeep. Procedures change, equipment is modified, idiosyncrasies morph. These changes must be reflected in the central repository.

Implementing an enterprise-wide system for capturing tribal knowledge is of critical importance. And although the blue collar industrial workforce is rapidly approaching retirement, there is still time to entrench systems that will capture these critical points of knowledge and disseminate them amongst the next generation of workers. Tribal knowledge need not be lost to time.