What is tribal knowledge and how to capture it?

senior manufacturing worker sharing expertise

Tribal knowledge has the power to benefit your operations just as much as sabotage them. You might wonder how the organization should manage it. Should they capture it or try to get rid of it completely?

What is tribal knowledge?

The term tribal knowledge, or tacit knowledge, depicts information, experiences, and skills about operational processes that remain undocumented and vastly inaccessible within the organization. By the definition, it is possessed by an individual or a group and often transfers via word of mouth – not through official communication channels.

An example of tribal knowledge would be a senior technician that has been with a company for fifteen years. During that time, he has collected various nuances about the organization itself and their field of work. It is the guy that knows that specific equipment operates differently in winter and summer or is the only one trained to carry out corrective maintenance when a machine fails. Great to have him – right?

Tacit vs. explicit knowledge: what is the difference?

In simple terms, there are two forms of knowledge in an organization: tacit (tribal knowledge) and explicit knowledge. To improve your knowledge management, it is crucial to know how the knowledge behaves and the differences between them.

Tacit knowledge

Tacit knowledge is one of the most precious and underappreciated assets an organization can possess.

As mentioned before, tacit knowledge consists of employees’ experiences, skills, and ideas that stem from years of practice. As the holder carries it in their mind and can even be unaware of its potential, it is harder to transfer than explicit knowledge. At a company without proper knowledge management, the only way tacit knowledge is shared is via personal contact and teaching.

Tacit knowledge often remains an untapped source of knowledge. However, when utilized right, it is what keeps organizations afloat even after their senior workers leave.

Explicit knowledge

Explicit knowledge is a codified set of information that has been recognized and recorded. An example would be the objective and technical expertise documented in written documents, guides, and manuals. It is easy to store and share with others.

It is also what you want your tacit knowledge to turn into to reach its full potential.

The essentials of good work instructions

Frontline workers have to spend hours a week searching for information they need for work. Regain the wasted time with concise & clear work instructions.

Is tribal knowledge good or bad?

As a result of learning and continuous improvement, tribal knowledge possesses valuable information that can bring your operations and training processes to the next level. However, it may also present several issues if it’s left unretained.

  • Tribal knowledge is not institutionalized knowledge – You may have procedures written down on paper. However, tribal knowledge does not reflect the official manuals of the company, and workers may operate in a way you’re not aware of. Maybe they found a genius way of cutting production time in half, but in a way, it presents a safety hazard.
  • It may mean your training is inefficient – A lot of practical, tribal knowledge goes undocumented. Failing to capture it results in skills gaps and insufficient training. Furthermore, the fact that employees rely on tribal knowledge may mean that your onboarding processes are inefficient and do not prepare new hires properly for their tasks.
  • It is not shared among everyone – Tribal knowledge comes from personal experience, which means not everyone in the workplace has access to it. Employees depend on the kindness of co-workers – otherwise, they have to figure out job nuances by themselves. This makes onboarding and reskilling processes harder. Not to mention the time spent figuring out something that’s been done before.
  • It is not always correct – Another problem is that, as many things transfer via word of mouth, tribal knowledge doesn’t always have to be accurate. While new ideas are always appreciated, some employees may be, in good faith, performing procedures incorrectly. This may result in inconsistencies and wasted time and resources.
  • When employees leave, the knowledge goes with them – The industry already dealing with skill shortages has been hit by the “silver tsunami”. One-fourth of the manufacturing workforce is 55 or older and ready to retire. So, it couldn’t be a worse time to waste precious knowledge. If there are techniques that only one of your employees is familiar with and you haven’t captured it yet, that’s a disaster waiting to happen.

how to capture tribal knowledge from senior workers

1. Find those with tribal knowledge

It is more likely it will be your senior employees, but it can be anyone with extensive knowledge about their tasks. Maybe there is someone already in your mind, a name that often comes up when troubleshooting.

Data collection and analytics software can also help you find employees with tribal knowledge. The chances are that those with the best performances have some tricks up their sleeves that would be worth capturing.

2. Identify which knowledge to keep and which to toss

As we mentioned before, not every piece of tribal knowledge is correct. Look into your findings and analyze whether it’s benefiting your processes. Find what’s working and get rid of procedures that don’t.

3. Organize and document the knowledge

Who knows the most about your operations than the ones that carry them out? Engage your workers in building your knowledge library. They can write down their daily tasks and specify each step, and you can use their input as a base for SOPs.

Utilize good knowledge management software. The software will address tribal knowledge retention and make the process easier for the workers. It may require some investment initially, but it will pay off later when you are reskilling and training new hires.

Making work instructions more appealing and easier to understand also has its importance. Different media types, such as PDFs and videos, can encourage workers to read and follow standard operating procedures rather than relying solely on tribal knowledge.

4. Encourage knowledge sharing and defy the knowledge gap

Try to find a solution that would enhance knowledge-sharing and collective wisdom in your organization. For example, creating a platform where workers interact with their peers, experts, and management can encourage collaboration.

The ideal type would be a cloud-based platform where documents can be updated in real-time. This way, employees can share their knowledge and ask others for advice. And after they resolve the problem, information can be easily stored and retrieved.

Interested in building your knowledge base? Try resco.Houston!

The knowledge management app resco.Houston will help you keep up with the competition. All your tribal knowledge, guides, manuals, and AR video calls are available in a single app. Empower staff to share expertise in real-time and improve your operations with knowledge at your workers’ fingertips.

 Find out more & book a 30-minute demo here.

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