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Vishwadeep Khatri

Tribal Knowledge

Tribal Knowledge


Tribal Knowledge - as the name suggests, it is the information known within the tribe but not outside of it. In a corporate set up, it is the information that is known to a certain group of people and is NOT known to the others in the organization. Tribal knowledge is either gained over time or is verbally passed on from one person to another and might be important to the production of a product or performance of a service. It is usually not documented and hence there is a risk of this knowledge getting lost if the people who possess it choose to move out of the organization.



An application oriented question on the topic along with responses can be seen below. The best answer was provided by Venugopal R on 29th October 2017. 




What are the methods for unlocking, capturing and harnessing “Tribal Knowledge”? How much importance should one attribute to this endeavour? 


Note for website visitors - Two questions are asked every week on this platform. One on Tuesday and the other on Friday.

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About ‘Tribal Knowledge’

In the Business World, Tribal Knowledge refers to certain information that is restricted to the minds of certain people in an organization. Unfortunately, such information has not been documented and thus not known by many others, whereas such information may be very important for the successful business outcomes, say, Delivery, Service and Quality.

I remember one of my leaders once saying “Much of what we have can be built by someone else, be it our buildings, our machinery, our technology, our process and so on. But what would be most difficult to replicate is what goes on in the minds of our employees; the knowledge, the unique set of skills, experiences and the organization culture”. This clearly addresses the importance that has to be attached to the experience of a workforce in the organization, that is built over the years.

It is very important to continually attract fresh and younger talent in an organization. However, instilling a culture that will foster a healthy collaboration amongst the fresh resources, experienced resources within the organization and experienced resources who have joined from other organizations.


Unlocking, Capturing and Harnessing ‘Tribal knowledge’

For various reasons, Tribal knowledge prevails in any established organization, despite the best efforts of documented systems. Some thoughts on Unlocking, capturing and harnessing tribal knowledge are as below:


1.      Has to be an ongoing activity:

Many a time the need for specialized knowledge will be felt when the concerned individual is not available or has decided to leave the organization.  The scramble for knowledge transfer or desperate attempts to retain the individual are not uncommon. It is important to take stock of ‘Tribal knowledge’ from time to time in all areas of the organization, and proactively get them addressed.


2.      Identify the pockets of such knowledge:

Some of the typical areas where we may have such confined knowledge are Technology, Customer relations, Quality, Maintenance etc.


Software applications developed and maintained for years would have undergone several revisions and modifications and would have resulted in a complex set of coding that may be difficult to decipher for a new engineer. Very often any change attempted on such codes result in unwanted adverse results that could trigger Quality and delivery issues. 


Customer relations would have long term experience and rapport established with specific individuals with the customer, all of which are difficult to transfer as knowledge.


Maintenance folks would have attended to numerous problems and helped to restore equipment to avoid downtime and production loss. At time of emergency, everyone would have been anxious to get the production up and running and the discipline of maintaining detailed documentation might not attained the priority. This results in the growth of ‘tribal knowledge’ with the maintenance staff.


Areas like Finance and cost accounting are usually covered by robust documentation, internal and external audits, which help to keep them at relatively higher transparency levels.

However, these ‘knowledge pockets’ would vary from organization to organization and need to assessed periodically.


3.      Map such knowledge pockets with the individuals who hold them

The question “what could get impacted if this person quits the organization?”.. Needs to be asked for all employees, especially those with longer tenure. Once the knowledge reserves are associated with the individuals, we will be in a position to work on them before it is too late.


4.      Examine whether the ‘Tribal Knowledge’ accumulation was unintentional or intentional?

Each case of the ‘knowledge pockets’ identified need to be examined to understand whether it is intentionally being created or not. Over time, employees holding on to specialized knowledge could be an effect of insecure feeling. The possession of such knowledge or skill makes them critical in the organization and could lead to tendencies of confining such knowledge.


However, in many other situations the ‘tribal knowledge’ accumulation would not be intentional and could have been the result of lack of organizational systems and planning.

In the latter case, once the organization decides on a knowledge transfer program, we would not have any ‘will’ issue to be tackled.


5.      Decide upon pro-active knowledge sharing programs:

Functions like HR, Training, TQM along with concerned functional leaders need to embark on a time targeted program to continually convert the confined knowledge to organizational knowledge.


Some of the stratification that may be done are:

  • Number of employees nearing retirement age in near future - assess potential tribal knowledge residing in them
  • Employees whose critical knowledge could be tempting for competitors to lure them
  • Possessors of knowledge that prove critical in times of an emergency
  • Other knowledge pockets that are important but may not be as urgent as the ones above.


This will help in setting the priorities for the Knowledge sharing / transfer program.


6.      Knowledge conversion – Execution

  • Retirement employees – Plan for retention / extension of retiring employees with required knowledge. Some of them may welcome such extension and could even work out flexible working arrangement to suit mutual convenience.
  • If the retired employee extension is not workable, explore the possibility of hiring them on contract basis for providing the knowledge transfer.
  • For knowledge intensive processes, introduce ‘buddy system’ where such jobs will be performed by 2 or more employees together to ensure larger spread of knowledge and skills.
  • Where the ‘tribal knowledge’ dependency is for process or technology applications that are due for updating, institute program for replacing them with newer applications that will not only be more updated but also be better supported for service.
  • Leverage systems like ISO 9001 and other Quality Management systems where adequate multi-tier documentation is mandated and subjected to periodic internal / external audits.
  • Procedures, methods and technologies could be documented to a large extent, but ‘skill’ is something, where documentation is necessary, but may not be sufficient. For this, many of the human related actions discussed above will have to be performed pro-actively on an on-going basis.


7.      Importance for harnessing and preserving ‘Tribal Knowledge’

Knowledge, tacit or explicit, has to be considered as a treasure for the organization. Adequate management attention and priority has to be allocated for ensuring on-going capture, harnessing and preserving this knowledge in the organization.


This activity should be included as part of the annual budget exercise and reasonable funds allocated. It is sure to pay back and more important, control and prevent erosion of the knowledge treasure.

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Tribal Knowledge is something almost all of us have been practising in our homes and families for many generations. How often have we heard our relations and friends appreciate one particular dish of our mother and enjoyed seeing her blush when the guests proclaim that this is the best version of that dish they have ever tasted in their lives? Once this tribal knowledge is identified, there would be almost a competition amongst the daughters or daughters-in-law or even others to be the first person to learn this secret knowledge from the mother. Even after learning this, applying this acquired knowledge to create that dish would still remain tough, but half the battle is won if this knowledge is obtained. This knowledge may not be available in documents or procedures.


In a commercial organisation, this tribal knowledge has a lot of value due to its intrinsic trouble-shooting, problem-solving, customer-delighting potential. Some staff by their sheer involvement and passion in their profession and past experience pick up small, subtle yet impactful tit bits or nuggets of information about their work, perhaps about a customer, a machine, a tool, a transaction, a process, a drawing, a person or certain work situations that often turns out to be the missing piece of a complex jigsaw or the icing on a solution cake that multiplies its effectiveness multi-fold or the key to solving a problem that has flummoxed all known SMEs. Now the immediate need of the moment is fulfilled by using this tribal knowledge, but what would happen if another problem, be it same or similar turns up after an uncomfortable time gap that is just long enough for people to forget how the situation was tackled the last time it happened, if anyone even remembered, that it ever happened before.


This is exactly why this Tribal Knowledge otherwise known by various other terms including but restricted to Residual Knowledge or Tacit Knowledge or Hidden Knowledge, needs to be diligently identified, unlocked for sharing with all concerned, captured for posterity and harnessed for maximising organisational benefit from the Tribal Knowledge. This is never an easy task and cannot be achieved by any knee jerk reactions to a problem that was found difficult to solve till someone shared his or her knowledge. Knowledge Management (KM) as a larger subject includes managing Tribal Knowledge and should be part of the organisational strategy. For successful Tribal Knowledge Management, the focus should be on “De-Tribalizing” the Tribal Knowledge. In other words, the organisation should aim to bring as much as possible of this knowledge into the open and retain the knowledge by digitising and documenting the same in an easily understandable manner, train others on this and use it wherever required thereby developing enough additional experts who could even improve further on what they have learnt. The following are some of the steps that could be followed for unlocking, capturing and harnessing Tribal Knowledge.


Sr. No.


To be done



· Process Framework for Knowledge Management to be implemented and followed



· Governance structure to be implemented with an organisational Knowledge Management (KM) Steering Committee and a Budget for KM



· Quarterly meetings of the Steering Committee to appreciate achievements and guide problem resolution



· Tribal Knowledge Management Working Groups to be formed



· Monthly Meetings of Working Groups to review achievements and resolve problems



· Creation of Forums for sharing Tribal Knowledge – KM Blogs, KM Mail Box, KM Newsletter, KM Portals etc.



· Creation of an SOP for KM including Tribal KM

· If required, customisation of SOPs for different Verticals and Horizontals



· Identification of different groups of high potential contributors – Senior Associates, Quality Auditors, Quiet Achievers not ready for Service Delivery jobs like People Management, Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) not interested in routine production jobs and so on and encouraging them to be more forthcoming in sharing their Tribal Knowledge



· Institution of a Rewards and Recognition (R&R) Scheme for contributions to KM

· Making contributions to KM and TKM one of the criteria for performance awards like Employee of the Week, Month, Quarter, Half-year, Year etc. and also for half-yearly and annual performance appraisals



· Awareness sessions on KM and Tribal KM for all staff in the organisation

· KM Session to be included in the Induction program for new recruits



· Appointment of a Committee within each Vertical or Domain to quickly validate the contributions to the various forums, examine them for sensibility, correctness, fitness to post etc. and then post them on the KM Forums

· Periodic Review of the KM Committee’s (KMC) performance by the Vertical Head



· KMC to open up the posted Tribal Knowledge for comments and blogging by others who can agree, disagree or further fine tune the post



· KMC to make a selection from various Tribal KM posts with some weight given to the blog comments and trigger modification of the formal process documentation like SOPs, Specification References, How-To-Guides (HTGs), Operation Manuals, User Manuals, “Tips and Traps”, FAQs, Ready Reckoners and so on

· Where relevant, the changes need to be validated by the customer before inclusion in the documentation

· Now some of the Tribal Knowledge has been made Common knowledge



· KM R & R to be implemented and awardees to be given due publicity

· Rewards can be given away at the Floor level, at the Vertical KM Working Group level or at the Organisational KM Steering Committee level depending on the contribution and the award



· When there is a problem effectively solved or an exceptional performance done or a crisis avoided, the key resource can be encouraged to contribute to the KM Forums



· Whenever there is a Delivery or Quality issue or a Customer Complaint, the lessons learnt from the same can be also added to the formal documentation


 Duration of KM Forums, Schemes etc.:

The creation and documentation of Tribal Knowledge is at a peak for approximately 12-18 months after the beginning of a transition or project or a new product, after which a steady state is reached and the rate of contributions start tapering off. The focus can then shift to relatively newer projects or products. However, if there is a disruptive event in a long-running project like a spell of heavy attrition, leading to a lot of newcomers on the floor at the same time, or a change of technology platform, or change of customer specifications etc. there could be a flurry of KM activities, which will further improve performance.

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Tribal Knowledge refers to the knowledge that is held individually by people within the company. It is knowledge gained by the employees during the course of their work which is within the minds of a few experienced employees and is not documented anywhere. Such knowledge can be useful or sometimes might be detrimental to the company, Since the knowledge is held within the minds of people, there is great risk of losing vital knowledge once such employees leave the company. It is considered detrimental to the long term sustainable growth of the company.


Primary reasons for employees keeping the gained knowledge to themselves can be:

1. Sense of insecurity - fear of losing losing their job if others also know what they know

2. Ego/ pride of Employees - who feel that they will gain importance if they have more knowledge

3. Corporate apathy - Companies not interested in institutionalizing knowledge of their people


Few of methods to capture tribal knowledge:

1. Identify the knowlegde

2. Identify the people who are good or are holding such tribal knowledge. Such people would be mostly the people who have been with the organisation for a long time.

3. Develop training programmes - Appoint such knowledge champions as trainers for new employees. There can be even cross departmental training programs. This will force knowledge champions to make presentations to train others. This will result in documenting the tribal knowledge which can be transferred across generations


Tribal knowledge is like the knowledge acquired by our Dada's and Dadi's from their Dada's and Dadi's and it is held in their minds and not documented. Some of it can be baseless and not useful. However. some of it can be very useful. Like we learn from our Dada and Dadi by listening to them through stories, organisations should develop an ecosystem wherein the young employees interact and engage freely with the senior employees to transfer such tribal knowledge. 


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Tribal knowledge:

Any information or knowledge that is not in the written form and is in the minds and memories of the person is known as tribal knowledge.


According to me this is also a very precious form of knowledge or information. It is based on ones experience, ones emotional quotient and subconscious intelligence. It is also connected to ones imagination power. Ones power of assumptions.


TK is very important for delivering a successful product or service. 


It is very crucial to understand that most of the powerful knowledge is not documented fully. Naturally all that a human being thinks of cannot be documented as the thinking process can happen anywhere anytime. 


Idea generation could be most successful if the tribal knowledge being extracted. 


This one must be attributed to the best possible level. 

Quite often the people with introvert nature may not be expressing neither in document nor in discussions. TK in this case is most important to think of.

TK cannot also be extracted if a person having this is not motivated or involved. 



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Tribal knowledge is the collective knowledge of the organisation contained within the context and boundaries of the various department,  Business units, teams,  projects.  Tribal knowledge is rich and useful we need to know how we can capture,  unlock an d transform it as a useful knowledge in reality rather than within the groups.  We make groups,  teams,  department as per our expertise level and together we collaborate to develop initiatives,  oversee programs and complete our projects.  For unlocking and catering g we need to gather information and knowledge,  we should have sharing nature of knowledge.  So the knowledge developed within these tribes typically transmitted by those with the deepest domain expertise through conversation,  demonstrations and learned over a period of time called experience.  Some time it may be rightfully information that is very classified information not to share outside company or enterprise. Organisations have gatherer too as we used to same in ancient times for hunting and information gathering.  Those gatherer for information knowledge can be analytical,  individual with responsibility who either do proactively understand the role of connecting and various departments or units or in other words various tribes. 

A shared desire of an individual is another key to achieve a state of operational alignment.  A vision of an orderly system that encompasses effective efficient management of information and cross organizational behaviour that forms a comprehensive method to gather the knowledge and information then a process to examine best practices clarify informational needs develop new modes of activity. 

First we need to know the deep understanding of organisation nature in which direction it operates then we can realise important insights into how much gathering of Information is conducted and how best to go about evolving it.  For this we need to endorse executive leadership to share and to gather information from someone who belongs to another department or tribe.  Then we need an influencing plan to implement there and to make understand the people surrounding by you. 

For launching a new car model in a car Manufacturing company there are different departments,  project teams,  units who are taking care of development,  according to their expertise level and level of understanding.  They also have a common meeting share their findings,  problems they are facing to each other so that they can make a new car without any hassle.  There are some designer who designed the car but In reality how it will go,  what are the problems that shop floor people facing they also need to know for further improvements in future.  So some information documented but some have without documents which needs to share while implementation and sharing in teams for better results towards a common goal. 

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Tribal knowledge in unwritten information about a company, which is commonly known by company. Tribal knowledge can also be related to innate skill that the work force hold. There should be conscious effort to enhance the company working model with these tribal knowledge aspects, by which this undocumented gap is kept to minimal. Strong training programs will help bridge the knowledge gap between older workforce that hold tribal knowledge and the fresh work force that is building future of the company. It’s important to identify the key personnel from experienced work force and also identify the key knowledge that need to be shared across with new work force. Center Of Excellence focusing on key Tribal knowledge area would be a good idea. Management need to accept the importance of the tribal knowledge and invest time of the company work force to nurture it.

Since Tribal knowledge has influence on the quality of the deliverables of the company, it’s very important to focus on harnessing this. To make sure all other effort for improvement achieves its intended objective, it’s important to harness tribal knowledge to contribute in this direction.

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In most companies, there is a large amount of knowledge about products, customers, and processes that are only known by certain employees. This information is called tribal knowledge and it is a problem that many companies are either unaware of or unconcerned about.

“Tribal knowledge” is a term that refers to any information that is not widely known by other employees within a company. It is not documented and exists only in the minds of certain people. It is often information that is used in reference to producing a product or service and it is a big problem in rapidly growing companies.

The problem with tribal knowledge is that if information only exists in the minds a few people then it may as well not exist at all. If you have one long-term employee who is the only person who knows how to do a lot of things, what happens when that person leaves?

If the information isn’t documented then no one knows about it. And if no one but a few people knows about it, then it may as well not exist at all. Tribal knowledge is a barrier to sustainable, long-term growth so capturing it should be your company’s highest priority.



Every company is comprised of different departments or teams that have their own methods for accomplishing certain tasks. Over the years, these employees will develop their own knowledge and insights into different processes.

This tribal knowledge can be an asset to your company in many ways. Obviously, you want employees who are knowledgeable and just know how to do their jobs effectively. But the problem comes in when companies develop an over-reliance on certain employees. Here are the biggest problems with tribal knowledge:


· When employees leave, they take this tribal knowledge with them

Every Year there are certain group of People who turns 65 and move even closer to retirement. And when they retire, they take all the knowledge they have learned over the years with them. Ironically, even though these are the most experienced and knowledgeable employees in the company, most of the company doesn't value the way they value new employees.

There is a lot of useful tribal knowledge but just as often, tribal knowledge is incorrect. This becomes problematic when newer employees are incorrectly trained by long-term employees. If certain software or equipment is used inaccurately then this can pose serious risks to the product, service, or the safety of employees.


· Tribal knowledge can be an excuse to avoid automation

Even today, many businesses are still very averse to the idea of automation and still rely on time-consuming manual processes. If management is not interested in using automation to improve the quality and speed of their processes then the problem of tribal knowledge will usually persist.


· Employees can hoard information for job security

Occasionally, certain employees will either intentionally or unintentionally put themselves in the position of being the only person who knows how to fix a problem or perform a task. This tribal knowledge gives them job security because they put themselves in the position of being indispensable to the company.



A company already which has a formal employee training plan in place where you explain basic job functions. And you most likely have an employee handbook that explains your company’s policies and procedures. But what about the information that exists only in the minds of certain employees? What would happen if that information were to suddenly disappear?

Often, tribal knowledge is passed down by word of mouth and while this can work for a little while, it is not a sustainable process for retaining important company information. Here are four ways you can begin to capture tribal knowledge:

· Identify and utilize the most knowledgeable employees

To begin, you should identify the employees with the most knowledge about your services or products. Certain employees will have knowledge, tips, and tricks about your company that no one else has access to. These employees are invaluable to your company and capturing this knowledge should be a high priority.


· Identify the available tribal knowledge

As we have already identified, some of the tribal knowledge you will want to hang onto and some you won’t. Identify the knowledge available in different departments or teams and look at what is working and what isn’t.


· Document the knowledge you want to keep

If you can’t document the available information, then you won’t be able to successfully train your newest employees. Commit to documenting the knowledge you want to retain for training purposes. However, be aware that this could be a lengthy process.


· Confront the knowledge gap

You need to minimize the knowledge gap between the more experienced employees and the newer employees. A lot of the tribal knowledge will be training resources that can help your newer employees be more efficient and knowledgeable about their job.



Tribal knowledge is information that is known by certain individuals or groups of individuals within a company but it is undocumented and is not common knowledge to everyone. It often involves processes that contribute significantly to the quality of a product or service.

While it’s something present in most companies, it can be a major threat. Every manager wants knowledgeable employees who they just “get it” and don’t need any hand-holding. However, what happens if those people were to leave? If certain key employees were to leave the company, they would take that knowledge with them.

Tribal knowledge is often created unintentionally and is common in most organizations. Companies must be diligent about capturing this information and making it readily available to all employees.



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Tribal Knowledge base is a 'commodity' for any organization and is typically known to unit heads/ project managers or even to HR people. However, there is a lenient approach towards unlocking such knowledge base, out of the fear that, the resources involved might leave the organization or will ask for a compensation, if s/he becomes aware of his knowledge. However there are many ways by which this knowledge can be unlocked. Listing out some below:

Documentation of all the activities effectively

per my experience, documentation typically evolves over a period of time according to the user inputs  and it helps capture the tribal knowledge, when someone checks the process capability through Audit/ Assessment etc. smaller details that may have been missed during documenting process, get exposed during such exercise. However this is a time consuming process and involves efforts

Testing training material/ new products through the most seasoned/ experienced employees

this shall be done religiously since this really helps get insights to the problems/ challenges that a product/ service might face. Typically, the hands-on experience/ knowledge come handy since many operational aspect/ elements do not get exposed, or even considered at planning / testing phase. Seasoned professionals typically show a tendency of criticizing the new product/ service, out of which they typically give insightful recommendations – of course in the form of critical comments. Another typical reaction is they are very excited to see the new development, since they find it useful for effort reduction. & they suggest improvements. In both cases, the ‘Tribal Knowledge” is utilized. I myself have used this technique effectively and extensively in multiple change management initiatives


Using experienced professionals in induction training or functional training programs. Certain employees know the job too well and typically knows tips and tricks about organization that no one else know. These employees can get the things done easily and faster. By identifying such employees for training purpose, Organization as well as new employees gains out of their experience. Another byproduct is, through training programs, camaraderie is build between trainer and trainees, through which an organization stands to gain, since after the session, the participants directly approach the trainer in an informal setup, which further helps transfer knowledge.

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Tribal knowledge is unwritten information or knowledge that is known within a tribe or a group of people but not commonly known to others within the organization. It is required in order to produce quality product or service. It is the collective knowledge and capabilities of people in the organization and can be converted into company property but the fact is that management actions, organization structure and processes used are in direct conflict with this six sigma process step as free information flow is discouraged. Knowledge held by this tribe is considered to be factual and there is no known data or analysis to verify the facts. It is not documented and hence exists only in the minds of certain people. Organizations face challenge in the following ways

·         When employees leave, they take this tribal knowledge with them-. When new employees are not correctly trained by long-term employees this may create serious risks to the product, service or the safety of employees as certain software or equipment may not be correctly used.

·         Tribal knowledge can be an excuse to avoid automation- Businesses or Management that are averse to the idea of automation and rely solely on time-consuming manual processes.

·         Employees can hoard information for job security- Many a times employees either intentionally or unintentionally put themselves in the position of being the only people who knows how to fix a problem or perform a task to ensure job security and be indispensable.

Tribal Knowledge can be captured in the following ways

·         Identify and utilize the most knowledgeable employees- Knowledgeable employees are invaluable and focus should be high on capturing this knowledge.

·         Identify the available tribal knowledge- Identify the knowledge available in different departments or teams and look at what is working and what isn’t.

·         Document the knowledge you want to keep- Document the knowledge that is to be retained to be able to successfully train your newest employees.

·         Confront the knowledge gap-Train new employees to minimize the knowledge gap between the more experienced employees and the newer employees so that new employees are more efficient and knowledgeable about their job.

Tribal knowledge is often created unintentionally and is common in most organizations. Companies must be diligent in capturing this information and making it readily available to all employees through proper Training. It may not only be essential to the production of a product or performance of a service but it may also be counterintuitive to the process. For example if 3 chefs  prepare the same dish each with some degree of variability and the hotel owner wanted to recreate the dish of 1 chef on a continual basis he would have to totally rely on that chef unless the procedure to create the dish is well documented. Another example could be a product line was re-started after being down for two years but the original operators had to be re-hired in order to produce product that worked.

 A system for training built on technology will go a long way in ensuring that every employee has the same understanding and help in keeping the workplace unified and safe as it should be.

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Tribal Knowledge is an unwritten information that is not commonly known by others in the organization.



Shared desire to achieve state of operational alignment

An effective and efficient management of information

Cross functional organizational behaviors that form cohesive and comprehensive methodology

Clarify information needs and develop models for information and activity flow.

Identify integrated set of collaboration tools.

To gain a deep understanding of the organization's nature domain.



The purpose of capturing tribal knowledge is to raise awareness of the problem, symptoms, it's causes and outline of a solution.

To outline a problem a problem statement is generated and 





     a. Minimize the knowledge gap between the old employee and the new employee of the organization.

     b. Benefits the new employees by updating the knowledge and make them more efficient.



Harnessing tribal knowledge:


Incorporating concepts in context to issue from knowledge support centers.


Segregate critical data from massive volume of information data.


To put forward logical frameworks in place.


Mastered the collection

Segmentation and storage of critical data.

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Tribal knowledge is any unwritten information that is not commonly known by others within a company. Those information are handed down generation to generation without any documentation. This type of knowledge can be realistic but there are no data for backup. A company/organization that is working on continuous improvement, tribal knowledge plays a very important role.

We need to make a system, through which people having this tribal knowledge can give their ideas and help in solving complex issues.

We can make those people in Kaizen teams/project team as a key member of team, but at the same time we need to be cautious because people with tribal knowledge are the ones that gives most resistance to any change. To convince them with supporting data and explain them that tribal knowledge has to be supported along with data.

When their mind set changes , and they are aligned to company goals and priorities, process of continuous improvement will flourish in that organization.

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Tribal Knowledge

It is about knowledge on products, customers, processes known only to a selective group or department or some individuals (employees) within a company.  It is kind of information that could have been passed or being passed across some people in a department /group/ company, without being passed to other teams/individuals, from time to time.


These sort of information will not be documented anywhere and rely more, on word of mouth.  The disadvantage is that critical information could be lost just like that, as there is no documented record or placeholder to store that and that can affect the product of quality of the service provided thereby leading even to customer dissatisfaction.


Merits and Demerits of Tribal Knowledge









An individual/team can have useful information on process /products/customer which can help at the right time to other teams or to product/service delivery

Only a selective few or individuals or team might have critical information and this may impact productivity or quality of the product/service.



If the SME/relevant individual is not available (and hence knowledge is withheld inadvertently or purposefully) say during a critical time /needed time , there could be a serious repercussion in terms of customer escalation  or business impact



Crucial information would be lost in the air , because no written documentation would be available , in general



Storage of Information depends on the individual’s memory of things. If he/she forgets a particular item/step, then it can be  deemed to be lost, probably for ever


Primary Sources for Tribal knowledge

1.There could be a confidential data pertaining only to few departments or individuals. Any

   additional knowledge related to that may hence be locked with that group and which could be


2.When a key employee resigns , the knowledge that he/she possessed can go away with the


3.Some highly experienced staffs may not share their way of doing things to others


Unlocking the Tribal Knowledge
How can we get this data? Is it easy to get this view?  First of all do you know that this kind of knowledge or information is persisting in your company? The answers to these questions invariably would be no, most of the times and atleast for most of the staffs in an organisation.

Let us see few ways of getting this..


1.Focussed Meetings:  
This is one way where key stakeholders can address leadership team across departments/functional areas and then highlight upon challenges/issues.  This can address issues related to the tribal knowledge as well.


Sometimes audits that take place can find out how a particular problem is resolved or not addressed. It can point to clear dependency on individuals and will mention the various risks involved and the potential impact it can have. Management team will take this sort of pointers and confirm that the root cause for this could be categorized to tribal knowledge and then would try addressing the issue.


Capturing Tribal Knowledge

What are the ways of capturing?


1.Identify the Subject Matter Experts from each department / functional areas in the organisation and try to get all tricks, short-cuts and best ideas/practices[that are not known to the rest of the organisation], to ensure that those information can improve your product or service quality or expedite the resolution of an issue or provide improved performance. Capture all these information in a document.


2.When an employee, playing a key role, is about to resign an organisation, what we need to do while replacing him with another person is to ensure that there is a proper Handover- Takeover mechanism (HOTO) between the two parties. 


There has to be a written document that need to mention explicitly what all routine activities that the incumbent person is doing. The objective is to ensure all activities are captured.  This HOTO becomes a part of audits in many companies.

Representing this view in a tabular format with action to be done and the owner




Action to be done


By Whom





Collect tips, tricks, short-cuts, best practices, etc...from the SME of each functional areas/departments  and then document it

Project/Programmer/Functional Manager or Sponsor of the project which produces the service or product

The relevant  Manager or sponsor should get the  written document from the SME


When a key staff of the organisation resigns , he/she should provide a proper HOTO to the incoming person

The person leaving the organisation should provide the HOTO and arrange for that meeting.

There has to be a 1-1 meeting (preferred face-to-face) and then a written HOTO document with completion status


Harness the Tribal Knowledge

How to harness the knowledge that we gain through this?


1.Ensure the Documentation is done (as part of Capture knowledge) and put them into action

2.Try to see if the knowledge can be included as part of the automation process which is existing (in place already)


Let us see some examples across various sectors.


1.In IT sector, let us take an IT support project. Often we would see a single person handling a

   key application or few applications for quite some time and later he would have just put his/her

   resignation.  He/she would have some crucial information withholding which is critical to

   handling the application(s) that he/she handle(s).  


   The withholding of information may be done inadvertently by forgetting to share it with others

   or purposefully (because he/she would have either felt it not necessary to share or would have

   felt that he/she did not get enough recognition on doing that work and wanted to punish the

   team by not sharing the knowledge or it could be any reasons).


   To avoid this, the new person replacing the staff who has put his resignation should ensure that

   he gets a proper documented Hand Over- Take Over document.  The project owner (manager or

   sponsor) for the said application(s) should ensure that proper knowledge transition has



2.In manufacturing sector, there could be some information which will be very specific to certain 

   departments, just by the nature of the data like sales related data (like forecast for subsequent

   month), materials related data. Those information will be only within the respective teams.

3.In general, some experienced people in many companies do not share their ideas/best

   practices to address issues.



We had seen how the information gathered through from the Tribal knowledge if tapped properly can help the project/organisation to sustain its activities efficiently.


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Tribal Knowledge, in short, is the knowledge which is “known” yet undocumented- This is seen in many unorganised businesses, like family run businesses. In most of these business houses , business information and knowledge has been passed down from generation to generation with no documentation. So, the knowledge content in the current generation is assumed to be factual by conviction but there is no documented reference material or any  analysis to verify that the available knowledge is factual. The disadvantage here is that most of the core knowledge base is diluted and there is a scope for variation as it exchanges from one “head” to another- like in a game of Chinese whisper.

It is very important to stress on business excellence to sustain a large organisation. The idea should be to develop and implement a comprehensive business management system which assimilates the culture of Quality, Customer orientation, harmony and incorporate Lean & six sigma to reduce waste and variation.

In the above context, the tribal knowledge that is not universally known by others in the company is retained by only a few who have run through the grind for more than the other naive around. The said knowledge/ information may be key to quality performance and may need to be known by others in order to produce quality service or product. One must also reckon that the mentioned tribal knowledge can also be incorrect because of far too much dilution and also can be redundant due to change in time and business patterns or market trends. Having said that scattered, unravelled knowledge can be unlocked and captured and harnessed and collected in a treasure trove – A “Knowledge Box”, within the organisation for ready reference. A prudent and explicit training program can be prepared to sustain and improve the knowledge within the company. Simultaneous enrichment of the knowledge box also can happen- A company Property.

It will more often act as a good source of test of factors during improvement efforts:-

Example 1:- In a QSR, An old time favourite product was not tasting as it used to- Obviously the recipe was varying; probably the ingredient measures was out of control and the production managers began to debate and contest over what each felt was the correct proportion. Further investigation showed that the source of spices was different from normal – one aspect of process failure was evident; there was a severe mismatch in the knowledge to correct any defect in the product as there was no documented or concrete source of referral – The lack of communication between procurement and production is another matter

Example 2: A popular seasonal product is re- launched during the festive season after a gap of almost a year, but the original cook had to be rehired in order to produce a product that had worked wonders earlier- The process was dependant on the cook. As there was no downward training and no material for referral.

So how do we unlock, capture and harness this tribal knowledge , rather than being dependant on people ??

I personally feel that the first step is to

-          Visualise and jot down the company vision and mission. Next is

-          Align the business structure to the vision and mission

-          Structure the team and internal hierarchy- Align the Scope of work and the people required for the work at each level of execution of company business.

-          Identify and Recognize the knowledge required at every level of work.

-          Recognize how much of the knowledge is already existing within the organisation – obviously there will always be a scope for transferable knowledge. But internal wisdom is always more manageable. Relevant and success oriented information  that have worked before, which is already existing within the team, will be invaluable in operations and the drafting of operation manuals as well as training programs for years to come.

-          Identify the Knowledge carters- There will always be those few who will have considerable knowledge on most of the business aspects , but have all in their “head”- These are the ones who are indispensable.

-          Commit to the Time- The transferring of information and development of a documented knowledge box and a training manual is like an apprentice programme and will lead to journeymen. It should be accepted by the management that knowledge transfer is a long term programme and a level of stability will take half a decade at least.

-          Keep Succession plan running- As soon as possible, it is necessary to develop and appoint people who are likely to replace the “Senior” mentors  to both learn from them and document the tribal information.

-          Encourage the “share to care” culture- develop the culture in the company to share knowledge through forums, inhouse newsletters, interdepartmental process improvement projects.

-          Retain good Knowledge Banks- Determine how many employees have valuable tribal knowledge or skills that are difficult to replace. Retain them to share knowledge, experience and skill with next generations- maybe as consultants.

-          Create an open culture in the company to share ideas, thoughts also allow the freedom to challenge ideas, even if they are tribal ideas- but the goal should always towards business excellence.

This way, not only will we be able to unlock ,capture and harness tribal knowledge in the organisation but also evolve the same along with change in business trend and market requirement. This is one of the most important steps towards business excellence and growing company focusses on this- The best examples are the MNC who expand beyond continental boundaries , but use their existing knowledge and merge with the new knowledge to create great business opportunities in new lands- Tribal knowledge across many lands are documented and referred to at every given opportunity- This is often termed as “Continuous growth through continuous learning!!”

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“Tribal” knowledge is important information/knowledge (that could be related to process, service, repair, troubleshooting, diagnostic procedures, sales, competition, customers, costs and so on) that is known to only certain individuals or groups of individuals within a company, but it is undocumented and is not common knowledge to everyone. It is lost when the people having the knowledge leave the organization and move on.


Sometimes knowledge is so deeply ingrained, that it becomes part of the way things are done and it becomes an unconscious competence. This kind of knowledge /skill is good for an individual like a stock trader or a sportsman, but not practical if in a company as others in the team need to learn the method or process.


Tribal knowledge increases the reliance on a single individual for critical operations and is a common and dangerous pitfall. If there is an ageing workforce, replacing 55 years of age or older people when they retire, is a big problem especially in the manufacturing industry, because they are the most experienced and skilled people working in the manufacturing plant. The knowledge base they've built over decades of experience is priceless and will go with them when they retire.


In this constantly evolving technology world, knowledge within an organization should be captured, stored and maintained, so that team members and future employees can have quick and sustained access to it. To ensure continuity of operations, every manufacturing company needs to assess both the documented knowledge and the undocumented “tribal” knowledge. They need to identify the "tribal knowledge gurus" in the company and "download" the knowledge from the gurus' brains, and document it, before it is lost when the guru retires or moves on.


So, I believe, utmost importance should be given to efforts related to unlocking, capturing and harnessing “Tribal Knowledge” before it is lost.


Methods for unlocking, capturing and harnessing “Tribal Knowledge”:


1.       Identifying the “knowledge gurus” or the most knowledgeable employees. Every company has a few so called “knowledge gurus” in every department who are a reservoir of knowledge. They are generally the “go-to” people for any suggestions, advise or tips. These employees are invaluable to the company and capturing this knowledge from them should be a high priority.


2.       Identifying the valuable tribal knowledge. After identifying the “knowledge gurus” the specific tribal knowledge needs to be identified. Example a field service expert might have some very good knowledge regarding service tips, repair tricks, and machine idiosyncrasies, diagnostic procedures and so on. A sales expert might have undocumented information on key customer contacts, decision makers, information on Competition, upcoming projects and so on. Some of the tribal knowledge may be applicable to future replacements and some may not. So the required tribal knowledge must be identified.


3.       Committing the Time/expense required to document and transfer knowledge. Once the required tribal knowledge is identified the documentation and transfer of this knowledge involves both time and cost. The management must be willing to make this investment which could be recursive and long term.


4.       Transitioning older/retiring workers who might be the knowledge store house. Developing training and transition programs where experienced workers close to retirement can sharing or transition their knowledge experience and skills to the next generation.


5.       Developing Staffing strategy for “knowledge gurus”. Developing a staffing strategy to allow retired “knowledge gurus” to work part time as employees or on a contractual basis, while teaching their replacements.


6.       Promoting a feeling of job security in the organization and rewarding knowledge sharing. Sometimes employees, to ensure job security and making them indispensable, could withhold information and put themselves in the position of being the only person who knows how to fix a problem or perform a task. By promoting a sense of job security and rewarding knowledge sharing, a company can prevent such situations.


7.       Implementing Companywide Knowledge Management Systems. Knowledge management may provide large benefits. Organizational learning and development becomes a big challenge as the company grows. Without proper management of critical information, employees (both retiring and resigning) may leave with valuable tribal knowledge. New employees learning their roles without proper guidance results in tremendous wastage of time, and inefficient and inconsistent knowledge of the processes. Knowledge management systems help accumulate the power from the entire organization and use it to incrementally improve daily operations.

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Tribal knowledge: Unwritten rules which contributes to overall quality of the product in  a company which are known by a group of individuals within an organization but not common to others.


How to Capture Tribal Knowledge:


1.     Knowledge identification

2.     Identifying persons with tribal knowledge

3.     Investment on training by knowledge people

4.     Retaining persons with tribal knowledge and plan to transfer that to new generation.



1.     Raise awareness of the problem, symptoms, it’s causes and outline a solution.

2.     Arrange suggestion box in the companies

3.     Rewarding best ideas and informations

4.     Making the speak up culture popular



1.     Capturing such information in standard formats

2.     Educating the people on tribal knowledge by awareness sessions

3.     Recording the captured knowledge for new employees

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What are the methods for unlocking, capturing and harnessing “Tribal Knowledge”? How much importance should one attribute to this endeavour? 




Tribal Knowledge is one of its kind of company property, which will be used in experiments of improvement projects. Tribal knowledge is a unwritten information. In most of the companies, only few employees will possess a great knowledge or in depth knowledge of the product / service. Tribe meaning a group or subgroup of people that they share a common knowledge in their minds but not documented. But it may be a tool for quality improvement which will also possess equal risks on implementing.


Eg. Introducing traditional methods into the company. Eg. Processing Hemoglobin technique using the heam meter and solution as per traditional method and the humans who had sound technical knowledge of processing Hb results in the good old machine / meter is called tribal knowledge.


What are the problems we face with tribal knowledge:

Each and every function is unique in the company, which requires different type of skill sets. When employees are assigned to their functions or departments, some analyse the process in depth and understands it in detail and possess a great knowledge and skills within the company about the task / product. And company also fears to lose them. Since the tribal knowledge is no where documented, it may be a threat to the company as well, due to over dependency on the skillful employees.

Ø  When employees leave the organization, the tribal knowledge vanishes. Most of the tribal knowledge also vanishes, leaving a new employee known to half of the facts of the product, as it might be due to value given by company to the new employee is way high compared to old ones.

Ø  Tribal knowledge is a barrier to automation, because they still believe in manual processes to improve quality and speed rather than automation.

Ø  Employees hoard information due to job security. Due to high tech convulsions, there would be few cases in each and every company who would know how to solve the problem and would never share it with anyone on how to solve issues. There also exists tribal knowledge problem.

How to unlock the tribal knowledge:

As we all know “ Knowledge is power”, we will have to unlock the tribal knowledge and document the information and make use of it in the organization to improve quality time and cost of the processes.

Tribal knowledge is rich and useful: As we are humans, it is natural for us to form groups. So create groups in departments based on expertise, functional roles and common goals. A collaborative teams develops initiatives, programs and projects to identify the tribal knowledge. The knowledge developed in one subgroup would be analyzed in details based on the expertise and would be shared to other tribes for experimenting. The knowledge may be correct or may be wrong.

Hunting, gathering and new way forward: A analytical hunter professtional hunts, gathers and compile, study, interpret, re-arrange and publish the information in understandable formats / process notes to other tribes for experimenting. It requires additional effort and it is costly from organisation’s perspective. So it requires time, cost, and human effort and last but not the least morale in taking up the knowledge. The pace of innovation in cutting edge products / services plays a major role.

Path to transformation: Successful approach will follows the below.

Ø  A common goal / wish to hunt and gather the tribal knowledge to align operations

Ø  A common vision of the organization to make the processes effective and efficient

Ø  A comprehensive documented methodology for cross functional deployement of tribal knowledge

Ø  A process to deploy best practices, develop new models and new information flows to sustain the solid tribal knowledge.

How to capture tribal knowledge:

Below are the approaches for tribal knowledge

Identify the knowledge gurus : Mostly the people working in the floor are the masters of the knowledge. They would not be sound enough to translate the information to written document. But as hunters, we have to identify the gurus.

Identify the knowledge: Whether it is useful or waste, we will have to document the information received,. Experiement each and every step for its success and failures and document those in detail.

Commit to the time: Yes. Identifying and documenting the tribal knowledge with solid proof is not an easy job. It is time consuming. Management should accept the fact and support the analytical team for making it success.

Transition of older workers: Identify the older people with tribal knowledge nearing their retirement age and develop programs to engage them in training and share their knowledge, experience and skills to the next set of employees.




If its not documented, no one knows. It may possess a artificial fact, but it is useful information. It is  a unknown information to most of the employees in the organization. It involves a process that contribute significantly for quality, time , and speed improvement of the process / product /service.

Tribal knowledge is often created unintentionally and is common in most organizations. Companies must be diligent about capturing this information and making it readily available to all employees.  




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Hi All, this was very interesting topic and often less recognized area in business management. Very few organisations have recognized the need to capture tribal knowledge and have developed relevant effective knowledge management systems.


Most of us have got it rightly, however, Mr. Venugopal R.'s answer was more elaborate and addressed the question in totality. Additionally Mr. Arunesh Ramalingam, Mr. Rajesh Chakrabarty, Kavitha Sunder and Mohan’s answers were also specific and well drafted. Lastly I must also mention that Ms. Anusha Vemuri's answer was also spot on, albeit too short.Congratulations to you all! Let’s keep up the learning.”

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