How To Capture Tribal Knowledge Before It’s Too Late

Lo Kidd

April 09, 2021

Ever spent hours tracking down information just to find out only one person knows what you’re talking about? Or worse – that the person who had all the answers just finished offboarding? You’re not alone. Fast-growing businesses constantly lose tribal knowledge – and they don’t even realize it’s happening until it’s too late. 

The good news? This is totally preventable! You just need to know what you’re looking for and how to capture the tribal knowledge before it walks out the door.

What is tribal knowledge?

Tribal knowledge (sometimes referred to as hidden knowledge) is any undocumented information that only certain people at your company have. And it refers specifically to knowledge that everyone (or most people) on your team needs to produce quality results.

For example, tribal knowledge can include best practices, how-to’s, and any relevant historical context.

But because this information is not written down, tribal knowledge only gets passed on when someone who already has it actively shares it. Such as when a problem that they already know how to solve pops up. 

That’s because tribal knowledge is usually trapped in the heads of your veteran employees. The ones who’ve been with you from the beginning and know the ins and outs of your business. 

But as your team grows, it also means that these same veteran employees hold all of the knowledge your new team members need to be successful. 

Because it’s not written down anywhere, your new people assume that they’re the first to figure it out. So, they start doing things their own way. And over time, you end up with a lot of wasted time, easily avoidable mistakes, and inconsistent results. All of which can keep your company from scaling. 

So, the sooner you capture your company’s tribal knowledge, the better!

🔥 Tip: Trainual is the #1 rated documentation tool that puts all your company’s tribal knowledge in one place. Try for free.

How does tribal knowledge happen?

Tribal knowledge happens when a team member holds onto it (intentionally or otherwise) or management fails to recognize the information’s value. Either way, the problems that stem are the same.

But recognizing why your tribal knowledge hasn’t gotten documented is the first step to capturing it – and will keep it from happening again.

A team member holds onto it

Most team members hold onto tribal knowledge unknowingly. Meaning, they assume that everyone knows what they know or that other people don’t need to know it. So, unless a problem arises that proves otherwise, they keep the information to themselves. 

But sometimes, people will intentionally hold onto tribal knowledge for job security. After all, it’s hard to replace someone if they’re the only one who can do something.

Your team members when they hold on to tribal knowledge

This can keep your company from scaling. Because if a team member is unwilling to share how they do something, you can’t multiply the efforts. And plainly put, you’re screwed if that person walks out the door. 

So, here’s how you can solve it:

Create a constant feedback loop

When you introduce routine performance reviews, nobody questions how they’re doing or if their job is in danger. Because they have constant feedback to reaffirm that their work is seen and valued by the company. And they won’t feel like they need to hoard their tribal knowledge to keep their job safe. 

Incentivize sharing knowledge

Don’t just wait around for your team to document their tribal knowledge. Instead, get your team excited about putting their expertise on paper. 

This might mean actively celebrating the accomplishment in front of the entire team. Or you can give bonuses to anyone who captures a certain amount of tribal knowledge in a quarter (which you can measure in standard operating procedures).

Make documenting as easy as possible

No matter how hyped your team is to capture their tribal knowledge, they’ll only do it if it’s super easy. That’s where a knowledge management tool comes in. 

With a knowledge management tool, your team can easily document, update, and house their tribal knowledge. And because it’s all in one place, the rest of your team will actually use the knowledge. So, your team doesn’t feel like they wasted time capturing it. 

👉 Trainual is the award-winning knowledge management tool trusted by thousands of growing teams in 170+ countries. Try for free.

Management fails to recognize the value

Even if your team doesn’t see why their tribal knowledge is so important, your people leaders should. But that’s (unfortunately) not always the case.

Don't let your people leaders think that holding tribal knowledge isn't a big deal

Sometimes, people leaders can’t see that one person has knowledge that other team members need. Or if they do, they don’t know how to ask for it – without it coming across the wrong way. 

So, here’s some ways to make sure you capture it:

Standardize the practice

When you ask only one person to capture their tribal knowledge, it tends to feel passive-aggressive. Like you’re trying to hint that they’re on their way out. But that’s not the case! Chances are good you’re asking the person because they’re so good at their job that you wish everyone knew what they know. 

So, make documenting how-tos and need-to-knows common practice. That way, it doesn’t feel like you’re singling anyone out. And people will naturally document knowledge that you might not even know they have!

Explain why it’s important

Most people don’t know why holding onto tribal knowledge is so problematic. So, educate your team on the importance of capturing it. Like how they can find answers faster when they’re documented in one place, so their job gets easier. (Notice that I made it all about them? Wink, wink.)

Use existing documentation

When your team asks you a question, tell them to check the existing documentation first. AKA all the tribal knowledge that is already captured. That way, they’ll see why capturing the knowledge is so important first hand (because it really does make both your jobs easier).

Just make sure that you ask your team to fix anything out of date or add anything missing. Or let the subject matter expert (the person who documented the knowledge in the first place) know what they found. That way, your tribal knowledge becomes more of a company-wide wiki and is always up to date.

🔥 Tip: Trainual puts all of your exisiting documentation and tribal knowledge in one place. So your team is never scrambling to find it when it needs to be refreshed. Try for free.

Why you need to capture tribal knowledge

The things you and your team know, but leave unwritten, carry a ton of risks. That’s because undocumented tribal knowledge means you’re losing information forever, wasting tons of company time, and getting inconsistent results. 

But the biggest risk is that you might not even know it’s happening!

Losing important information forever

Every business leader’s worst fear is that their top performers will leave unexpectedly – without sharing their tribal knowledge. Meaning, the secret behind your company’s success literally walks out the door forever. 

This can have a much bigger effect on your business operations than you realize. And by proactively capturing tribal knowledge, you keep it in the company. 

You can probably think of a few people in your organization who’ve been around long enough that they have a huge wealth of knowledge about your team. They’re the first ones your team goes to with questions. 

So, ask yourself, how bad would it be if that person just stopped showing up tomorrow? Would your team be totally lost and scrambling? Or would they be able to pick up where that team member left off and keep everything running? 

If you’re feeling a little stressed at the thought of losing that employee, you’ve got a tribal knowledge problem. And you need to document your how-tos and need-to-knows ASAP.

Wasting tons of company time

On top of the worst-case scenario of losing top talent, tribal knowledge also makes your company extremely inefficient. Because you’ll waste so much time (and money) searching for the answers you need.

When your team can't find any of their tribal knowledge

In fact, employees waste nearly 20% of their time trying to find the information they need to do their job effectively. If you’re like most teams, you can’t afford one day of each week to be unproductive. 

But by documenting that knowledge, your team won’t have to spend hours chasing down the one person with the answer. Instead, you can put it in one centralized place. And your team can access it in seconds – whenever they need it.  

Getting inconsistent results

So, employees spend all this time searching for tribal knowledge – but what happens if your employees don’t find the answer? Chances are good that they’ll make it up as they go along. And their best guess might be totally wrong. 

This leaves everyone doing things their own way. So, mistakes are inevitable (and can be costly). And you no longer have any control over your end results. 

Plus, when you update your processes to a better, safer, more cost-effective way of doing things – not everyone will know about it. That is unless it’s documented in one place. 

Because if they miss the email or meeting with the update, they won’t know anything’s changed unless someone tells them. So, while most of your company is off doing a task “the new way,” you’ll have a few stragglers doing it “the old way.” 

How to capture tribal knowledge

So, (hopefully) you’re all in on documenting your tribal knowledge. Because – not to get all parental on you or anything –  it’s for your business’ own good! 

So, here’s how you can easily capture your tribal knowledge in just 3 steps:

How to capture tribal knowledge

Step 1: Identify who has tribal knowledge

This is a two-fold step: you need to identify who has tribal knowledge. Then, what that knowledge is. 

Generally speaking, the people with the most tribal knowledge will be the most experienced or most specialized. But sometimes, it’s the new person who came in with a new perspective on a problem. 

So, listen to what your other employees are saying. If you repeatedly hear “so-and-so is the only one who can do this,” that’s a sign that they have some tribal knowledge. Or, if only one person fills a specific role, they’ll definitely have some tribal knowledge. 

Start with those 2 groups, and have them read any existing documentation they have. And simply ask them, is that everything? Bets are hot that they’ll say no – or that something is out of date. That’s the undocumented tribal knowledge. 

Alternatively, you can start with the knowledge, then identify the person with all the answers. Simply focus on which questions your team raises over and over again. 

Those will indicate a gap that needs to be filled. And whoever constantly has the answer is the person who needs to fill it.

Step 2: Document the knowledge

When you know what tribal knowledge to capture, it’s time to start documenting. Ideally, in a knowledge management tool (like Trainual). That way, it’s super easy to get all the information written down in one place – not all over the place (like it is now).

A live look at your team documenting your tribal knowledge

Assuming the person with all the tribal knowledge is you, brain-dump everything you know about the subject in as much detail as possible. Processes, relevant policies, people involved, and best practices included. 

If you have a ton of tribal knowledge, focus on one specific subject at a time. Such that you’ll document the interview process before documenting onboarding best practices

Then, organize the information. Meaning, take everything you’ve got and put it into some sort of order. 

For example, you might explain related policies and who’s involved before jumping into running the process. If pictures, diagrams, videos, or .pdfs will clarify or simplify the subject, add them too! 

You’ll know you’re done when anyone on your team can understand the documentation and put it to work. To check, pick someone unfamiliar with the subject. Give that person the documentation – and see how far they can run with it. If they have any questions, you’ll know you have a few more gaps to fill.

Step 3: Turn it into common knowledge

As you capture tribal knowledge, start rolling it out to your team. Because it does you no good if no one knows the documentation exists. 

Start by infusing the information into your existing training program – and have your team go back through their training. This way, they’ve seen the resource and know where to access it again when they need it. 

You don’t have to assign all your documentation to everyone on your team – just the people who’ll probably need to know it. For example, if you documented your change management process, you should assign it to all your people leaders. 

As more and more and more people learn the information, it goes from tribal knowledge to common knowledge within your company. Meaning, you don’t have to worry each time someone leaves that they might be taking your secret sauce with them.

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