Rebecca Lane

By: Rebecca Lane on July 23rd, 2023

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How Tribal Knowledge Works (+ Its Limitations)

Tribal knowledge is the most common knowledge transfer strategy — and, yet, it is the least effective approach to sharing knowledge in a business.

See how companies use tribal knowledge. Then find out why companies keep defaulting to a tribal knowledge approach before discovering a more efficient knowledge transfer strategy.

What is tribal knowledge?

Tribal knowledge is information that is passed by word of mouth amongst a group. In business, that group of people is your company or a specific department. The knowledge being shared is the operational and procedural knowledge that helps employees handle different tasks and assignments.

3 tools of tribal knowledge

When it comes to tribal knowledge, companies usually realized that it is a mistake not to document the company policies and procedures. So, they attempt to transfer knowledge in a more efficient way.

The tools or approaches they usually initially turn to include PDFs, lectures, and shadowing. The problem is that this knowledge transfer plan is only half-baked. It doesn’t drive results where employees can work independently and confidently.

Here is how businesses try to formalize their knowledge and where the approach falls short.

1. Outdated PDFs

One of the first things companies know they need to do is capture their knowledge. They need to get the information and instructions out of their experts’ heads and written down. So their document the procedures.

Those procedures are typically written in Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, and PDFs. Then they are sent to employees or stored in a shared drive. Unfortunately, that is often the end of the road for that collection of knowledge.

Why? Writing down the guides is only a part of the equation. Those guides also need to be easily accessible for employees and written in a way that is easy for anyone to follow them.

Plus, there is a lot of change in business. Because of that, your documents that you created quickly become outdated and inaccurate. There isn’t a fast and easy way to update those guides.

2. Lengthy lectures

Another knowledge transfer tool is part of employee training. Companies tend to rely on lengthy lectures and PowerPoint presentations to teach employees everything they need to know to do their jobs. These lectures can go on for hours or even days.

The expectation is that employees will memorize everything on those PowerPoint slides as well as everything their trainer says.

Unfortunately, that expectation isn’t realistic. Plus, it doesn’t account for human error. People forget.

3. Endless shadowing

As part of the training curriculum, companies will often require shadowing. Shadowing is when an employees follows a tenured employee for the role they will have. They observe how they do their job and

Both shadowing and listening to lectures is passive learning. It is easy for information to go in one ear and out the other. There is no accountability for what they need to learn.

Sometimes a business will rely on quizzes to help them know if employees are ready for their jobs. But, even that is unrealistic. A quiz doesn’t show an employee’s ability to handle a task. It tests what they know.

Shadowing sets up the expectation that someone will always be there to help them. So employees learn to rely on Slack/Teams messages, email, or tapping a supervior or neighbor on their shoulder to ask a question. (Aka They default back to tribal knowledge.)

The cycle of tribal knowledge in a company

Tribal knowledge is often a vicious cycle in companies. It’s the knowledge transfer strategy that won’t go away. It keeps coming back. And, over time, tribal knowledge has evolved.

Initially tribal knowledge started with people tapping each other on the shoulder to ask a question.

Then, when everyone was forced to work remotely during Covid, tribal moved to Zoom, chat, emails. People used anything to connect people in remote locations so that they could ask questions and receive answers.

Then people realized that they needed to document this information. They realized they need to capture the knowledge so it wasn’t lost.

But, once it was documented, no one would use the guides. So people were still tapping the coworkerss on their shoulder and asking supervisors questions via chat.

Companies ultimately default back into tribal knowledge until they feel inspired to document (or update your documents) again.

The challenge with tribal knowledge

The challenge with tribal knowledge is if you say it over Zoom or over a phone call, it's gone. If you put it into Slack or Teams or an email, it's there, but it's still pretty much gone. The search engine in those applications aren’t reliable for finding the right information.

With tribal knowledge, you're spending all this time doing something that's getting lost. What you want to do is capture that information in a way that's findable and followable.

Better option: Create a reliable knowledge hub

What you need is a one-stop-shop for all your company’s knowledge. It needs to be more than the PDFs and Word documents. The knowledge hub needs to have digital guides that are fast and easy to update. It needs a reliable search engine so that articles are at your employees’ fingertips.

This software could be a knowledge base, knowledge ops platform, or other knowledge management system that helps centralize your company information and resources.

However, software alone won’t solve your knowledge transfer problems. You’ll also need the right frameworks and a commitment to cultural change in how your company transfers knowledge.

With the right software and behaviors in place, you’ll ssentially be doing the same things (i.e., answering employee questions, responding to emails, etc.) You’re  just capturing that information it in a way that is findable and followable. You are creating  resource that doesn’t require you to duplicate work.

So, you're still doing the same. If someone sends you a Slack message and says, how do I do this? Instead of responding to them in Slack and saying, here's how, you create an article, it's in the link to the article. You build this culture of we're going to have a single repository for these answers. You're going to go there.

So you answer one person's question and 50 of the people have that same question and they're going to come to you. And there's, you have to just respond to it. You got to send them the answer.

Reduce stress, save time, and improve employee productivity with the right knowledge transfer strategy

While tribal knowledge is the default when it comes to knowledge transfer strategies, it is the least effective approach. With the right knowledge transfer strategy, you can save your company a lot of time, money, and headaches.

At ScreenSteps, we developed the Find & Follow Framework. It goes hand-in-hand with our knowledge ops platform.

Find & Follow tackles the knowledge transfer problem from all angles. It helps you improve your documentation to support employees on their jobs as well as helps you develop a more effective employee training curriculum.

The result is shorter training times, less stress, and more time for supervisors.

Want to learn more about Find & Follow?

Download the free Find & Follow playbook to see if Find & Follow is the right approach for the company. In the book, you’ll learn how to improve your knowledge operations (including training and documentation).

Find & Follow Training Program Playbook

About Rebecca Lane

Content Marketing Manager