Jonathan DeVore

By: Jonathan DeVore on July 14th, 2023

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11 Risks Businesses Have When Operating With Tribal Knowledge

Your company is operating using tribal knowledge. That involves a lot of employees asking coworkers and supervisors questions because the information is stuck in your experts’ heads.

And, as far as knowledge transfer strategies go, you are thinking tribal knowledge isn’t the best idea. Your company has opportunities for change and potential for growth. But, you’ve been able to get by with tribal knowledge thus far. Sure, there have been mistakes, but not that many.

So, do you really need to change your knowledge transfer strategy? Can’t you keep functioning with tribal knowledge?

As the head consultant for ScreenSteps — a knowledge ops solution that helps companies transfer knowledge more efficiently — I would advise no. Your company would benefit from having a more official knowledge transfer strategy.

Why? It’s too risky to operate under tribal knowledge — especially when your business is growing.

Don’t believe me? Check out this list of 11 risks and mistakes you are taking by using tribal knowledge instead of a more developed knowledge transfer plan.

1. You’re unprepared for subject matter experts (SMEs) to quit

This is a scenario that all businesses face when they use tribal knowledge. Your subject matter experts (SMEs) keep all the up-to-date procedures and information in their heads.

So, what happens if one day they quit? All that information in their head leaves with them.

When you operate with tribal knowledge, your company knowledge walks out the door with your former employees.

2. Changes take a long time

Your company experiences change every day. Some of these changes are big and others are small. When you add a new step to a procedure, you have to communicate that change and get everyone to start incorporating that change.

Unfortunately, change usually has a lag time. It takes a while for the change to reach everyone. In the meantime, people are making mistakes.

🔎 Related: 8 Tips to Prepare For Change in Your Business

3. Employees make frequent mistakes

Speaking of mistakes, your employees make frequent mistakes when you are using tribal knowledge. One of the reasons is listed in the point above. It’s also because they are relying on their memories.

When employees have to rely on their memories, it is a heavy cognitive load. That’s especially true if they are in a customer service environment where they handle hundreds of calls a day.

Requiring employees to memorize everything is a dangerous strategy because it doesn’t leave room for human error.

4. You have a bottleneck in handling tasks

Your supervisors are a bottleneck in your operations. Since employees don’t know the answers (or forget them) and they don’t have easy access to documented guides, they have to ask supervisors for the answers.

Not only does this slow down your processes and procedures, but it also burns out your supervisors. Your supervisors have to spend all their time answering questions and don’t have enough time for other aspects of their jobs.

Knowledge Ops Maturity Grader

5. It’s difficult to grow your team

When your company uses tribal knowledge, it’s more difficult to grow your team. Training is more time-consuming. It takes longer to ramp up new hires so that they can work independently.

(Often, we hear of call centers and other businesses where it takes 12-18 months for agents to reach proficiency.)

Because supervisors have to hold so many employees’ hands and answer their questions, you don’t think you have enough personnel to handle a larger team.

6. New hires have no confidence

For those employees who are trained in a tribal knowledge company, it takes them a LONG time to feel confident on the job. Many new hires feel stupid with tribal knowledge because they just can’t learn and memorize all the information that the tenured supervisor already knows.

Often, we see this leads to high attrition rates because the job just feels too hard.

7. You need to hire extra personnel

When employees operate with tribal knowledge, it takes longer to resolve inquiries and perform tasks. So you need to hire extra personnel to handle business operations. You likely have more employees than you really need for certain operational tasks. 

With a more efficient way to transfer knowledge, you may not need to inflate your team size.

8. Procedures aren’t transparent

There is no North Star for how procedures should be performed. This creates a lot of stress because there is no way to go and say, “Here’s how we handle this situation.”

The lack of transparency is confusing. Plus, it’s hard to improve things because nothing is written down.

9. There’s no accountability for employees

Because nothing is written down (or it is written down but it is difficult for end-users to find and follow the guide), you can’t hold anyone accountable.

Sure, you can say, “We covered this in training.” But, you can’t point to a place in order to show them what they’ve done.

10. Compliance is at risk

Without documented procedures, your compliance is at risk. With employees making mistakes, you get dinged on your audits. This is especially risky in healthcare, finance, and other heavily audited industries.

Under tribal knowledge, you need to budget for mistakes because they are inevitable — especially if you have complex policies and procedures.

11. You provide inconsistent service

Under a tribal knowledge approach, your business is providing inconsistent service to your customers. Everyone deviates from how they are supposed to do it, but it’s not their fault. Changes keep happening and it is difficult to remember which version is the right way to do it.

How to avoid the risks of tribal knowledge

How do you avoid the risks associated with tribal knowledge? You get a more advanced and reliable knowledge transfer strategy.

With ScreenSteps, we recommend a knowledge operations approach for transferring knowledge. A knowledge ops solution accounts for both training and documentation so that employees have continuous learning opportunities.

This helps employees stay accurate and consistent with company policies and procedures. Plus, employees are more confident and independent.

Specifically, the knowledge transfer approach we developed is the Find & Follow Framework. Using the framework, companies have reduced mistakes, increased consistency, and decreased training time so that new hires are proficient in 30 days or less.

Are you ready for a new knowledge transfer strategy that improves your company’s operations?

Download the free Find & Follow eBook to explore how you can build a knowledge transfer strategy that protects your business from these risky tribal knowledge practices.

How to Plan, Build, and Run a New Hire Training Program That Works Download

About Jonathan DeVore

Customer Success