Tribal Knowledge: The Most Important Asset for Growing Your Company

Last Updated on November 30, 2023 by Owen McGab Enaohwo

Tribal Knowledge: The Most Important Asset for Growing Your Company

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The term “tribal knowledge” is known to everyone. Probably not in those actual words, but we’ve all experienced it in our everyday lives at one point or the other. 

Think about a grandma’s mouth-watering apple pie. 

No one, absolutely no one in the family, can make it like she does, even though the recipe is laid out for all to see. You try to make the apple pie like she does, following every detail to the finish, but something is missing. 

Why won’t it turn out like hers? Could she be doing something different? 

You bet. 

By closely observing grandma, you’ll discover that she does some things that aren’t written down in the recipe. You learn what she does at each precise moment, and voila! You’ve got the secret to making your apple pie taste like grandma’s. You and grandma are now the sole bearers of her knowledge. That is one example of tribal knowledge.

You’ve probably told someone how to perform a simple task simply because you’ve been used to doing that thing over the years. You have a guest, and they turn on the TV. They wish to change the channel, but the remote won’t work. You tell them, “Oh, get closer to the TV.” They do so, and it works—tribal knowledge. 

This article serves to broaden your knowledge on what tribal knowledge is, its importance, and how you can harness it to grow your company. It is divided into the following parts:

  1. Tribal Knowledge Defined
  2. Differences Between Tribal, Skillful, and Institutional Knowledge
  3. Causes of Tribal Knowledge
  4. Importance of Documenting Tribal Knowledge
  5. Dangers of Tribal Knowledge
  6. How to Capture Tribal Knowledge
  7. Why You Should Use SweetProcess to Capture Tribal Knowledge
tribal knowledge defined

Tribal Knowledge Defined

Tribal knowledge is a term used everywhere but mostly around corporations, businesses and offices. Wikipedia defines it as any unwritten information that is not commonly known by others within a company. It is the sum of all knowledge and capabilities of a people in an organization. Tribal knowledge includes what was discovered through informal means but remained undocumented and unshared to the rest of the employees in an organization, hence its limited exposure. Even when this type of knowledge is shared, it is done orally. Tribal knowledge is typical for solving problems that do not fit into standard processes and procedures.

Differences Between Tribal, Skillful, and Institutional Knowledge.

Institutional knowledge is the totality of a company’s knowledge: documented and undocumented inclusive. Standardized procedures, safety protocols, and processes go in here. It is known by nearly everyone in an organization if it is documented. 

Tribal knowledge is a subset of this form of institutional knowledge. Individuals within an institution hold their own knowledge, making it difficult for new hires to fully understand all of their job nuances. 

Skillful knowledge, on the other hand, is intuition-based. It is gained through experience, learning, and mentoring. A part of tribal knowledge belongs here. 

Causes of Tribal Knowledge

Tribal knowledge is an accident that one is glad happened but wasn’t supposed to stay that way. What it means is, if this problem had not occurred when it did with the holder of the tribal knowledge present, no one would have known there was an easy fix to it. No solution without a problem, right? What causes a piece of knowledge to remain tribal? Why don’t people share what they’ve discovered when they go “Eureka!”? Some reasons for this are discussed below.

Employee Behavior

Job security 

Workers are scared of losing their jobs. The reason is that sharing knowledge will make them less important and easily dispensable. Added to the fact that most employers don’t give a hoot about replacing labor at the slightest chance, it is hard to blame anyone for wanting to secure their job at all costs. And what better way to do this than by showing just how valuable you are to your company? That’s the idea. When everyone, including management, knows that you’re the go-to guy for a particularly annoying problem, you feel extra safe that your position is secure. Lord help that organization if management doesn’t know how dangerous that is to their company. 

Ego boost

Humans naturally love being the hero of dire situations. The worship one gets its unique high. Some workers with this behavior complex will guard their precious knowledge with so much zeal. They’ll find it hard to share what they know since it will rob them of the extra attention. Rather than sharing knowledge and unburden themselves (it is a burden), they don’t mind letting time go by as they keep explaining the same stuff to anyone who is lost.

Dislike for documentation

Ugh! Documents. Updating processes and procedures can seem like a complete chore to employees that they ignore altogether. Why do we have to write it down if everyone knows it? How can you tell if everyone knows it, though? This lazy assumption encourages the development of tribal knowledge as not everyone can be privy to such knowledge that remains in the heads of a few people.

Cutting corners 

This point is rather funny. You were given a particular job to do, and you find it completely irksome because it’s complex and takes time to complete. But wait, you find a way to get the work done in a little time with the same result. Brilliant. The only thing is, you’re scared your superior will call you out for not following procedures, and so you leave the knowledge locked in your head. If you’d approach them with your discovery, it’ll most likely be appreciated. 

Management’s Fault

Employees are not the only guilty party in the fight against undocumented tribal knowledge. Management has been discovered to encourage this growth as well. The worst part is, they often fail to realize the extent of tribal knowledge in their organization. Hence, they don’t see how harmful it can be to profit and productivity. Let’s see a few ways management is to blame for this problem.

Misunderstanding business maturity

With a small business, tribal knowledge has no serious danger—information can be easily dispensed between a few workers. Trouble comes when the business starts growing, and more people come in. If there were no documentation of processes in the beginning, tribal knowledge would thrive. If incoming staff have no documents to look through, those who bear the knowledge will continue to be the go-to guys in troubling situations. Documenting looks bothersome and like a waste of time in the present, but the benefits far outweigh whatever inconveniences it might put you through.

Clinging to the old way of doing things

Not all old methods should be done away with, but there are some you’re very sure to have no use being around your company. Using old manual workflows can be time-consuming, and this can encourage tribal knowledge. Automating procedures should be embraced.

Saying how good a particular employee is

Management esteeming an employee for being the only one who knows how to do what others should know how to do is the right approach to promote tribal knowledge. What you should be doing is making sure that whatever they’re doing that’s making them so special in your organization is known by every other person. Think how messy it would be if  “Precious Mark” had to take a sick leave for a week. As much as possible, you want to make sure that your company’s operations aren’t brought to a slow crawl with the exit of a staff.

Importance of Documenting Tribal Knowledge

Importance of Documenting Tribal Knowledge

Tribal knowledge can either be your very good friend or your worst nightmare, depending on how you deal with it. Documenting is the sure way to harness its full benefits. Not doing this places unnecessary stress on business owners. Avoidable problems arise. 

Hear Timmy speak on the importance of documenting tribal knowledge:

Some reasons why it is absolutely important for your company to capture tribal knowledge:

Maintaining competitive advantage

A comprehensively documented business process will ensure that quality is always maintained. Consistency in service quality boosts customer satisfaction. Inconsistency arises when only a few people know how to get a particular task done. If they’re unavailable, there will be a noticeable drop in production quality. That’s bad for business. If all processes are documented, it ensures a smooth flow of work regardless of who is absent.

It drives innovation

By looking at a solid copy of a business’s operating processes, one can get ideas on how to improve on it. Unnecessary processes will be removed or updated. You’ll find that there are processes that have been complex for no reason. These sorts can then be simplified.

Training new employees is easier 

Passing off information orally is less effective than having a record containing documented processes. Training incoming employees becomes easy when they have information written down instead of asking questions repeatedly. This improves performance greatly and also reduces the workload on more experienced employees.

It increases productivity

When tribal knowledge is captured, it makes employees less dependent on the more experienced team members. This frees up time for everyone to focus on other businesses thereby increasing productivity. The time that would have been wasted explaining procedures is saved.

Gets everybody on the same footing

“We move together.” No one should be left behind in an organization. Undocumented tribal knowledge does this. When only a set of staff know how to get key processes working, it does no good. With everyone on the same page, growth is steady.

Process of communication becomes easier

With documented knowledge, changes become easier to communicate to everyone whenever it is made. However, if it is undocumented and a change is made, it will be a while before everyone is conversant with such a change.

Employee retirement

Research has shown that the number of retiring workforce keeps increasing. This should be a wake-up call to business owners who don’t think much about tribal knowledge. Old-time employees possess knowledge that is assets to your company if you know how to utilize it. Capturing their important tribal knowledge is important if you don’t want to lose valuable knowledge as they retire.

Dangers of Tribal Knowledge

Dangers of Tribal Knowledge

Tribal knowledge gets a job done in a short time, but in the long term, it can mean trouble. There is a danger in letting knowledge remain tribal and undocumented in your organization. It can be a barrier to corporate growth. Let’s see how:

Tribal knowledge can be incorrect

Passing down information using oral tradition is not effective as some of it may be incorrect. Incorrect knowledge can be dangerous. It could lead to costly mistakes. Seeing that a person clearly knows more than they’d ever been able to explain (what they mean could be taken differently when they tell someone else), it is risky letting this form of knowledge sharing remain unchallenged in your organization. 

Improper training of new staff

Passing off knowledge by mouth that is not documented can be a complete waste of time. The trainee can forget how to do a task only to keep coming back to ask the bearer of the knowledge. This can make training a frustrating experience for both teacher and learner.

Gaps in training

New employees get assigned to different trainers. Having a tribal knowledge problem can cause a gap in training. How? If Mr. X, who knows more than Mr. Z, trains a set of employees, you can bet that Mr. X’s set will know more than Mr. Z’s. That is what is meant by gaps in training—there’ll be a set that’s more efficient than the others.

Information gets lost when key employees leave

This is bad, bad, bad. Some employers don’t even recognize this pain point, and so they do nothing about it. They get sad that such an important person is leaving the company, but they forget that what’s most important is leaving with them—the intangible asset. In the long run, when business starts performing badly, they think, “If only Josh was still here.” That’s not right! Your business should do well even without Josh around.

Employees are easily replaceable

It is a sad fact that workers are easily replaceable. There are so many people out in the labor market to hire in the shortest notice. This knowledge, if abused by employers, can cause trouble for them. By valuing your old employees, you protect your business too. Changing employees as quick as anything means you’re losing knowledge you didn’t even know existed. Yes, fresh blood is good but old blood has got the experience and old important information. As a business owner, don’t do something reckless like hiring new staff before capturing the old ones’ key knowledge.

How to Capture Tribal Knowledge

How to Capture Tribal Knowledge

Tribal knowledge can be a great asset to your company. Remember, if an employee with important knowledge leaves, the knowledge is gone forever. The time to capture tribal knowledge is now when you can see them. While you’re on this task, do it with a most friendly approach. You don’t want rumors going around that management is thinking of replacing workers, and that’s why they’re picking the brains of key employees.

Listen to Dave share a little on how to avoid the loss of tribal knowledge:

Learn how to do this in 5 steps:

1. Identify those with tribal knowledge

Spotting the knowledge gatekeepers in your organization should not be hard. Just keep your ears open for that recurring name when there’s trouble needing fixing. Your most senior employees are more likely to possess tribal knowledge. Don’t be surprised at the tips and tricks an employee could possess about your company. Single them out, and you’re ready for your next step.

2. Identify the tribal knowledge

Pick out the knowledge available in different departments. Some could be outdated or incorrect. You must identify the important stuff that needs documenting: the ones that are not necessary and the ones that need updating. 

3. Document the knowledge using a knowledge base

This part will require some real dedication as it will be a long and tiring one. It can be expensive as well if you decide to run programs where old employees share their knowledge, experience, and skills with the next generation. But knowing the long-term benefits, you should be willing to sacrifice your resources. When on this, documents should not be done by the knowledge gatekeepers themselves because they might leave out things that they feel others should already know. It should be done by a neutral person.

4. Picking a knowledge base software system

So, you have your knowledge documented, yet no one wants to read them, thereby leaving the tribal knowledge problem the same way as it’s always been. Having documents that no one wants to read might arise from the way the information was stored. There are various options available for you to document any knowledge you uncover. There are flowcharts, PDFs, YouTube, spreadsheets, Google Docs, amongst others, and SweetProcess. SweetProcess software is designed to make documentation processes a no-brainer. It captures data in the simplest ways that do not frighten employees. It is easy to use and has features that make knowledge sharing and absorption interesting.

5. Encourage knowledge sharing

Finally, you can give your employees the task of recording their workday as they’re on it. Give some incentives, so they do it precisely.

Why You Should Use SweetProcess to Capture Tribal Knowledge

Why You Should Use SweetProcess to Capture Tribal Knowledge

The means of capturing tribal knowledge is almost as important as the knowledge itself. As mentioned earlier, if no one reads what has been documented, no problem has been solved. SweetProcess takes care of this. Read how business owners like you were able to overcome the tribal knowledge problem and grow their company using SweetProcess.

Clean up knowledge gaps

Flowcharts, PDFs, and Google docs, amongst others, are ways to document business processes, but that’s not all there is to making sure knowledge gets evenly distributed. Sarah, a portfolio analytics manager at Ginkgo Residential, recognized this and went for gold—SweetProcess. Seeing the knowledge gap in her company became a problem due to tribal knowledge, so she searched for a system that would be efficient at bridging this gap. She found SweetProcess and is now satisfied with the leveled-up employee knowledge in the company.

Document your processes 

A lack of documented processes, procedures, and policies created a knowledge gap at Marc Nelson Oil Products. Peter Nelson, the president of this company, witnessed this, and it was a pain. He saw skilled long-time employees leave with their knowledge, and since this knowledge was not documented, it meant a terrible loss to the company. Things had to change. They went on Google and tried a bunch of process documentation software, and SweetProcess stood out to be the one. Now the fear of losing important knowledge with the departure of skilled employees is gone because they have all their processes and procedures documented.

Grow your company with ease

Giorgio, president of American Flat, found himself in a fix as his business started expanding. With an initially small workforce, his team was okay to go, but as it grew, he discovered the problem of tribal knowledge. Getting information across to a large number of people became an issue. It affected work. He knew he had to start documenting processes, but with what? SweetProcess proved a lifesaver.

Any of these could be you today soon as you start utilizing this godsend.

Go online now to sign up for a free trial on SweetProcess and start seeing massive improvements in your work output. 


Knowledge is powerful. The right application of knowledge is even more powerful. The difference between your company performing well or not depends on how your team delivers on their tasks. You’ve seen how tribal knowledge, when documented the right way, can be a great asset to your company. 

Also, don’t forget to download our free Tribal Knowledge Checklist to help you identify places where your company has tribal knowledge and how to optimize it.

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