Tribal Knowledge: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

November 22, 2023 Krystian Link

Over the years, I’m sure many of you have heard the phrase “tribal knowledge” across a multitude of industries, applications, and companies.  What is it?  Why is it such a big deal for better and for worse? 

Tribal Knowledge: What is it?

Tribal knowledge is knowledge that isn’t stored on any particular hard drive, computer, or repository.  Rather, it’s tucked away neatly in the minds of your employees and coworkers.  It is knowledge that they’ve acquired over the years working in a given role (or series of roles) that may have afforded them a certain level of gravitas at a given company.  Many people who develop a deep expertise in a certain field or knowledge category go on to become subject matter experts, technical specialists, or the like at their respective companies.  The knowledge they possess becomes “tribal” because in many cases, these subject matter experts don’t document their knowledge.  On top of that, the only way this knowledge is transferred is when the subject matter expert teaches it to a successor.

The Good

Being a recipient of tribal knowledge is a fantastic learning opportunity and allows an employee to leapfrog in terms of industry knowledge.  I had this experience myself at the start of my career, and it was critical to my success in that role.  The tribal knowledge in many cases can’t be bought.  And, if it could be, the job applicant possessing it would command a hefty salary.  Having tribal knowledge that extends years, decades, and in some cases over 100 years can cement a company’s place in the market with product robustness that can’t be matched.

The Bad

But it’s not all good.  Having tribal knowledge that is centrally located in one or a few key individuals can lead to cases of skill imbalance across an organization.  While most subject matter experts or those in possession of tribal knowledge are willing to educate others, the darker side of this can be hoarding knowledge that the company needs to function.  When validation plans, design logic, or product failure root causes are held hostage, that can lead to long-term ramifications down the road in terms of eroding quality, increased warranty expenditures, and even worse, litigation.  Another key issue with tribal knowledge is that it breeds organizational complacency:

  • “The product has worked all this time, and we haven’t really had warranty claims”
  • “Oh, employee X has signed off on it, it’s probably fine because he’s the SME”
  • “We don’t really know where the data came from, but it’s probably fine”
  • “If employee Y ever left, we’d be in big trouble.  But they aren’t going anywhere”

All these comments result from abuse and misuse of tribal knowledge.  To be best-in-class for product development, a company needs to keep challenging themselves, their staff, and their product to grow and remain competitive.  Relying too extensively on tribal knowledge (and those who retain it) places a tremendous risk on the organization’s financial future and strategic growth opportunities.

The Ugly

When “that one person” who knows the company’s greatest revenue generating product inside-and-out leaves the company, the organizational pain spreads like wildfire.  In most cases, a company has only two weeks to extract years (or even decades) of tribal knowledge from the employee who is leaving.  This is an impossible task, no matter how many employees are sent to learn that knowledge.  Worse still, when that tribal knowledge is gone, most (if not all) logic behind design decisions, material selection and test plans evaporate.  A company can either 1.) re-qualify their product development for one or several products or 2.) continue their current product development path and hope for the best.  While many choose the latter option with minimal immediate adverse outcome, the potential consequences are impactful long term:

  • Product development cycles take longer due to lack of critical expertise
  • Product failures are exasperated in validation activities
  • Networks and relationships with suppliers erode
  • Increased warranty claims and associated costs
  • Organizational stress on employees tasked with relearning tribal knowledge
  • Tarnished company reputation due to lower-quality products

These are obviously worst-case scenario outcomes but should be seriously considered when a high concentration of tribal knowledge exists.  Can your team function if this tribal knowledge quite literally walked out the door tomorrow?  Can your team backfill this knowledge with the staff that is still on payroll?  These are only some of the questions to ponder regarding tribal knowledge.

The Solution

So, how does a team or organization go about “fixing” the tribal knowledge problem?  It’s not something that can be addressed overnight and requires diligence to get rid of.  Here’s some suggested next steps to kick off that process:

  • Team skills inventory: Do you know what your team members actually know?  Asking your team to identify their skills and relevant professional experiences will help identify areas of weakness and fill them.
  • Democratize the knowledge: Institute cross-training opportunities for experts and novices in your teams.  New experiences will not only challenge your team to grow but also keep them engaged.
  • Succession planning: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  Preparing for the day when your tribal knowledge leaves will minimize disruption to project deliverables.  Identify your high potentials, develop their knowledge, and set your team up for success.
  • Understand legacy and inherited products: These are the skeletons in the product development closet.  How did those designs and/or products come into existence?  Do some engineering archaeology and try to understand how those products were designed, developed, tested, and certified.  Knowing where they came from will only improve your team’s productivity and expertise going forward.

About the Author

Krystian Link

Krystian is a CFD application engineer at RandSim with over 10 years of product development experience in the automotive and manufacturing industries. His simulation experience focuses on vehicle thermal management, external aerodynamics simulations, and HVAC systems, including a publication in SAE’s Journal of Commercial Vehicles ("CFD Windshield Deicing Simulations for Commercial Vehicle Applications"). After completing his MBA at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, Krystian became even more passionate about building and implementing strategic solutions that not only address customers’ simulation needs, but also their business goals.

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