How many times have you wanted to hire a non-traditional employee but couldn’t because they don’t have the prior knowledge necessary? Or wanted to bring in younger workers, but can’t because they simply don’t have the experience of your senior members?
One of the biggest downsides to growing or replenishing a workforce is the fact that employers are often pressured by market demand to hire candidates who already know the machinery, the industry, or another aspect of the work. This restricts your candidate pool to people who have had similar work experiences, education, or professional networks, and limits the introduction of new skills or ideas that come with employees from different backgrounds.
When employees retire or leave your workplace, what knowledge are they taking with them? Can that knowledge be used to promote diversity and inclusion within your workforce?
The baby boomer workforce generation is retiring at higher rates than ever—3.2 million more retired in the third quarter of 2020 compared to the same time period of 2019, and another 75 million baby boomers will be retiring in the very near future. When they leave your company, what knowledge will be lost? How much do they currently know about your workplace that isn’t known by the employees who will succeed them?
Whether your long-term team members are moving on to new opportunities or retiring, losing what’s known as “tribal knowledge” can leave your current and future employees at a significant disadvantage. Here is the rundown on what you need to know about tribal knowledge, the benefits of documenting it, and how you can hold on to that knowledge into the future.
What is Tribal Knowledge?
“Tribal knowledge” generally refers to unshared or unwritten information held by senior employees of a workforce. It can pertain to knowledge about clients, machinery, software, hardware, or other aspects of work that has been acquired from years of personal experience.
Consequently, it is easy for employees or teams within a company to view their tribal knowledge as the secret ingredient to their successes, and may be closely guarded from competitors, or even other team members. When, or if this information is passed on to other individuals, it is often only communicated orally and in small pieces with limited context.
In other cases, the tribal knowledge may just be so specific to a particular role that no one outside that role has bothered to ask the “how?” or “why?” about it, let alone write it down. Either way, this collective wisdom is vital to the bottom line and efficiency of your company and team, and can impact performance, procedures, or even future hiring decisions.
The Benefits of Documenting Tribal Knowledge
The main issue with tribal knowledge comes from the fact that it is unwritten: this can result in a game of Telephone where facts and information become skewed over time, or are lost entirely if they are not passed on to another employee. Consequently, you should document this information as soon as possible.
There are two major benefits that come along with documenting tribal knowledge, including:
You Capture and Preserve the Knowledge
By documenting the tribal knowledge sooner rather than later, you can hold on to the information, facts, and details for your employees. Your workers won’t simply be taking the knowledge away to their next workplace or into retirement, and this useful information will become accessible to other team members who might benefit from it.
If your manuals, procedures, and other support documentation are outdated, you can revitalize them with better content and more efficient practices simply by taking the time now to write down what your senior and experienced employees know.
You Promote Diversity and Inclusion
Thanks to written tribal knowledge you can promote diversity and inclusion within your company because the tactics and techniques that lead your company to success can be shared through procedures and training. Employers can skip the process of incubating an employee for years while they make mistakes, learn, and acquire this knowledge on their own. You can look outside the tiny spheres for new team members and bring in employees with diverse backgrounds and work experiences to grow the overall culture and knowledge of your business.
How to Document Tribal Knowledge
There are a few steps you need to take to document tribal knowledge. Here are three to start with:
Step #1: Identify the Knowledge
The first step is finding out exactly where this tribal knowledge is. Who on your team holds it?
There is likely a variety of people in your business who hold different pieces of the puzzle, so you’ll need to identify who has it and what they have.
A good place to start is by interviewing your most experienced team members and top performers and asking some of these questions:
- What do they do differently from new employees in the company? This can help you identify skills and strategies that are important to pass on to other team members.
- What are shortcuts or changes they make to existing procedures? This can highlight more current and efficient processes contrasted with outdated information in legacy procedures.
- What were their most difficult experiences in their career, and how did they overcome them? This can reveal gaps in company training and techniques for improvement.
Step #2: Compile the Knowledge
After you have a thorough list of what people are carrying in their heads pertaining to your work, it is time to see what they have in their hands. Employees often develop personal, informal resources gathered from meeting notes, job-aids, data sheets, or even Post-its they have saved over the years!
Places you may want to check for informal documentation can include:
- Written notes and hardcopy files that are not accessible to other team members
- Resources saved on computer desktops, personal folders, or external disks and drives
- Web links to helpful sites, cloud storage, or document sharing locations
- Job-specific exchanges from texts, emails, or other communication platforms
These resources can be collected, organized, formalized, and either added into existing company documentation or used to set the stage for entirely new handbooks.
Step #3: Design Training and Mentorship Programs
The last step is to start incorporating your newly-written knowledge into your training and mentorship programs. Documented tribal knowledge is a crucial tool for your company, but it is only effective if it is presented in a clear, accessible format targeted for the people who will need to use it.
You may have to get senior members up to speed with the details another team member provided, and you’ll also want to ensure your newest hires have this vital information. As people become established in the company workflow, they should have the same knowledge as the mentors they’re replacing thanks to this training and documentation.
Tribal knowledge doesn’t have to be lost as the baby boomers in your workforce retire. Taking the time to document the information now can help ensure the knowledge is passed down to their successors and newest hires to the team. It also plays a major role in diversity and inclusion, allowing you to hire more diverse workers from different age groups and different backgrounds.