Financial Poise
Sharing Tribal Knowledge in the Workplace

Why Managers Must Seize, Retain and Share Tribal Knowledge in the Workplace

When Your Star Employee Walks Out the Door, So Does Their Knowledge

America is getting older. Not just in terms of it having a birthday every year, but in terms of the percentage of people closing in on retirement. You can thank the aging Baby Boomer population for that. What that says to me is that any company with a significant number of employees has either a great opportunity or a great, big time bomb. What is that time bomb? Tribal knowledge in the workplace.

It’s only a matter of time before someone with a hell of a lot of knowledge about your company, your clients and the very best business practices walks out the door. When they go, that knowledge goes with them. And if management doesn’t appropriately train or encourage knowledge sharing among employees, it can affect productivity.

In fact, a 2020 study by Jason Sandvik, a professor at Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business, found that deliberate knowledge-sharing activities increased productivity by up to 24% in an experiment among sales associates at a national call center. Sandvik told Tulane University news:

“To the extent that gaining knowledge can cause an individual to perform better and as a result earn more money, we tend to think employees will self-organize to exchange knowledge with each other. What we found is that people don’t necessarily self-organize. I think one of our most significant findings is the need for deliberate managerial interventions in order to facilitate the flow of knowledge between employees.”

In other words, as a manager, it is important to take intentional steps towards spreading tribal knowledge among current (and new) employees.

What is Tribal Knowledge in the Workplace?

Tribal knowledge is the amount of knowledge an employee has, as well as how much collective knowledge the organization has. This is undocumented knowledge within a person’s head that could represent decades worth of information.

The shared part, the “collective knowledge,” is the crux of the issue at hand for so many businesses. They let their all-stars ride off into the sunset before they can grow their group’s wisdom. I see it in financial firms, law firms, accounting firms and manufacturers. All the time.

Now, this isn’t reserved for people who are about to retire. It can happen when you let someone with any kind of experience and rapport with clientele move on without knowledge transfer. However, the biggest impact across the board may be from those who can see retirement on the horizon.

What Do You Have To Lose? A Lot

Think about how the loss of tribal knowledge in the workplace impacts your potential client relationships going forward.

Let’s say that your firm routinely sends Sam, a nice director in his mid-50s, to meet with a few of your top clients. Your clients love Sam. He’s communicative, excellent at what he does and highly attentive to every detail. Sam has a good support team at your firm too. Clients meet them once or twice, but for the most part, Sam gets all the client face time.

Then, Sam makes the announcement that he’s leaving the firm by the end of the month.

Wow. Talk about a gut punch you didn’t see coming.

Sam wasn’t supposed to leave anytime soon. Wasn’t he happy here? Regardless, now you’re scrambling, because you’ve got to train the rest of the team on everything Sam knows about your industry and all the nuances of his clientele.

How challenging and awkward is it going to be to explain to your clients that Sam is leaving and someone they’ve rarely dealt with is now going to be handling their account? How difficult is it going to be to bring those new people up to speed?

Sharing is Caring (for Your Company)

This is the amazing element of tribal knowledge in the workplace—you could have a company of 300 people, but if just five key employees retired or walked off the job to form their own company, where does that leave your company?

I experienced one of these examples myself several years ago while serving on the board of a not-for-profit. I finally decided that it was time to leave this particular board, because we were talking about the same issue that we’d talked about for five years. There was no attempt to document and share the understanding of what it was that contributed to this particular issue.

Without that sense of history, you start from zero, and you spend more time on the problem than you need to. How is an organization or company supposed to move the ball forward if they keep having the same conversations?

This concept could apply to virtually any industry, but let’s use the manufacturing industry as an example of the importance of tribal knowledge.

Think about manufacturing employees who have been in their industry for 30 years. They know certain complex processes and proprietary data. Couldn’t they mentor rising talent so that the next generation is ready to step in seamlessly?

It’s Not About “Cloning” Your Best People

With any transfer of knowledge, it’s important to avoid a “this is the way we’ve always done it” situation in which the person teaching the next generation has zero flexibility to evolve. How can we merge mastery of the old way with new ideas to elevate our game?

What’s fresh about this approach is that you encourage your up-and-coming people to forge their own path using the tools, tactics and tribal knowledge you’ve used up until this point. That way, they have greater ownership over the product rather than simply following someone else’s template with little emotional attachment.

One of my former co-workers, a senior employee, likes to tell the story of the time he was walking through one of our company’s plants when he noticed a few people doing design work on a particular part. He stopped for a moment and watched them work. Then, he asked, “Hey, why are you designing that way?”

Upon a closer look, he realized that what was being designed was the very approach that he had implemented in the company 15 years ago.

Their answer? You guessed it: “This is the way we’ve always done it, and we don’t have any need to change or improve it.”

Adapt to Evolve

We want to learn from our leaders and from our history. But at the same time, we should also learn, move and grow from it. You can’t continually be head down, doing it the same way you always have.

Processes can always be improved upon. Having a process for responding when something changes is as important as having a plan itself.

An adaptive environment that takes the very best of what its predecessors give it (including tribal knowledge), combined with new ideas and technologies, will move with the pace of change—or even be ahead of the curve.


[Editor’s Note: To learn more about this and related topics, you may want to attend the following webinar series: Protecting Your Employee Assets: The Life Cycle of the Employment Relationship. This is an updated version of an article originally published on August 9, 2018.]

©All Rights Reserved. February, 2021.  DailyDACTM, LLC d/b/a/ Financial PoiseTM

About David Spitulnik

David Spitulnik Managing Partner, Spitulnik Advisors, LLC David Spitulnik is a successful executive with over 40 years of experience in both large technology companies and in consulting to and leadership of mid-market, closely held and family owned businesses across a variety of industries. In addition to serving as chair of the Private Directors Association’s Private…

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