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Retaining Tribal Knowledge For Your Company’s Long-Term Health

Tribal Knowledge: Be in the Know

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 great, big time-bomb before it. Retaining tribal knowledge is key.

After all, 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.

Retaining Tribal Knowledge

“Tribal Knowledge” is the amount of knowledge an employee has and how much collective knowledge the organization has. It 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.

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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 Lose from a Loss of Tribal Knowledge?

Think about how this loss of tribal knowledge 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 met 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 the clientele he’s dealt with.

How challenging and awkward is it going to be to explain that Sam is leaving to your clients and that someone they’ve rarely dealt with is now going to be primarily 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 – you could have a company of 300 people, but if just five key employees walked off the job to form their own company or retired, where does that leave your company?

I experienced one of these examples myself several years ago. I was serving on the board of a not-for-profit and 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, spending 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.

How is an organization or company supposed to move the ball forward if they keep having the same conversations? Click To Tweet

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 when the opportunity presents itself?

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 so that we as a company can then 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 and tactics and tribal knowledge you’ve used up until this point. That way, they have greater ownership rather than simply following someone else’s template with little emotional attachment.

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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 as he was watching them work, 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 be continually “heads 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.

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.

An adaptive environment that takes the very best of what its predecessors give it, combined with new ideas and technologies, will move with the pace of change, if not be ahead of the curve.

About David Spitulnik

David Spitulnik is a successful executive with over 35 years 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. David is an Executive Coach and works with individuals and organizations to develop and implement strategies that drive transformation, growth,…

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