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Is Tribal Knowledge Killing Your Organizationís Attempts to Grow?

magnifying class examining crowd for tribal knowledge

By Nick Cleveland, Internal Product Owner

The only thing constant in our industry today is change, but how do you change the process within your organization without killing culture?  In my first process article, we covered operational efficiencies and how to start solving the problem.  After receiving several questions from readers on how to gain employee buy-in when implementing changes to operations, we covered the four questions to ask when preparing your employees for change.  Today, we are at the point where you’ve determined you have inefficiencies, your employees understand that change is happening, and now you need to discover where the tribal knowledge is. 

What is Tribal Knowledge?

Let’s set the stage.

Walter has worked for the company for more than a decade and was the go-to guy when the team was small.  In fact, they called him the “garbage man” because he took care of the stuff no one else wanted to do.  Over time, he became the owner of some very important aspects of the business.  However, as time progressed, processes began and ended with Walter.  With Walter causing an obvious bottleneck, he went from go-to guy to problem numero uno.

Walter is the poster child for tribal knowledge. Tribal knowledge is defined as being any undocumented information that is needed in order to accomplish quality work – that tried and true method forged over time. It’s present in almost every workplace, is extremely valuable to your organization and must be documented immediately.

The company Walter worked for was attempting to gain buy-in for changes that would create a culture of incremental improvement. When assessing this business, we identified the major issue as lack of information sharing. There was little to no documentation as to how to do important tasks that Walter knew all about, prompting us to go through a series of exercises mentioned below to flush out all instances of tribal knowledge.

Tribal knowledge exercises:

  1. Ask employees to draft a process document for how they complete their daily tasks. 
  2. Assign a back-up employee to go through the process document and obtain cross-training for the tasks completed.
  3. Stress how open communication, clarity of expectation and cross training are vital to a high performing workplace.

After going through these exercises, we were able to pinpoint that, indeed, Walter was the issue when it came to sharing information with the rest of the team.

Can you think of anyone in your organization causing this problem? 

Now that we have the process documents and clear knowledge of the major issue, the business owner and I were able to move on to our next step.  Next week, tune in to walk with me through creating a process map using a simple exercise called the SIPOC diagram.

Want to talk about your processes or how to streamline business systems?  Give VGM Forbin a call today at 877-659-5241 or send us a quick message from our contact form!