Capturing the Hidden Treasures of Tribal Knowledge in Organizations

12 min read
May 22, 2023
People working with each other

Have you ever worked at a company where there was that one key employee who seemed to know everything? The one who could solve any problem, navigate any challenge, and always seemed to have the correct answer?

Chances are, that person possessed a type of knowledge known as "tribal knowledge."

If you want to ensure your company doesn't lose its valuable tribal knowledge, keep reading!

Put knowledge to work

Knowledge base software for lightning-fast customer support and effortless self-service.

Trusted by 2,500+ companies

Free 14-day trial

The nature of tribal knowledge

It is a fascinating concept. It's the type of knowledge not written down anywhere but that you only learn through personal experience and being part of a particular community or group.

Characteristics of tribal knowledge

There are certain unique features of tribal knowledge that make it different from other forms of knowledge. The most significant one is that tribal knowledge is frequently unrecorded and unspoken. Consequently, you need help finding it documented in any books or manuals. Instead, you have to gain it through personal experience, involvement, and being part of a specific community or group.

It is frequently transmitted through generations, making it an integral part of a culture or lifestyle that cannot be learned quickly. Acquiring this knowledge requires dedication and perseverance and is typically regarded as a symbol of expertise and admiration within a community.

And what's more, sharing is a critical component of tribal knowledge. It can be lost or forgotten over time without sharing it with others. This is why it's important to have mechanisms to give it out within a particular community or organization.

Role of experience and expertise

The acquisition of knowledge and skills is crucial in tribal knowledge. Often, long-time employees with years of experience in a specific industry or organization are the ones who pass down it. They are considered the protectors of this knowledge, and their expertise is vital in ensuring its successful transfer.

Apart from being inherited across generations, it can give companies a competitive edge. With access to exclusive insights, companies can formulate strategies and approaches that distinguish them from their rivals. Thus, acknowledging and valuing the role of experience and expertise in a company's tribal knowledge is paramount.

Preventing a few individuals from monopolizing tribal knowledge is equally important. Sharing this knowledge with others benefits the entire organization rather than just a few employees.


Although tribal knowledge can be beneficial for organizations, it's crucial to acknowledge its limitations. 

The most significant limitation is that it is typically linked to the expertise of vital employees. As a result, if these critical employees ever retire or depart from the organization, the tribal knowledge they possess may be lost or substantially reduced.

Tribal knowledge has a downside of being exclusive. It is usually associated with a specific community or group, making it hard for outsiders to comprehend or obtain. This can hinder opportunities for innovation and collaboration since outsiders may have access to different insights, tacit knowledge, and experiences.

It's essential to acknowledge that tribal knowledge alone is not a cure-all for organizations seeking a competitive edge. In addition, investing in talent development, research and development, and process improvement is crucial for long-term employee in-term sustainability and success.

Examples of tribal knowledge

Tribal knowledge, in most business cases, refers to the information obtained and exchanged within a particular team or company department. This knowledge is usually built on the combined experiences, practices, and insights of employees who have worked together for a significant period.

Unlike formal knowledge, which is documented in manuals, procedures, or training materials, tribal learning is informal and often transmitted through casual conversations, observations, or mentorship. It is an integral part of the company culture and represents the established norms and practices within the organization.

Tribal knowledge can be found in various contexts, from indigenous communities to family-owned businesses, scientific societies, and sports teams. In each of these contexts, capturing tribal knowledge can be essential for building a solid knowledge base that can be leveraged to drive innovation and growth.

Indigenous communities

The wisdom of indigenous communities is a precious inheritance handed down through the ages. This knowledge is intimately linked to their cultural and spiritual traditions and encompasses many practices, including herbal remedies, hunting techniques, storytelling, and music.

It is crucial to capture tribal knowledge to build a solid knowledge base to fuel innovation and development. For instance, by sharing their knowledge of herbal remedies, indigenous communities can raise awareness and appreciation of natural medicine, potentially leading to new treatments and therapies.

Similarly, the knowledge of hunting techniques can be shared to promote sustainable practices that preserve wildlife and promote ecological balance. And indigenous communities' storytelling and music traditions can be shared to promote greater understanding and appreciation of different cultures and perspectives.

Family-owned businesses

In family-owned businesses, tribal knowledge can be a valuable resource differentiating them from competitors. This knowledge is closely tied to family members' unique insights and experiences, encompassing everything from product development and marketing strategies to customer relationships and supply chain management.

For example, a family-owned restaurant may have a secret recipe for a signature dish passed down through generations. This recipe is valuable knowledge that gives the restaurant a competitive advantage over other eateries in the area.

Family-owned businesses also benefit from a strong culture of employee loyalty and commitment. Family members often serve as role models for other employees and help create a sense of continuity and stability within the organization.

When employees feel a greater sense of ownership and responsibility for the business's success, their performance tends to improve. This, in turn, can lead to better customer service, increased productivity, and a more positive work environment overall.

Scientific communities

In scientific communities, tribal knowledge is immensely valuable in promoting innovation and discovery. This institutional knowledge stems from each team member's exclusive perspectives and encompasses research methods, lab techniques, data analysis, and interpretation.

For example, a lab technician may have developed specialized techniques for working with a particular type of cell culture not documented in standard procedures. This technician's knowledge can be a valuable resource that helps the team improve their processes and achieve better results.

Sports teams

Regarding sports, the knowledge passed down from person to person is significant in achieving success on the field. This knowledge is closely tied to players' and coaches' unique experiences and insights, covering various aspects such as game strategies, tactics, mental preparation, and team dynamics.

A coach's years of practice may have led to developing specialized training techniques that can significantly benefit the team's performance on the field. These techniques are considered valuable knowledge passed down through the tribe of coaches.

Aside from the unique knowledge that each team member brings, sports teams thrive on a culture of cooperation and collaboration. Athletes frequently exchange valuable information with one another and join forces to enhance their on-field performance.

Challenges of managing and sharing knowledge in organizations

Collecting and sharing tribal knowledge poses several challenges for organizations, such as the implicit nature of much of this information, fragmented data, and reluctance to embrace change.

Capture tribal knowledge

Capturing and sharing tribal knowledge can be a daunting for organizations. Here are some of the difficulties they face:

  1. Tacit knowledge - Tribal knowledge is often tacit and is not easily expressed or documented. This makes it challenging for organizations to capture and share this knowledge.
  2. Employee performance - Tribal knowledge often resides with key employees who have been with the organization for a long time. These employees may only be able to perform at a different level for a while, which means the organization risks losing their valuable knowledge when they retire or leave.
  3. Resistance to change - Employees may resist sharing their knowledge, especially if it gives them job security. They may also hesitate to share their knowledge if they feel the organization needs to value their contributions.
  4. Siloed information - Tribal knowledge can often be siloed within specific teams or departments, which means it's not easily accessible to the rest of the organization.
  5. Limited documentation - Tribal knowledge is often not documented, which means it's not easily accessible to others. Losing a key employee with valuable knowledge can pose a significant challenge for the organization.
  6. Limitations of technology - Technology can be a valuable tool for capturing and sharing tribal knowledge, but it has limitations. For example, not all tribal knowledge can be easily digitized, and technology can't capture the nuance of tacit knowledge.

Role of culture, power dynamics, and trust

Sharing tribal knowledge within organizations is heavily influenced by culture, power dynamics, and trust.

Companies need a culture of cooperation, power structures that promote sharing, and a secure atmosphere for staff to share knowledge.

Best practices for capturing and sharing tribal knowledge

Capturing and sharing tribal knowledge can be challenging for organizations, but it's crucial for preserving institutional knowledge and maintaining a competitive edge. Let's explore some best practices for capturing tribal knowledge effectively.

#1 Develop a structured approach

Create a formal process for capturing and documenting tribal knowledge. This could include regular interviews with key employees, sharing workshops, or an online platform.

#2 Encourage collaboration

Foster a culture of collaboration and encourage employees to share their knowledge and expertise. This could include creating cross-functional teams or implementing a mentorship program.

#3 Establish knowledge-sharing roles

Assign specific roles and responsibilities for sharing within the organization, such as a knowledge management team or a designated sharing coordinator.

#4 Invest in technology 

Implement technology solutions such as knowledge management systems or collaboration tools to facilitate sharing and capture.

For example, you can check out KnowledgeBase. It is a knowledge base software that allows companies to set up a customer help center. It can be packed with media-rich help articles, product usage guides, troubleshooting tips, and answers to frequently asked questions. 

Put knowledge to work

Knowledge base software for lightning-fast customer support and effortless self-service.

Trusted by 2,500+ companies

Free 14-day trial

#5 Reward knowledge sharing

Recognize and reward employees who actively share their knowledge and expertise with others in the organization. This could include incentives or promotions for those who contribute to the knowledge base.

#6 Prioritize documentation

Make sure to document all captured tribal knowledge in a structured and accessible way. This could include creating a central database.

#7 Develop training programs

To ensure that all employees understand the importance of sharing and how to identify tribal knowledge and capture and document tribal knowledge effectively, it is essential to develop training programs.

#8 Conduct regular knowledge audits

Conduct regular audits of the knowledge to ensure it is up-to-date and relevant and that any formerly undocumented information or tribal knowledge is captured and added to the knowledge base.

Ethical and legal considerations of using tribal knowledge in commercial contexts

However, organizations can benefit from tribal knowledge in various contexts. Nonetheless, it is crucial to contemplate the ethical and legal consequences of utilizing this knowledge in commercial settings.

When obtaining unique knowledge from indigenous communities or other groups, it is imperative to consider ethics and avoid exploitation. Fair compensation should be provided to individuals or communities with the knowledge to ensure ethical acquisition. It is essential to approach this process with sensitivity and respect.

When utilizing tribal knowledge for commercial purposes, it is also important to consider legal considerations. The knowledge may be safeguarded by intellectual property laws or classified as a trade secret, thus necessitating the acquisition of proper permissions and legal agreements before using it in a commercial environment.

It's crucial to use tribal knowledge responsibly that aligns with the values and beliefs of the community or individuals who hold it. Misrepresenting or misusing this information can damage the reputation of the organization and those associated with the knowledge. Therefore, handling this knowledge responsibly is essential to avoid negative consequences.

Tribal knowledge paradox

The concept of tribal knowledge is a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, it is an invaluable resource for organizations to draw upon, helping them to improve performance, increase efficiency, and gain a competitive edge.

On the other hand, tribal knowledge can be challenging to capture, as it is often held by long-term employees or members of a particular team or department.

This can create what is known as the "tribal knowledge paradox": the very people who possess the most valuable knowledge to an organization are often the ones with the most difficulty engaging in capturing and sharing that knowledge.

To overcome this paradox, organizations must implement strategies that encourage sharing tribal knowledge across all levels of the organization. This may involve creating formal programs for knowledge transfer and capturing tribal knowledge, instituting mentoring or coaching mentorship programs, or incentivizing employees to participate in knowledge-sharing activities. Additionally, creating a culture of trust and open communication can help to break down barriers that may prevent employees from sharing their undocumented tribal knowledge.

Another effective solution is to establish a personalized knowledge database that stores all relevant information and critical details about the products. Consolidating the data in one place ensures that employees can easily comprehend and share their insights. KnowledgeBase is a notable example of such a database.