By using this website you agree to our
Close message

Content brought to you by Archbee,
Company Wiki & Knowledge Base tailored to engineering teams.

Back to blog

What Is Tribal Knowledge, and Why Is Everyone Talking About It?

by Dragos Bulugean





To the yellow Post-It note on the copy machine: you’ve gotten an upgrade.

Companies have long relied on such little bits of information to make them run smoothly. A particular workaround for a piece of software that lacks a feature employees need, or simply a tip for how to work with a particular spreadsheet: these tiny recommendations abound within companies of all sizes in all industries.

Such collective wisdom within an organization is known as tribal knowledge.

After all, if people can do their jobs more efficiently because of a software hack or better spreadsheet navigation, then productivity is increased, affecting the bottom line.

At issue is that such wisdom—the collection of hundreds or even thousands of such pieces of practical, operational recommendations and know-how—often go undocumented. Indeed, if you aren’t on the same team and privy to a way of doing things better, then you’re left out.

Because countless other employees within an organization can benefit from the knowledge and experience one group or department may use to carry out its operations, companies are now seeking ways to more efficiently collect, organize, and distribute such informal knowledge.

If ROI is at stake, then management of tribal knowledge needs to become a top priority.

Examples of Tribal Knowledge

Here are some examples of tribal knowledge in action inside of an organization.

Legacy code Engineers who have been with a company for 5 years or longer recall how the old database app was built and deployed. While a new VP of engineering joined the company last year and changed things up quite a bit, the senior engineers are able to access the code on AWS for a single customer who keeps getting an error message because the customer is still using the legacy app. 

Importance: useful in unique customer situations.

Old website Before the new website was launched on HubSpot CMS, a few employees recall the old website built on WordPress. Besides knowing where old blog posts and website content are saved, employees recall former blog and content publishing procedures, including SEO and readability measures. Old content can be updated, and procedures used for the old website can be evaluated and potentially used for the new website.

Importance: relevant and potentially applicable for a new platform

Accounting macros A new employee with strong Excel and VBA skills joins the accounting department. However, he quickly notices several custom macros that were developed in-house by an employee who left the company two years ago. The macros aren’t perfect, and he’d like to work on them to improve them for everyone’s benefit. Luckily, the departed employee left instructions, though no one currently in the accounting department has VBA experience. The new employee can get to work and make any necessary changes.

Importance: knowledge sharing and allowing for business continuity

Why Companies Need to Collect Tribal Knowledge

Google doesn’t always have the answer

Employees shouldn’t have to rely on Google to get a question answered, especially when that question relates to a work-related process. They should be encouraged to first consult the knowledge management wiki to see if an answer exists. Chances are, another employee previously ran into the same issue, and hopefully, provided an answer.

Intangible assets

Research shows that a company’s intangible assets are a source of competitive advantage. The knowledge and processes to design, build and deliver ever-more complex products and services are what keeps companies alive and relevant. Such knowledge needs to be captured, organized, and utilized for the collective benefit of the organization.

Subject matter experts abound

Knowledge workers within companies are everywhere, and everyone knows something which can be shared.

While subject matter experts are aware that they are not compensated extra for sharing their expertise, they actually have a desire to. An engineer or designer who is passionate about her work is more than happy to share expertise with team members.

Global, distributed teams

Employees nowadays likely do not simply stand over their cubicle wall to ask a coworker a question. Coworkers these days are likely to be remote, perhaps even working in a different time zone.

As such, a seemingly simple question cannot be answered in the office or even via chat, but instead needs to get answered via a knowledge management system. In fact, such a system can foster better collaboration among geographically dispersed team members, as it can serve as the source of vital information needed to perform certain tasks.

Carrying out L&D in the process

The knowledge management wiki performs double duty as a training platform, too. While tribal knowledge certainly does not replace a company’s LMS (learning management system), the wiki can help further the learning and development (L&D) mission by introducing employees to expertise or a way of doing things they hadn’t yet been introduced to, that helps them do their jobs better.  According to Training magazine’s 2018 Training Industry Report, employees typically receive on average only 47 hours per year on training—that’s less than one hour per week. As such, a few minutes spent searching and finding information in the wiki provides a huge benefit. 

How to Create a Culture That Embraces Tribal Knowledge

The funny thing about tribal knowledge is that it’s often created informally and unintentionally: an employee thinks about a way to do his or her job better and simply does it, without letting others know or making a big deal about it.

This isn’t helpful, and could perhaps be even a bit dangerous, as a way of servicing customers or writing code cannot be replicated. Instead, companies need to make an effort to capture this knowledge as it happens.

Here are a few recommendations companies can use to transition into a knowledge sharing culture:

Recognize the knowledge gap

Employees hold information that they do not even realize is vital to the success of the organization. As such, organizations need to recognize this and devise processes to capture it for mutual benefit. 

The knowledge needed to carry out job-related tasks may be foundational in a particular profession or industry, but everyone brings something different to the table. This uniqueness, including experience gleaned from previous positions, can bring substantial value to a team. 

Create a supportive environment for employees

As a way to let everyone’s voice be heard, managers should encourage employees to document and track any knowledge as it occurs in a work-related project or task. 

Likewise, employees should inform managers when they feel they have made significant “knowledge contributions,” demonstrating impact to the project’s success.

Tie knowledge management to the employee experience

Employees are already overworked and overwhelmed. Indeed, adding yet one more task to their plate may elicit a groan (or two). 

To improve life at work, Deloitte’s 2019 Global Human Capital Trends report suggests that companies focus on making work meaningful, giving people a sense of belonging, trust, and relationship. Deloitte, believes that organizations should move beyond thinking about experience at work in terms of perks and rewards, instead focusing on “job fit, job design, and meaning."

Tribal knowledge can deliver some of this. When employees feel that their contributions are being valued, even in the smallest amounts, they will find meaning, like the engineer mentioned above who loves her job and wants to help create a stronger team. Further, when employees find out that their contributions helped another employee solve a problem faster or do a job better, work will have more meaning.

What Tribal Knowledge Is Not

There are limits with tribal knowledge. It does not include corporate intellectual property, such as patents, trademarks, copyrights, government licenses, and business methodologies, or employees’ personal information. Indeed, there is a risk if all of this information is saved in one location. 

Tribal knowledge can include instructions on the procedures to retrieve such information when needed, but generally, your knowledge management wiki should not include such information. 

Further, provide training to your employees about what types of information should and should not be included in the wiki. 

Issues with Instituting the Capture of Tribal Knowledge

Not everything will run smoothly. Companies should be aware of the potential pitfalls of instituting a tribal knowledge collection and distribution system, and address these issues early on. Training and even gamification can help keep everyone on the same page.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

Even if they are informed that there is a company-wide wiki, many employees simply won’t care. They’re happy doing their jobs the same way they’ve always been doing them, and they may find it irrelevant or inconvenient to access—much less contribute—to a tribal knowledge system.

More likely, employees may already be happy with the tools they already use to track knowledge and collaborate, such as Confluence or Google Docs. At issue is that the larger the company, the more likely there are multiple tools in place, and content stored in one platform may not be stored in another, leading to bottlenecks. A wiki is needed that integrates with tools already in use.

Munchhausen and job security

There exist those employees who enjoy holding knowledge that no one else in the company possesses. They take pleasure in knowing that other employees and even customers rely on them solely for their knowledge and expertise. As such, why would they give it away, and potentially risk their professional dominance?

These are perhaps some of the more dangerous employees within an organization. Worse, some of these employees practice what Harvard Business Review calls corporate munchhausen, or inventing a problem which they proceed to solve, then appearing as the hero who gets congratulated and rewarded. A tribal knowledge system serves to root out such behaviors.

When employees leave

When employees leave—whether voluntarily or involuntarily—they take their knowledge with them. Of course, companies cannot ask an employee on the day she leaves to document everything she has contributed to the company. 

To future-proof this situation, organizations can institute a knowledge-sharing culture early on in an employee’s tenure, to ensure that critical information is captured along the way. 

Conversely, the opposite occurs when employees join a company: they bring their expertise and past experience with them, which can be immediately and regularly captured for the benefit of the entire organization.

Reliance on contractors

Another issue with tribal knowledge occurs when employees aren’t even employees but rather contractors. Whether part-time or full-time, contractors may be reluctant to contribute knowledge to a company-wide wiki. Lean on your legal team to determine what’s permissible; generally, employment status should not preclude contractors from making contributions to your wiki.

Features of a Tribal Knowledge System That Employees Will Love

Besides an intuitive interface, a robust knowledge management system, like Archbee, incorporates the following features.

Easy to use

The easier it is to use, the faster employees will adopt it and start using it regularly. Choose a system with a clean design that can be accessed via multiple devices, platforms, or endpoints. The hope is that employees will access it and contribute to it on a regular, even daily basis.

Fast

Archbee is lightweight and is the fastest knowledge management wiki available today. If it takes too much time to access and use the wiki, then engineers, designers, technical documentation specialists, and others simply won’t use it.

Built for engineers

Because most companies are built around engineering teams, and they work all day long with code snippets, changelogs, architecture diagrams, and other tools. Such tribal knowledge needs to be easily accessible in one location.

Integrated with Slack

Why keep people away from their communication platform of choice? Archbee’s Slack integration allows teams to keep working where they already are. If Slack is the synchronous medium of communication for chat, then Archbee is the asynchronous medium for knowledge—and they make a very good match.

Smart

The system should have the usual social and collaboration features in place, such as time and date stamps, authorship, and upvoting. However, as knowledge can go out of date quickly, make sure to choose a system that sends alerts when information is nearing “expiration,” or when pages haven’t been visited or updated in awhile. This helps to keep knowledge as up to date and relevant as possible.





While the yellow Post-It note will forever be visible in any office, tools to capture tribal knowledge will increasingly find their way into most organizations. Cultivating a culture of knowledge sharing, in which employees are inspired to document and share, is necessary for a platform to work. When it does, employees are happier, productive, and companies achieve greater ROI. 

Curious about installing a flexible, scalable knowledge management system wiki? Archbee is the solution for software teams and others who seek faster access to information with fewer distractions. Contact us today at sales@archbee.io!

Subscribe to our blog for weekly content about software development architecture, team work & more

Subscribe to blog
Dragos Bulugean
Dragos is the founder of Archbee.
Hit him up on Twitter, LinkedIn or mail
Copyright © AiurLabs, Inc. All rights reserved