Think back to the last time an employee left your company. Did the company lose mission-critical knowledge known only by that person?


Today we live in an information age. Different sources and types of knowledge are all around us. An employee with internet has access to 1.2 million terabytes of data. This doesn’t even begin to cover knowledge stored across company intranets, file servers, and personal computers. This surplus of documentation can easily be a major pain point . However, an oft-overlooked source of knowledge is tribal knowledge: information that is “known but not documented.”

Tribal Knowledge: What is It?


tribal knowledge Tribal knowledge is information inside a person’s head. More specifically, it refers to knowledge inside a person’s head that is never written down. Instead, tribal knowledge is slowly shared across a “tribe” of people, such as: a department, business unit, or project team. It’s called tribal knowledge because, in the tradition of ancient tribes, knowledge is passed down from senior to junior. The unique feature – and greatest knowledge management pain point  – is that tribal knowledge is an oral tradition.


Tribal knowledge is a common challenge in IT departments. When an old software feature breaks down, the developer finds a coworker to explain how it works. When it’s time for an outdated system to be refactored the lead developer recalls what led to its original design flaws. Even worse, business stakeholders may ask the developers to explain why the software works the way it does. Un-deprecated, legacy systems are fraught with undocumented business rules. In all of these situations, tribal knowledge is dispersed from subject matter experts (SMEs) to others in an ad-hoc way.


Tribal knowledge, by itself, isn’t inherently harmful. Tribal knowledge is a naturally occurring trend in any enterprise; it’s natural for teams and coworkers to accumulate and share knowledge on the job. In agile software development it can even be encouraged! Collaboration is an inherent and valuable component of work. However, tribal knowledge and tribal behavior can also have negative repercussions on a company.

Tribal Knowledge: A Cost of Poor Knowledge Management


tribal knowledge Unchecked tribal knowledge is a failure in knowledge management. As information becomes more and more important effective knowledge management is even more critical. Knowledge management is a company’s ability to create, share, and consume information. It also includes the ability to audit, secure, and maintain existing knowledge. The foundation of every knowledge management effort is a central knowledge base where information is stored. Effective knowledge management brings great benefits to an organization via increased  productivity and decreased communication overhead.


However, natural as it is, information isn’t always shared when it needs to be. The larger the company is the more painful tribal knowledge becomes. Companies with custom built software platforms or complex business rules are at even greater risk.


Below are just a few pain points created by tribal knowledge and poor knowledge management.


Tribal Knowledge is Inconsistent


Information shared informally through conversation and impromptu sketches is frequently inconsistent. Everyone has a slightly different interpretation of what they hear and see. When knowledge is shared with someone, the information is internalized and aligned with that person’s mental models. In other words, the information is repackaged in the employee’s own words. If the company’s knowledge base lacks a business glossery it’s incredibly common for an idea to be explained with subtle differences. In software development especially, these small differences can snowball into missed requirements and unusable features.


Tribal Knowledge is Easily Lost


What happened the last time an employee left your company?


In the worst-case scenario, that employee leaves with mission-critical vendor contacts. Alternatively, perhaps they’re the only one who knows all the undocumented rules embedded in the company software. Without effective knowledge management and employee off-boarding, it’s all too common to lose important information alongside an employee. In the world of knowledge workers this loss of information capital can have immediate consequences. These consequences include: lowered productivity, missed opportunities, and information rework.


Tribal Knowledge is Inefficient


Effective practices for small groups, like a scrum team, don’t necessarily scale up for the entire enterprise. Tribal knowledge is frequently a real facet of employee learning in day-to-day work. However, it becomes increasingly difficult to utilize tribal knowledge as a company grows. A senior employee can’t meet with every employee every time they need information! Within large groups tribal knowledge only leads to reduced productivity and increased overhead.

Tribal Knowledge: How to Prevent It

In the end, one of the best remedies for tribal knowledge pain points is effective knowledge management. The first and most important step is to document important information. Set aside time to capture information in a company wiki. Timely opportunities include: the conclusion of a project, when an employee leaves, and even when new employee joins. Be sure to review and audit this information once it’s in your knowledge base!

Exercising knowledge management best practices will develop a company culture of continuous learning and improvement. These qualities will curb any tribal knowledge pain points.

Knowledge Management: Where to Go Next

tribal knowledge

There may be incredible opportunities to reduce tribal knowledge and develop knowledge management best practices for your company. Contact Xorbix to talk about your existing knowledge management capabilities and brainstorm new opportunities to develop a culture of learning for your business.