Decentralizing Tribal Knowledge in Your Team

Oct. 28, 2019
While it's great to have experts on your team, tribal knowledge can cause major problems to your workflow as teams get reorganized. These tips will help you manage and avoid tribal knowledge before it becomes an issue.

Let’s begin with the question, what is “Tribal Knowledge?” To put it simply, tribal knowledge is any undocumented information— which resides only in the minds of certain people—that is critical to a project or team’s success. If you are not directly involved in the team’s core operation, you may not catch wind of it until a team member leaves or you try to repeat the exercise with a different team.

While tribal knowledge may help drive success instantly, it has adverse effects in the long run. Especially for groups that oversee routine operations such as manufacturing, system administrators, and maintenance. While you may not be able to completely prevent this situation, every group can take steps to avoid it. It is very important to identify the problem early in order to minimize the impact on quality or even your team’s ability to operate.

There may be a number of reasons to explain the presence of tribal knowledge in your team, such as:

  • Individuals avoiding sharing information to ensure job security;
  • Disinterest in documentation;
  • The feeling of being overburdened; or
  • The notion that it's not their responsibility.

Whatever the reason, as a team leader, it is important to address the concern and work as a group to overcome this hurdle.

It is very easy to start writing up a document and have all team members fill in the required information, but the challenge is to continue the practice. For this, you must illustrate the importance and benefits of documentation. A good approach is to start small, allow it to become a part of your team’s day-to-day process. You must also ensure that the document is shared with correct permissions to the team and can be accessed with ease when esoteric information is being used or needed. It must be made a habit to direct individuals to the document rather than to the person with the relevant knowledge.

I have had personal experiences with my team and continue to face this tribal knowledge problem. To alleviate this issue, I am trying to log asset information, document troubleshooting operations, and capture the exceptions in procedures for future incidents. When I joined my project team, I had no knowledge about equipment/system physical locations, their configuration, related life cycle documents, etc. There were anomalous configuration and architecture among the systems, of which the veteran members of the team were aware of due to their experience; however, there was no documentation to refer to. Whenever I had questions about the anomaly, I would need my colleague’s assistance to figure it out. It was smooth sailing until the team started to grow and then reorganized.

With veteran team members leaving and new hires joining, a lot of time was spent in knowledge transfer as well as troubleshooting problems which were previously solved. My solution to this problem was sharing a spreadsheet with all my team members to start documenting all the basic information to be used on a daily basis. I also ensured that the document became our source for answers, and we have been adding more information to it ever since.

It has saved us a lot of hours which were otherwise spent on routinely searching through various documents, picking someone’s brain, or waiting for a response from others. This has also helped with our troubleshooting efforts where the team now focuses on new problems and has a structured approach to previously encountered issues.

I will admit that it has not solved all our problems and we continue to have tribal knowledge, but we have kept it in check and are working to get documentation. The key here is to start small and make sure that whatever document repository is being used, the team requires little to no experience in using it. It is also important to keep all the information in one location so it’s easy to manage and have access to the information very quickly. Lastly, do not delay this exercise as it is a continuous improvement process and it will save your team a lot of time and money down the road.

Keerthi Duraikkannan is a site manager at Panacea Technologies, a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). For more information about Panacea, visit its profile on the CSIA Industrial Automation Exchange.

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