What Does Tribal Knowledge Mean For Businesses?


f you left your company tomorrow, could someone step straight into your shoes and keep your role moving without a hitch?

Or are there details, processes and shortcuts that are only exclusive to you that only you know about? Are those bits and pieces essential for the business to run smoothly and productively? 

If so, you’re the owner of tribal knowledge, that instantly makes you become one of the most important resources for the success of a company.

What is tribal knowledge?

Tribal knowledge is unwritten knowledge that is only known by a select “tribe” of people. 

In business, tribal knowledge refers to the collective knowledge and skills that are unique to an organisation and its employees. Tribal knowledge is undocumented and often unshared, allowing it to be easily lost when employees leave.

Tribal knowledge can be widely known throughout an organization, or it may be siloed within certain departments, teams or individuals. People who withhold tribal knowledge from others are known as “gatekeepers”.

Decorative. What does tribal knowledge mean in business?

Examples of tribal knowledge

Tribal knowledge in businesses can exist in various forms. Some examples of tribal knowledge in business include:

  • Account passwords.
  • Tricks or shortcuts for using pieces of technology.
  • Internal processes or setups.
  • Advantageous relationships and connections.
  • Knowledge learned from the success or failure of previous projects.
  • Knowing common blockers or enablers of projects.
  • Some trade secrets.

These are just a few examples of tribal knowledge that commonly occur in businesses.

Causes of tribal knowledge in businesses

There are both positive and negative reasons that may cause tribal knowledge to build in businesses.

All businesses will accumulate tribal knowledge over the course of time. Every time that colleagues work together, they are likely to learn from each other.

Similarly, every time someone works on a project and observes its outcome, they have a chance to take away new understandings and reflections.

Companies often hire individuals specifically for their set of unique knowledge and skills that they bring to the team.

However, companies can also suppress the sharing of knowledge that results in it becoming tribal and siloed.

Unless companies are diligent about documenting processes, employees will rarely take the initiative to create tedious documentation, even for important processes.

Managers can also implicitly or explicitly encourage the withholding of knowledge by dividing employees, encouraging competition over teamwork, and modelling gatekeeping themselves.

Lastly, employees may purposely withhold knowledge to improve their job security by making themselves indispensable to a company. 

The drawbacks of tribal knowledge

Tribal knowledge itself is not inherently bad, as it can often give organizations an edge over their competitors if managed well.

However, if tribal knowledge remains locked behind gatekeepers within an organization, it can become a force that cripples the growth of a company.

Excessive amounts of tribal knowledge that is locked up within a small number of individuals can result in:

  1. Lack of innovation and automation.
  2. Intense frustration in employees who feel locked out.
  3. Poor communication between teams and team members.
  4. A culture of competitiveness and secrecy.
  5. The loss of critical knowledge if employees leave.
  6. Lengthy and inefficient onboarding periods.
  7. Projects delayed by the availability of gatekeepers.

For a company to become a powerhouse of growth, innovation and success, they must avoid the siloing and gatekeeping of important knowledge within their workforce.

Tribal knowledge can have disadvantages. Capturing tribal knowledge has benefits.

The benefits of capturing tribal knowledge

If tribal knowledge is recognized and a company strives to capture it in easy, shareable formats, that company can achieve significant benefits.


No employee stays forever. Even hoarding knowledge for job security won’t stop an employee retiring or moving on. Losing an employee with tribal knowledge can cost companies thousands of dollars in lost productivity.

By ensuring that no one person has exclusive, critical knowledge, a company can protect itself from the damage caused by losing a gatekeeper.

Increased productivity and innovation

When tribal knowledge is widely shared within a company, all employees can benefit from knowing more productive ways of working.

Furthermore, with more opportunities for input, you may be able to innovate, improve, automate or streamline long-standing processes and methods.

Collaborative company culture

Companies that encourage knowledge sharing and collaboration are usually far more healthy and appealing for current and potential employees. Employees who feel respected, rewarded and actively invested in by their employers are likely to be more loyal and work harder rather than those who are feeling locked out or insecure.

How to capture and share tribal knowledge

Capturing and sharing tribal knowledge in a business requires consistent effort and the right technology. With HowToo, companies of all sizes can do this in a cost-effective manner in just a few steps.

Identify tribal knowledge

To capture and share tribal knowledge, the first step is to identify it! The best way to do this is to go directly to your teams and ask what knowledge they think should be shared more, or what they’d like to know more about.

You might do this through a survey, in one-to-one conversations, or in group discussions. Once you’ve asked, it’s important to follow through in facilitating more knowledge sharing to avoid disillusionment. 

Capture tribal knowledge in short, shareable courses 

Too many companies rely on dry, tedious documentation formats to capture important processes and information. The responsibility to learn tribal knowledge then falls on employees to find and suffer through these documents.

Instead of this, try directing your team to create short digital courses using a platform like HowToo Growth. With HowToo, anyone can create enjoyable, interactive training courses to capture and share their knowledge. Not only is HowToo easy to use, it’s also fun to create and complete courses!

With tribal knowledge now available in an enjoyable format, you can use HowToo Growth to assign courses to team members to complete at a time and place that’s convenient for them - on their phone, tablet or desktop computer.

A gif showing interactive screens in an eLearning course.

Encourage a culture of collaboration

With a clear process set up to capture and share tribal knowledge in the business, it’s critical to follow through by implementing a culture that values collaboration. Any initiative must match the company culture in order to succeed.

Team leaders and managers should actively model and reward knowledge sharing, discussions and team work on a day-to-day basis.

Start benefiting from tribal knowledge in business today

Tribal knowledge can be the secret sauce that gives companies the edge over their competitors. However, when it is hoarded by just a few people, it can negatively impact growth, productivity, innovation and employee satisfaction.

If you’re ready to start capturing and sharing tribal knowledge in your company, why not start with a free, 7 day trial of HowToo Growth today? With HowToo Growth, you can create, share fun and effective training courses, and track your teams’ progress.

Included in every HowToo Growth plan:

Get started for free. 200+ drag and drop templates. Access prebuilt courses. Millions of free images. Easily invite and share with your team.s

Jan 26, 2022

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