The Importance of Capturing Tribal Knowledge

24 Aug 2020 Analytics

The manufacturing industry and field service industry are facing a growing problem – how to capture tribal knowledge from an aging population of workers.  At the 2019 Field Service Conference in Amelia Island, FL, this topic was widely discussed amongst industry representatives.

Some experts estimate that 25% of the 12 million manufacturing workers in the U.S. are age 55 years or older.  Replacing this workforce is a problem as they are the most experienced and skilled in their field and their knowledge base will disappear when they retire.

In many industries, including field service, a large amount of knowledge about products and processes are not written down, but rather, are in the workers’ heads. This information is termed “tribal knowledge” and is causing many to scramble to find a solution.

Companies seem to be putting a lot of energy into hiring a younger workforce as a solution to the problem.  Although attracting quality younger employees comes with its own challenges, hiring new workers does not address the issue of knowledge transfer.

First, companies need to realize this is a real problem with far reaching affects.  Time, effort and resources need to be dedicated to solving this issue in each organization.  This effort includes implementing an extensive training program to train the newer staff over a longer period of time, such as a 3-5 year training program.  Tribal knowledge is most likely not going to be transferred quickly.

How do companies approach the tribal knowledge problem?  First, identify the knowledge leaders in the organization.  Determine who are the most competent and knowledgeable technicians.  Next, identify the knowledge.  Not everyone is going to repair an issue the exact same way so there needs to be a method of determining what is considered standard operating procedure, the benchmark for each and every service call, repair and situation.  This component may take a significant amount of time and investment to achieve.  Select a method of information capture.  All of the tribal knowledge needs to be captured in an electronic format, written format, video format, or a combination.  A final step is to determine how to transfer the knowledge to newer employees and make it readily available while on site.

This problem is not going to be solved overnight and starts with the admission there is a need for knowledge capture.  The cost justification may be a hard-sell, but doing nothing may risk millions of dollars in future sales and service calls.  Management needs to understand the long-term implications of the aging tribal knowledge base.