7 tips for retaining tribal knowledge and managing cultural change

By Oliver Sturrock

A surge in retirements in the coming years means a generational changing of the guard at most workplaces. Baby boomers in the workforce reached a peak size of 66 million in 1997 but have since dwindled to 41 million as of 2017, according to a Pew Research Center analysis1. Their ages in 2017 ranged from 53 to 71. Millennials (born between 1981-96) took over as the labor force’s largest age group in the middle of this decade and numbered 56 million (and growing) in 2017.

As boomers retire, they take with them long-held beliefs, work styles, and, in many cases, vast quantities of tribal knowledge. What is tribal knowledge? It is exclusive, often technical, product, or process information stored inside someone’s head. It is not recorded in a structured way on paper and communicated only verbally, if at all. Thus, it is not documented or easily transferred but is valuable nonetheless because it represents the buildup of skills, expertise, and/or experience.

It’s in a company’s best interest to capture as much of this intelligence as possible to ease the transition to a newer, younger workforce—even if those workers don’t buy-in to the way things were previously done.  The gradual outflow of baby boomers and influx of millennials and soon Generation Z is taking place at the same time as massive technology changes impact industries, including the Industry 4.0 innovations. This confluence of events is destined to leave a knowledge gap and, likely, skills gap.

Here are some strategies to help:

1. Transfer knowledge the YouTube way

Yes, encouraging the documentation of processes is smart, but doing it via the written word… not so much. Older workers generally don’t like writing instructions (and don’t always get them right), and many younger workers don’t care to pore over pages and pages of steps. Try using videos to share knowledge a la YouTube, which has pioneered showing people how to do things. Your videos don’t have to be anything fancy (and don’t have to go on YouTube). Make them simple and consumable, and share with only those who need to know.

2. Leverage smart technology to capture intelligence

By collecting data and applying machine learning or natural language processing to analyze it for patterns and conditions, technology is essentially pulling information out of someone’s head and making it visible to teams. If you have workers writing daily logs or providing voice recordings that recap activities, getting them to tag key information using their tribal knowledge can help machine learning synthesize the unstructured data and turn it into valuable insights.

3. Move away from break/fix to maintenance reliability

Today, the worker who got up at 3 a.m. to repair a machine is a hero. Maintenance teams that successfully troubleshoot problems are star performers. However, what if machines rarely failed, and maintenance teams were free to attend to the needs of the whole operation, proactively? With computerized maintenance management system (CMMS) software and Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) platforms, teams automate processes to improve maintenance predictions. Leveraging technology enables companies to more efficiently manage assets, free up maintenance resources, and offset the loss of their longtime fix-it gurus.

4. Provide workplace technology that is faster and simpler

Management can learn from newer generations and their affinity for applications and tools that are easy to operate and accessible from anywhere. Products from companies like Apple, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft have shaped their views on technology. Many, for example, prefer touchscreen functionality over knobs and dials. While it may be challenging to build the tools they will adopt, it’s time to start. New “consumerized” technology is here to stay.

5. Encourage researching the internet for answers

Testing a job candidate’s technical knowledge and skills by not allowing them to access the internet for help is a long-held tradition. It’s time to rethink this. For young workers today, the internet is frequently a problem-solving tool. Whether they are job candidates, software developers, or whatever, avoid forcing them to demonstrate an ability to recall knowledge. Encourage them to leverage any and all resources to get the job done.

6. Incentivize employees to learn from each other

At many companies, resentment runs both ways. Older workers may be annoyed at seeing younger counterparts move in with new ideas and ways of working. Younger workers may begrudge the older generation for sticking around and delaying their chances for leadership roles and promotions. There’s much to be gained by offering incentives for them to spend time together sharing and learning. Get creative here. A team “hackathon” to test your software or systems is one way to pool and share knowledge.

7. Cultivate young leadership for driving change

For at least the foreseeable future, robots are used in positions that don’t require thinking or analysis. Companies will still need people. Leaders come from all generations in the workforce, but the Gen Xers—those between the baby boomers and millennials—may be your best bet for driving change. They get the need for smart technology, but they also respect and value experience and tribal knowledge. In fact, they have much of their own.

  1. Fry, Richard. “Millennials Are Largest Generation in the U.S. Labor Force.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 11 Apr. 2018, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/04/11/millennials-largest-generation-us-labor-force/.

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