Leveraging Tribal Knowledge for a Competitive Edge

Learn what tribal knowledge is, and how you can leverage it effectively using digital tools to create a competitive edge in your manufacturing.


Tribal knowledge, also known as "tribal wisdom" or "shop floor knowledge," refers to the unwritten, informal information and skills passed down from one generation of employees to the next. It is often specific to an organization, facility, product, or process and is usually not officially documented.

Tribal knowledge manifests itself in many ways, including:

  • Recognizing the order to press specific buttons or controls to start or stop a machine.

  • Automatically identifying and troubleshooting a specific problem that arises in production.

  • Creating the most effective way to work around blockers such as a material shortage

  • Finding ways to improve efficiency in everyday workflows.

  • Familiarity with a specific machine or equipment, like how to change a particular part, how to clean the device, or how to keep it in good condition

  • How to work effectively in an organization, such as the way of working and the decision-making process.

  • Understanding suppliers and customers, their reliability, and how to work with them effectively.

  • Knowing about the regulations, laws, and best practices in the industry

This tribal knowledge is critical to effective manufacturing and can be a driver of competitiveness for a company. Embracing tribal knowledge creates:

  • Improved efficiency and productivity

    : Employees have the information and skills to operate and maintain equipment and perform processes effectively. This improved efficiency and productivity reduces downtime and increases output.

  • Better quality

    : Employees quickly identify and resolve quality issues on the line, improving the overall quality of products.

  • Increased flexibility

    : Employees quickly adapt processes to changing market conditions and customer needs. This helps increase the flexibility of the facility and makes it more responsive to changing market conditions.

  • Innovation

    : Employees find methods around certain process limitations, which helps to develop improved processes or products. This shop floor flexibility leads to increased innovation and competitiveness.

  • Competitive edge

    : Employees on the shop floor know the processes they work with best. This allows them to work more efficiently, adapt to changing market conditions, and find improvements for products and processes.

  • Better employee engagement and retention

    : When employees feel that their knowledge is valuable, they are more engaged and motivated. This leads to better employee retention and reduces the risk of losing skilled employees.

  • Cost savings

    : By capturing and documenting tribal knowledge, companies save on training costs, reduce downtime, and improve productivity, which leads to cost savings and improvements in working capital.

While tribal knowledge provides many benefits, it does not come without drawbacks. Some manufacturers experience:

  • Limited accessibility

    : Since tribal knowledge is not typically written down or documented in any official way, it is difficult for new employees to access or use it. This makes it more difficult for the organization to ensure that all employees share knowledge consistently and reliably.

  • Inaccuracy: The informal nature of tribal knowledge transfer means it is not always consistent or accurate.

    This leads to errors or mistakes in the production process.

  • Risk of loss of knowledge

    : As the workforce ages and employees with tribal knowledge retire, it becomes more difficult to transfer this knowledge to new employees. This leads to a significant loss of knowledge and expertise for the organization.

  • Unavailability of experienced employees

    : As experienced employees retire, replacing them with new employees with the same knowledge and experience can take time and effort.

  • Lack of standardization

    : Since tribal knowledge is often passed down informally, it is difficult to ensure that improvements, changes, and learnings are captured and recorded consistently and reliably. This makes it more challenging to ensure that all employees share knowledge consistently and reliably.

  • Risk of knowledge becoming obsolete

    : As technology and processes change, tribal knowledge becomes outdated, which makes it difficult for the organization to operate efficiently and adapt to changing market conditions.

Tribal knowledge creates significant benefits but becomes a liability if not captured, shared, and passed on effectively. This kind of knowledge is not typically written down or documented in any official way but is passed down through the generations of employees, if it is passed down at all. On-the-job training is a common way of passing down tribal knowledge, where the new employees learn how to perform their job by observing and assisting more experienced Employees. Mentoring is a traditional way of transferring tribal knowledge. The skilled worker mentors the new employees and guides them through learning their job and understanding the organization's culture and history.

The informal nature of the transfer of tribal knowledge means that it is not always consistent or accurate, and it can be challenging to ensure that the information is passed on correctly to new employees. This makes it harder for the organization to ensure that the knowledge is shared consistently and reliably across all employees, making it more critical for companies to find ways to capture and document this knowledge.

Some of the ways that companies are capturing and documenting this knowledge:

  • Implementing knowledge management systems

    : These systems are designed to capture, store, and share knowledge within an organization. These systems document tribal knowledge, including how to operate specific machines or troubleshoot problems. New employees can access and use this knowledge to perform their jobs effectively.

  • Creating standard operating procedures

    : Standard operating procedures (SOPs) are detailed, written instructions that specify how an operator should complete a task or process. By creating SOPs for functions and processes that rely heavily on tribal knowledge, companies can ensure that the undocumented changes are captured and recorded consistently and reliably. This allows new employees to follow the procedures to perform their jobs effectively.

  • Mentorship programs

    : Mentorship programs are designed to transfer knowledge and skills from experienced employees to new employees. This is an excellent way to share tribal knowledge, as new employees learn through observation and guidance from experienced employees.

  • Knowledge capture workshops

    : Some companies conduct workshops where the employees who are retiring are asked to document their knowledge and skills before they leave. This knowledge is then captured and stored in the knowledge management systems for future reference.

  • Recording videos of the process

    : Some companies record videos of experienced Employees performing their jobs. These videos are then used for training new employees and as a reference for future employees.

One of the most effective ways to leverage tribal knowledge is by implementing a digital knowledge management system. By digitizing SOPs, this knowledge can be collected, updated, and utilized much more effectively than traditional knowledge management systems. Using digital SOPs can help engage younger generations of workers replacing the current generation of shop floor employees. These digital SOPs can be integrated slowly and used with existing tribal knowledge transfer processes.

At MTEK, we have leveraged decades of manufacturing experience to create MBrain, an intuitive manufacturing software that helps make documenting, updating, and managing shop floor information easier.

With MBrain, adopting these methods and keeping tribal knowledge updated is simplified through easy-to-use digital tools. A digital support system is the most effective way to ensure that tribal knowledge is consistent, documented, updated, and encouraged to help manufacturers gain shop floor agility and create a competitive edge.

To learn more about how MBrain can help you Make Things Better, reach out to one of our manufacturing nerds at

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