Is tribal knowledge good or bad?


OCM challenges Tribal Knowledge

Every meeting I participate in a comment is always made about tribal knowledge. How tribal knowledge is viewed is based on who is making the comment and based on the discussion taking place at the time.


Below is a definition from Wikipedia and I see 3 unique definitions.

  1. Tribal knowledge is information or knowledge that is known within a tribe (in this case meaning a department or group of employees in a firm) but often unknown outside of it.
  2. A tribe may be a group or subgroup of people that share a common knowledge (same a definition as above).
  3. With a corporate perspective, “Tribal Knowledge or know-how is the collective wisdom of the organization.

I chose these 3 definitions because I feel they highlight the need for a true OCM project based on an individual’s use and understanding of Corporate Tribal Knowledge.

Point 1 and 2 raise the issue of information/knowledge sharing outside the tribe. In this context, a tribe is a department or a subset of your employees. These 2 points in the definition imply, and correctly so, that the processes being used by this “sub-tribe” are not known across the “tribe”. I see this all the time in our meetings as the members outside of the sub-tribe realize and become aware of some of the processes in place in those specific functional areas. Many times, they come to the realization that they are creating work around and excess processes because of this lack of knowledge.

Points 1 & 2 affect point 3 directly as there is no real “collective” wisdom kept in a formal manner at the corporate level. Just ask for the procedures manual.

I hate to admit this of myself but here goes:

Years ago, I was responsible for manufacturing and distribution across multiple locations nationally. The President of the company used to love to come to my office with Corporate Executives and show them how abused my procedures manual was. This was due to continuous use and the great processes and knowledge that was part of this manual.

True Confession:

After more than 30 years I am finally admitting that I never used the procedures. If I did, we would never ship orders! The idea was to have a standard approach to business across our global footprint. Sorry to confess that this would not work for us – just not the way our GTM and customers requested we do business. So, every month when I received “updated procedure” I would highlight passages with my yellow highlighter, abuse some of the pages, drop some cigarette ashes on it (yes we smoked at work back then), some coffee stains, I think you get the idea. All this worked for my operational team and got orders out.

How to justify Tribal Knowledge:

“If we do not follow this unique process we will not ship and meet sales goals”.

“If we follow the official procedures we will not ship and meet sales goals”.

“This is the only way we can operate.”

I think we all get the idea. The sad part is – this is true. The sadder part is these tribal processes are not known outside of specific functional teams. This causes month end crises that could be avoided. This causes unnecessary expediting and loss of margin due to increased processing costs.

Bringing new “best of breed” software systems that are meant to replicate your tribal knowledge is not going to solve the issue.

The solution is OCM! Remember that OCM will only work if supported top down and if the processes are sponsored, approved and enforced from the executive suite across and down the full organization. NO EXCEPTIONS!

Look for a solution that supports your industry requirements and then compare the solution’s processes to yours and consider changing yours wherever possible. Will an industry solution help you to remove all your unofficial processes? The answer is yes!

As you compare and analyze processes many of your unofficial processes will be easily replaced. The processes where Tribal Knowledge is really the true value add (that you bring to your customers and differentiates you in the market), will be officially incorporated in the new system based on OCM approaches and acceptance. If done properly and the gaps that resulted from the OCM process are addressed correctly there will no longer be clusters of unknown processes – Tribal Knowledge”.

Tribal Knowledge leads to Formal Knowledge and leads to true OCM!


Dominic Telaro

Article written by

CFPIM, CIRM | Vice President Industry Solutions | APICS Fellow and Certified in Integrated Resource Management Over 35 years of Manufacturing, Distribution, Supply Chain Operational, Software and Consulting experience. His professional career has been in Manufacturing and Distribution from shop floor roles through to implementing ERP, DRP and Supply Chain solutions and on to leveraging this rich experience to consulting, product management, product development and software sales. He has held positions as VP of Industry Solutions, VP of Product Development, VP of Sales and Marketing and Global Practice Leader for companies like IBIS Inc., IBM, Janis Group, Metamor, Marcam Corp. and more. Presently he is responsible for the Supply Chain Industry vertical at Sonata Software with Microsoft Dynamics 365 for Finance and Operations as a core technology solution expertise. Dominic publishes many blogs and articles for the industry and has been a guest speaker for multiple industry events

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