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Five Suggestions for How to Retain Tribal Knowledge

Oliver Sturrock
By Oliver Sturrock CTO, Fluke Digital Systems

What is tribal knowledge and why should a company care? It is valuable, exclusive information stored only inside someone’s mind and communicated only verbally (if at all). The “someone” may have played an important role in an organization for decades and knows a thing or two that the company treasures yet cannot duplicate.

This knowledge may be as simple as understanding why an eerie sound is emitted when a huge piece of expensive equipment warrants maintenance. It may be how to do makeshift fixes of key assets using tools, wires and who knows what. Or it may be a technician who came up with an obscure software workaround to enable old databases and servers to continue to interoperate for several years.

Whatever the intelligence, it is not documented or easily transferred—and it becomes a problem when it is exiting.

Industry is seeing valuable information walk out the door on a national and even global scale. With the retirement of baby boomers, enterprises face the expensive challenge of trying to move forward without the knowledge lost. Companies deal with turnover and training needs on a regular basis, but what about the learning biases and technology preferences of the younger workforce?

The outflow of baby boomers and influx of millennials and Gen Z, combined with massive technology changes resulting from Industry 4.0 innovations, are bound to leave a knowledge gap and, likely, a skills gap in the workforce.

Here are some broad suggestions to help operations adapt to the changing times.

  1. Leverage smart technology to capture intelligence. By collecting data and applying machine learning to analyze it for patterns and conditions, technology is essentially pulling that exclusive information out of someone’s head and making it visible to teams. Additionally, data is gathered in higher volumes and with greater accuracy. Today’s computerized maintenance management systems (CMMS) and Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) platforms are enabling teams to make huge strides in improving maintenance and productivity while saving time and money. Beyond that, new-generation workers come in expecting smart technology to address problems that humans previously solved.
  2. Refresh maintenance thinking by focusing on reliability. Today, the worker who got up at 3 a.m. to go repair a machine is still seen as a hero. Maintenance teams that are always successfully troubleshooting problems are star performers. But what if machines rarely failed and maintenance teams were free to tend to the needs of the whole operation, proactively? With predictive maintenance, the goal for continuous uptime and repairs based on conditional change can move forward even after the fix-it gurus depart.
  3. Accept that technology will continue to be “consumerized.” Management can learn from younger workers and their affinity for products that are fast, simple and accessed 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.
  4. Incentivize all employees to learn from each other. At many firms, there are resentments both ways. Older workers may be annoyed at seeing younger counterparts move in with new ideas and workstyles. Younger workers may begrudge the older generation for sticking around and delaying their chances for leadership roles and promotions. The seasoned employees may soon depart, but there’s much to be gained by offering incentives for them to spend time together sharing and learning.
  5. Cultivate young leadership for driving change. Companies will always need people. Leaders will come from all the generations in the workforce, but those in the middle between the baby boomers and millennials may be your best bet for driving change. They get the need for smart technology, and they respect and value tribal knowledge.
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