Preserving your firm’s tribal knowledge

Succession planning is key to ensuring your firm’s future success.


Every firm has at least one—the guru, the expert, the handful of specialists who are the go-to people in the organization. Their combination of intellect, experience, and customer management skills have allowed them to build a reputation in the industry and made them very valuable to the firm. These individuals are the holder of your firm’s tribal knowledge—the project history, unique expertise, and approaches that make your organization successful. They know it. Encouraging these individuals to mentor and develop the next generation of tribal knowledge keepers can be tricky.

Several years ago, a client asked me to do a “voice of the customer” project for it where the goal was to better understand where young engineers go for information. I surveyed about 20 engineers under the age of 30 from mechanical, electrical, and fire protection engineering disciplines from across the country. I was pretty shocked to learn that often these young engineers go to sources outside their firm when they have questions or challenging design problems—first to their friends, then to their college professor or a fellow association member, and then to a colleague in their office.

When I probed for more information, I learned that when this occurs, the engineer doesn’t want to reveal he is struggling, or the individual in his office with the knowledge has been reluctant to share due to fear of losing his or her importance. Since completing this work, it has become a topic I often probe with clients to better understand how pervasive the problem. And while my results are hardly scientific, I have found that about 80% of the people I work with are in this situation.

The reason is pretty consistent: Between fear of losing one’s job in this economy, the rapid expansion of electronic tools, and the collaborative approach of the younger staff, the communication gap between the experienced engineers and the younger engineers is creating a dangerous gap in sustaining and growing a firm’s tribal knowledge.

If you are concerned about preserving and growing your business’s tribal knowledge, where do you start? Begin with documenting the key aspects of that knowledge you desire to preserve: who holds it, where it fits within the organization, why it is valuable, and what would happen if the knowledge keeper were to leave the company. Then do an honest assessment of the ability of knowledge keepers to mentor or develop your next generation of leaders. This can be done via one-on-one interviews or a roundtable discussion with your next generation of knowledge keepers. If they are reluctant to reveal their true feelings, consider using an outside resource to facilitate the discussion.

Next, consider ways to harness and sustain the tribal knowledge. Consider the following options:

  • Develop an apprentice program to pair a less-experienced staff member with the knowledge keeper. Let the apprentice acquire the knowledge through working closely with the knowledge keeper.
  • Establish a knowledge center, an in-house “ask the expert” where staff can post questions and issues that are answered by the knowledge keeper.
  • Develop a schedule of monthly lunch-and-learns led by your knowledge keepers for the younger members of the staff. Consider having questions submitted anonymously in advance that the knowledge keeper will address during the training session.
  • Consider a team approach to developing new tribal knowledge. Put together a group of your best and brightest talent and have them become the in-house experts on a new topic. In other words, set up a “hack” session and let the team develop new and possibly better approaches. Developing a team approach limits the risk associated with knowledge held by a single individual.

Remember, this tribal knowledge is part of your firm’s secret sauce—the knowledge and expertise that makes your business unique in the market. If you don’t carefully cultivate and share that knowledge within the organization, one day it will be gone—and with it, your competitive advantage.

Jane Sidebottom is the owner of AMK LLC, a management and marketing consulting firm that provides market development and growth expertise to small- and medium-size firms. She has 20 years of management and leadership experience in both consulting engineering and Fortune 100 organizations. Sidebottom is a graduate of the University of Maryland.

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