Parsable Blog

Turn Institutional Knowledge Into Digital Work Instructions

Anisha Padamshi

What is Tribal Knowledge?

Within manufacturing, tribal knowledge, also commonly known as institutional knowledge, refers to the information and “best” practices that reside in the minds of experienced employees, are not known by others and are not documented – but are critical to day-to-day operations. These workers have spent years, if not decades, accumulating this knowledge that does not live in training manuals and standard procedures.

Employees that have been at the same manufacturing company for 10, 20 or 30 years develop idiosyncrasies along the way that keep operations running smoothly. On the manufacturing floor, for example, this can include exception processes, which are situations that require adjustments to production that are unplanned. Or they can be escalation policies, when plant operators notify and collaborate with other departments to take action against process deviations.

The fact that many employees rely on tribal knowledge to carry out processes like this leads to information gaps and a serious expertise crisis.

It is imperative that this type of institutional knowledge and experience be systematically captured; otherwise, once an employee leaves or retires, that information is lost.

In the U.S. alone, more than 2.6 million Baby Boomers are expected to retire from manufacturing jobs by 2030. As Boomers phase out, they will take with them years of tacit knowledge – resulting in a brain drain. Manufacturing companies can not ignore the onset of the retiring workforce. There is little manufacturers can do now to stop their retirement; however plant managers and executives alike can absorb and document as much tribal knowledge as possible, before the Boomer generation retires, to equip the younger incoming Millennial workforce.

How Your Reliance on Tribal Knowledge Impacts Day-to-Day Operations

  • Gaps in Documentation – There is a critical gap in current documentation. This could be because it is out of date and has not yet been updated. Or, perhaps there is a better way of doing something that was never shared with the people who are responsible for updating the content.
  • Lengthy Onboarding Times – When a new employee joins the workforce, their onboarding training usually consists of classroom activity and/or shadowing someone on the factory floor to learn operations and procedures. It takes longer to train people on what to do and how to do it, because of the reliance on experts and the gaps in documentation.
  • Over Reliance on Experts – Since tribal knowledge is not documented anywhere and isolated to a few individuals, there is a reliance on experts in the field. What happens when the people with that information are not around? What delays does this lead to? Often, that tribal knowledge is incorrect or may not reflect the correct procedure, which is what organizations will be audited against. So if the process or procedure says one thing and a worker does something else, there is a potential for failure. This becomes problematic when new employees are incorrectly trained by veteran employees.
  • Variation in Standard Work – Since workers are relying on their own knowledge of how to complete a job, there is a lack of standardization and consistency in work executed. This leads to variance in how things are done.

Capture and Transfer Tribal Knowledge

Here are several ways you can begin to capture tribal knowledge:

1. Identify Knowledge Leaders – The first step begins with identifying employees who are most knowledgeable about the processes and operations related to your manufacturing organization. Employees that have the most experience in a respective area, that no one else has access to, is a good place to start.

2. Adopt a Bottoms Up Approach – It is crucial that the ownership of a project like this comes from your shop floor employees. They are the ones encountering the flaws and process workflows on a daily basis, and have the knowledge to drive improvements to operational processes.

3. Document, Digitize and Distribute Information – Now it is time to document and digitize your teams’ institutional knowledge. This will ensure it stays within your company regardless if employees leave or retire. After transferring processes and procedures into a digital format, you will want to incorporate it into new-hire training and share it widely across your company to drive operational consistency.

4. Organize Your Information – Not all tribal knowledge is good knowledge. Years of accumulated experience and knowledge are great; however, it is important to understand what information you want to retain and what is actually beneficial for your organization. Best practices should have the data to earn the title.

3 Ways to Mitigate Reliance on Tribal Knowledge With Connected Worker® from Parsable

1. On-the-Go Access to Always Up-to-Date Information

A connected worker is always connected to the information they need to successfully complete and log the details of a task no matter where they are. This includes forms and checklists, standard work instructions and operating procedures, even quick and easily digestible training or lessons accessible on demand. It promotes a harmonious working relationship between the worker, the information they need to get the job done right, and the data the company needs to track and monitor operations in real-time. In order to make this a reality, the content must be digital and interactive, and the workers must be equipped with smart, mobile devices.

With Connected Worker, process owners can create a digital workflow experience in just a few minutes. The easy-to-use content authoring tool makes the move from paper to digital as painless as possible. Forms, checklists, work instructions, procedures and more can be built, tailored, distributed and updated in just a few clicks. This latter point is critical since it is what enables an organization to make and scale changes quickly. Workers on the factory floor – line operators, mechanics, area supervisors, and more – can use Parsable’s mobile app to access the dynamic digital experience that was created. The data captured both manually and automatically, in addition to direct feedback submitted by workers, provides the fuel needed to fan the flames of progress, and the creativity of the frontline experts provides the spark.

2. Connections to People (or Remote Experts)

A connected worker is always connected to the people they need to collaborate with in order to keep the factory running. A worker can reach out to another worker directly, in which the overall workflow promotes seamless collaboration between people, departments, organizations and more. One aspect of work that will not change, is the need for multiple individuals from different groups to work together. What will change is the how, when, for what and more, so building those pathways from one worker to other workers puts an organization in a position to become more adaptable as new technology emerges, consumer demands change and workforce dynamics shift.

Through Parsable, workers can reach out directly to their peers, managers, third-party contractors and others within the context of the assigned tasks and activities. This is particularly useful during the transition from undocumented tribal knowledge, since workers can reach out to experts remotely to provide guidance or expertise.

A worker can ping an individual or role within the embedded “Chat & Collaboration” space, share photos or videos, and have a documented discussion that other members of the organization can benefit from. With the capabilities Parsable brings to assign tasks to specific roles, manufacturers can bring structure to collaboration, making it clear who is responsible for what, when, how and the status of those efforts. And, to help eliminate delayed responses, it is easy for a worker to let the assignee know that they are up with a simple ping.

3. User-Friendly Knowledge Capture

The process of documenting and recording tribal knowledge should be a simple and straightforward process. 

Parsable’s no-code authoring platform makes it easy to create digital instructions for tasks at hand.

What is particularly helpful is empowering workers to capture quick walkthroughs on video to supplement gaps in one-point lessons or training modules. The hands-on walkthroughs, coming directly from the experts, take little-to-no effort for the expert to record and submit, while the process owners get invaluable content that helps future-proof operations in the face of the changing workforce. And, with the cycle mentioned before, in which it only takes a few clicks to update, those same revisions submitted by the experts can be scaled quickly.

Some manufacturing leaders are so far removed from the day-to-day operations on the factory floor that they may not fully understand the wealth of knowledge that seasoned employees possess. These insights are often taken for granted and overlooked by managers. But, it is not too late to capture tribal knowledge.

The challenge for most manufacturing companies is that their IT and operational capabilities are siloed, and trying to deconstruct and rebuild them is a challenge in and of itself. Many companies are met with roadblocks when transitioning to a digital factory, not because of technology but due to cultural and organizational change. Successfully driving change requires breaking down old paradigms and creating an operational model that embraces a digitally connected workforce. This enables employees to move beyond operating in silos and close information gaps.