What is Tribal Knowledge?

Tribal knowledge is undocumented or unwritten information that is not generally known across an organization.

In manufacturing, tribal knowledge consists of valuable (and often times essential) information on how to manufacture a product, operate a machine, or perform other factory processes. This information is typically acquired over decades of experience, yet remains undocumented.

Tribal knowledge in manufacturing

How Manufacturing’s Aging Workforce is Causing Loss of Tribal Knowledge

The loss of tribal knowledge due to the aging, retiring workforce is one of the top challenges in manufacturing. Nearly seventy-four million Baby Boomers are transitioning into retirement, with an estimated 10,000 leaving the workforce every day, according to AARP. This situation has been magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic, which is forcing millions to retire early.

Senior production workers and subject matter experts have accumulated valuable experience and knowledge, which has been typically hard to capture and convert into an asset that is able to be easily shared and used by others. These workers are walking out the door with this valuable knowledge. The younger workforce that is entering the manufacturing sector does not have the knowledge that their senior peers have, but are expected to perform the same jobs, at the same level of productivity and quality. Bridging this skills gap crisis is a top concern for manufacturers.

Compared to other major industries, the Boomer drain is particularly acute for manufacturers as they suffer from one of the highest attrition rates. More than 75% of manufacturers today report a moderate to severe shortage of skilled resources, which results in an average 11% loss in earnings per year (factoring in costs for increased overtime, downtime, waste, etc.)

With such a large number of manufacturing workers aged 55+ expected to retire over the next few years, manufacturers must respond with alacrity to the challenges and opportunities of an aging workforce.

The Increasing Skills Gap and Workforce Variability

Today’s workforce challenges stem from the unprecedented levels of dynamism in the areas of skills diversity, reduced tenure, and increased churn. Unlike the stable and predictable workforce of the recent past, today companies must live in the new normal where workers are hard to find, hard to engage, and hard to keep.

Along with the ongoing skills gap crisis and retiring workforce leading to tribal knowledge leaving, today’s workforce is also more dynamic and diverse than previous generations. The 30- year dedicated employees are no longer the norm. The average manufacturing worker tenure is down 17% in the last 5 years and the transient nature of the industrial worker is quickly accelerating. An outgrowth of the COVID pandemic brings forth the Great Resignation, where workers are quitting in record numbers, and worker engagement is down almost 20% in the last 2 years.

The end result is that companies are struggling to onboard, guide, and support their frontline workforce so that it can work at acceptable levels of safety, quality, and productivity.

Turning Tribal Knowledge into a Sharable Corporate Asset

Manufacturers are now turning to more advanced strategies to capture and digitize tribal knowledge and empower their frontline teams.

Many organizations are doing this by being laser-focused on retaining the tribal knowledge of their mature workers and integrating that expertise into the new generation of workers that they are hiring. This includes: developing strategies for employee retention, increasing training and cross-training efforts, and implementing digital technologies to make it easier to capture and share valuable information. This digitally-connected worker strategy helps manufacturers leverage their workforce in an increasingly hybrid environment.

With the right technology solutions, such as AI-based connected worker platforms, novice workers can connect with experts through remote collaborative sessions. This collaboration may be recorded for educational purposes, which increases an organization’s ability to provide “just in time” training in the future – or knowledge at the time of need.

Without a digitally-connected strategy, it can also be challenging to bridge generational gaps in the transfer of critical knowledge. Multiple generations of workers – Baby Boomers, Gen X, and Millennials – are all laboring under one roof today, employing diverse work styles, tools, skill sets, and expertise. Providing a common platform for training and overall connectivity can help improve the performance of workers who lack experience while capturing and archiving tribal knowledge for the future.

So, in the short-term, while everyone is figuring out how best to transfer knowledge from one human to another, the longer-term question becomes, ‘How can technology complement the human worker of tomorrow?’

Connected worker solutions that utilize technology such as mobile and wearable devices, augmented and mixed reality (AR/MR), and artificial intelligence (AI) are helping to connect a new class of workers and are allowing organizations to proactively and continually deliver the right level of training, support, guidance, and improvement. These solutions will aid workers and make them better and more efficient at their jobs. It will amplify continuous learning initiatives in the field and on the shop floor. It will keep people safer. And, it will continue to support this vibrant industry that underpins America’s economic health and stability into the future.