Management Training Workforce

Don’t Let Tribal Knowledge Slip Away

Jane Alexander | August 14, 2017

The loss of invaluable ‘tribal knowledge’ at a site is inevitable over time, but not insurmountable.

Tribal knowledge, i.e., unwritten rules or information not known by everyone in an organization, typically resides in the minds of long-term employees. Garnered over time through the school of hard knocks, most of this invaluable, undocumented knowledge is lost when those employees retire. While this may not have been much of problem in the past, it’s now hitting a crisis point, given the perfect skilled-workforce storm bearing down on plant maintenance departments everywhere.

Information from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Washington, notes that the Millennial generation, which, so far, has tended to avoid the types of jobs that keep plants up and running, will comprise approximately 50% of the workforce in 2020. With the number of industrial-mechanic positions projected to grow 16% from 2014 to 2024, it’s imperative for maintenance organizations to move quickly to develop adequate talent pipelines. According to Billy Hamilton, senior vice president of Human Resources for Motion Industries (Birmingham, AL), operations that aren’t proactive in this regard could find themselves facing devastating levels of production downtime.

What can you do?

“As it turns out,” Hamilton explained, “there are a number of steps a site can take to mitigate the issue at hand.” Among them:

First, partner with your human-resource department to determine if the skill sets you need now are the same ones you will need in the future. If so, sit down with your plant-maintenance personnel and determine a likely timeframe for retirements. Waiting until an employee tells you that he or she is retiring is far too late. Create a part-time program for those who think they are ready to retire. You might be able to keep them engaged for   several years.

randmIn addition to discussing retirement with maintenance-team members, start documenting processes in detail, preferably through video recordings. The cost associated with recording these processes is minimal if the data accelerates the learning curve of new employees.

Next, reach out to your already-retired maintenance personnel. Many retirees find themselves bored six months to a year after leaving the workforce. You might be surprised to find a number of highly skilled workers willing to work part-time, even if it is only a few weeks a year during a plant shutdown or major overhaul. In light of the lessons these people might pass on, a flexible work arrangement with them would be well worth having.

Finally, work with your local high school, vocational school, and/or community colleges to develop a certification program. Offer apprenticeships and help with obtaining the necessary equipment for the school. Again, there are upfront costs involved, but over the long run, they’re minimal if you develop a skilled workforce that meets your needs.

Don’t wait.

Hamilton acknowledges that there’s no silver-bullet solution for the problem of lost tribal knowledge. “But,” he said, “being proactive, flexible, and creative in your planning for this loss will certainly lessen the pain. The key is to start as early as possible.”

Billy Hamilton has 26 years of experience in the field of human resources, which includes his current role with Motion Industries, Birmingham, AL, and, prior to that, work with companies such as Overhead Door Corp. and Lockheed Martin. For more information on a wide range of plant-maintenance topics, visit





Jane Alexander

Jane Alexander

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