Skills Transfer in Field Service: The Role of Tribal Knowledge

Brought to you by WBR Insights

Skills transfer in the field service industry is looming large as a major concern, and companies are having to innovate in order to meet this challenge.

As a generation of Baby Boomers reaches retirement, and Millennials and GenZers begin to take their place in the workforce, the need to train these new employees becomes a pressing necessity. However, with the gap in social experience between these generations arguably being wider than any which has gone before them, this need poses certain challenges. What is the best way to transfer skills from one to the other, considering the different ways these groups prefer to learn and communicate?

One of the most difficult elements of skills transfer, and one which is most often overlooked, relates to a concept you may not even have heard of before - tribal knowledge.

Tribal Knowledge

While you may not recognize term tribal knowledge, you will be aware of the concept, even in a subconscious way.

Tribal knowledge refers to those parts of knowledge which aren't universal between all versions of a thing. General knowledge covers the stuff which is expected when interacting with that thing. Say you are trying to start an old car. General knowledge will tell you that you need to put the key in the keyhole, turn it, and the car will fire up. However, while this method will work for a large proportion of cars, there will be a portion which requires something more.

Some cars might require you to jiggle the key in the ignition or pump the gas a little while turning it to get it to operate. This is tribal knowledge in action - individual elements of knowledge which are acquired through experience with that particular machine.

"Tribal knowledge is any unwritten information that is not commonly known by others but is needed to accomplish quality work," said Christiane Soto for Oracle. "It is the proven methodologies (the little tricks, if you will) that are forged over time. It has tremendous value, but in order to utilize that value, it cannot be held in one single place (an employee's head). It is the fact that it is not commonly known that makes tribal knowledge a problem."

And this is where tribal knowledge runs into issues. While it's wonderful to employ people who know how things really work, how do you access that information when they're not around? How do you start the car when there's nobody to tell you to jiggle the key or pump the gas? This is the issue which rubs up against skills transfer between generations. How do field service providers make sure the outgoing workforce doesn't take this valuable tribal knowledge with them when they leave?

Skills Transfer

The only solution to the above problem is to ensure tribal knowledge is recorded and passed on. This, of course, can pose significant challenges, as tribal knowledge is often instinctual and can be difficult to document.

The first step to archiving the tribal knowledge in your organization is to identify the employees who possess it. A good place to begin is with your longest-serving staff members. These are the people who will have worked with legacy systems and machines which may not be widely used anymore but are still occasionally necessary.

You can then instruct those employees to begin recording their knowledge as they go along. Provide them with an app or some other piece of technology which makes it easy for them to record tribal knowledge as it comes to them in the field. This data can then be uploaded to the cloud and made available to all field service engineers and those employees responsible for developing staff training programs.

Final Thoughts

Recording tribal knowledge is essential for the long-term health of field service providers, and plans need to be put into action immediately to record it before it leaves the knowledge pool forever.

"Baby boomers are retiring at record rates, and they are taking their expertise with them," said Soto. "In fact, 40 percent of companies said that they lose specialized knowledge and expertise faster than they gain it. And when you lose anything faster than you gain it, your company is just sliding back down the growth curve. It must be documented and cataloged and made available to others so that bottlenecks don't form, processes don't grind to a halt, decisions get made, and growth happens."

You can hear Fujifilm's Vice President and General Management for Technical Services, Neil Johnson, talk about tribal knowledge at Field Service Amelia Island 2019, taking place this August at The Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island, FL.

Download the agenda today for more information and insights.

Return to Blog