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The Tribal Knowledge Dilemma

By Julie Rice Suggs, Ph.D.

July 7, 2022


Whether you have worked in a particular industry for five years or 25 years, you have likely heard co-workers refer to the “tribal knowledge” within the company. But do you know what the phrase means, or have you been too afraid to ask, unsure if it involves some sort of ceremony you aren’t ready to commit to? All joking aside, how is tribal knowledge relevant to the packaging and manufacturing industries we are entrenched in today?

For our context, tribal knowledge refers to information not widely known by other employees within a company. This extremely valuable information is often undocumented in nature, residing only in the minds of select individuals. While many people associate tribal knowledge with myths and legends that are passed down from generation to generation—possibly around a campfire and ever-changing over the years—the concept sidesteps these nostalgic qualities in the packaging and manufacturing world. Tribal knowledge is knowledge that is likely essential to the production of a product or performance of a service, but it might also be counterintuitive to the process.

Think for a moment about your colleagues and the management within your company or organization—chances are good that there are different age demographics represented. Today, we are seeing a paradigm shift due to the baby boomer generation reaching retirement age, and when they retire, critical information—what we are calling tribal knowledge—may disappear with them. If something is not done to capture this knowledge, the company will be left with gaps in information.

On the flip side, tribal knowledge can negatively affect the training of new hires. There is certainly much useful tribal knowledge floating around in companies; however, the spread of incorrect information can be attributed to tribal knowledge as well. For example, an employee who works in a silo and is told to train a new hire will share faulty tribal knowledge, if that’s how they operate. And improper training for software or equipment on the plant floor poses a threat to the production process, the service being provided, and ultimately the safety of the employees.

Up to this point, we have talked about the way tribal knowledge works in a company and some of the it can cause, but let’s look at it from a different angle. How can you effectively and efficiently capture and share the valuable tribal knowledge within your organization?

The first step is basic. We are now well into the 21st century; computers are more commonplace than notebooks in most parts of the world. That means there should be no technological obstacles to digitizing all the tribal knowledge within your organization. Will it take time? Yes, but it is a worthwhile time investment. Once this information is digitized through a standard, streamlined process, it should be shared across the organization to engage employees, promote collaboration, and build further upon

this tribal knowledge.

Now, you might be wondering just how to share this information. Email? A Zoom meeting? Everyone (for all The Office fans) in the conference room? Of course, any of these methods could work, but we have another option. The ways in which we access and contribute information are constantly evolving—mobile technology has evolved to allow the workforce to remain connected in real time. Yet many companies still rely on dry, even tedious documentation formats to share this crucial tribal knowledge, making it difficult for employees to digest and retain the information they need.

Instead of this old-school approach, we offer you a new methodology to try out—microlearning. Microlearning is simply a way of instructing in which difficult topics are broken up and arranged into bite-sized lessons to engage with on any device. Infographics, quick readings, videos, animations, discussions, or interactive slides can be used as the vehicle to deliver information. This unique method empowers employees to learn and complete training at their own pace. We believe these short, focused sessions help avoid mental burnout and cater to adult learning styles.

If you are not sure how to accomplish this within your company, or if you are short on resources and time (aren’t we all!), we are here to help. For example, AICC’s Education Investor program gives member companies the opportunity to be thought leaders in the industry, and it allows AICC to continue as the innovative industry front-runner in providing premier educational programming, products, and services to its members. While this might feel like a square-peg-round-hole scenario for your company, especially those who do not want to give up their “secret sauce” or share company-specific tribal knowledge, please know that AICC and The Packaging School also offer custom course development to fit your specific needs.

Not looking to reinvent the wheel? We have you covered there, too. AICC’s partnership with The Packaging School allows for member companies and all respective employees to get the value-add of online training programs free. With more than 80 online courses in both English and Spanish, all related to the packaging industry and the manufacturing environment, you are sure to find something that suits your current needs. Grab your computer, and we will get you squared away.

Tribal knowledge is common to most organizations, created through either intentional or unintentional means. For this reason, companies need to be diligent about capturing this information, correcting any misinformation, and making the vital information readily available to all employees. We are just one email away to help you get started. Email or for more information on how to make that happen in your company today.


Julie Rice Suggs, Ph.D., is academic director at

The Packaging School. She can be reached at 330-774-8542 or




Alli Keigley is production coordinator at The Packaging School. She

can be reached at