Tribal knowledge is loosely defined as unwritten know-how that is required to do your job. It is often referred to as knowledge “known” yet undocumented, such as information that has been verbally handed down from one generation to another generation. In a perfect world, all supply chain processes would be fully documented and any new Millennial hire could read a system manual, or policy and procedure manual, to learn everything about their job.

Knowledge is assumed to be factual but often has no known proof to verify that it is factual. This term knowledge is used most often when referencing information that may need to be known by others in order to provide quality supply chain services. By way of example, for generations the US Army has had a reputation for great leadership and success on and off the battlefield. In the non-commissioned officer and officer corps, this knowledge is traditionally passed on from one generation to the next through both hands-on training and tribal knowledge.

Through experience, logisticians within a supply chain organization also learn through shared experiences and skills - their tribal knowledge. This is different from all other sources of information because it is either unwritten or not widely shared among the supply chain team. As a result, this critical knowledge is often a big part of a supply chain organization's competitive advantage; but should also be the basis of the training for their Generation X replacements.

When dealing with tribal knowledge, Sir Francis Bacon believed that the first step was to make a comprehensive survey of that which is known, as distinguished from that which is believed. Knowledge may be gathered from the past through tradition or accumulated and augmented by observation, but it must be proved by experimentation. This means that while other sources of information can be utilized for documentation of processes, methods and procedures, tribal knowledge must primarily be transferred through facilitated storytelling sessions.

As Baby Boomers retire a lot of tribal knowledge in logistics and the supply chain will leave with them. In many supply chain functions, a good deal of the knowledge is not written down – it exists only in the logisticians' heads. The major objective for Millennial supply chain talent should be to download the Baby Boomers’ brains and get their knowledge documented before they walk out the door. Tribal knowledge also forces your experienced Baby Boomers to tutor and coach Millennial hires for it to pass from one generation to the other. How? People usually tell business stories to communicate and connect with colleagues. Business stories differ from regular stories, in that you tell them with an objective, goal, or desired outcome in mind, rather than for entertainment. Storytelling can be used to guide values and priorities, promote desired behaviors, and share learning. Using one’s life experiences can be a sure-shot success strategy for training Millennial replacements. The stories used by Baby Boomer “tribal knowledge holders” can then be used to elaborate on their experiences and skills. The influence this could have on Millennial’s thinking or their approach to work and the value it can provide should make a difference to the supply chain organization.

As Baby Boomers, our recollections of what we’ve done before usually help us to grasp the unique pattern of a current logistics or supply chain situation. This is our pragmatic ability to absorb a vast flow of information, and to distinguish the essential current of events - the things that go together and the things that will never go together. It is our ability to engage in complex discussions, and sense which arguments have the most weight. Experienced logistics professionals also possess a vast repertoire of supply chain events, through situational involvement, and can apply those models to current circumstances to judge what is important and what is not, who can be persuaded and who can’t, what has worked and what hasn’t; and we, in turn, are less likely to be taken by surprise.

Having both experience and knowledge leads to wisdom. Knowing what you can and cannot do, helps to make the right choice. John A. Morrison, former President of Anderson College, said, “Knowledge comes by taking things apart: analysis. But wisdom comes by putting things together.” It is difficult to gain experience without also gaining knowledge, and it is rather trivial to gain knowledge with no experience. Thus the lack of experience gained through trial-and-error, which Millennials will gain over time, is that “baptism by fire” experience which Baby Boomers have already accumulated.

So experience - tribal knowledge of the supply chain - does matter after all.

This article is part of the monthly series authored by the Institute for Supply Management’s Logistics & Transportation Group Board Members, who are current practitioners, consultants, trainers, and educators. In future columns, they will continue sharing their views on a number of Supply Chain and Professional Development topics.

Thomas L. Tanel, CTL, C.P.M., CISCM, is the President and CEO of CATTAN Services Group, Inc., specializing in Logistics and Supply Chain issues. He is also the Chair of ISM’s Logistics & Transportation Group and can be reached at or (979) 212-8200. Membership in the Group is open to all ISM members who are responsible for or have an interest in the Logistics & Transportation fields.