Dealing with the unknown knowns

Another post from the archives on dealing with the “unknown knowns” in Knowledge Management.

We hear a lot (famously from Donald Rumsfeld) about the unknown unknowns, and how difficult they are to deal with, and in knowledge management terms, they can be a real challenge.

However an equally challenging issue in Knowledge Management is the unknown knowns. These are the things that people know without realising – the unconscious competencies. These are very often the deep-lying technical knowledge that is of real value to other people – the tacit knowledge (in the original sense of tacit – distinguished from explicit knowledge being the known knows, whether they are documented or not).

How can someone share knowledge if they don’t know that they know it?

An example comes from when I was teaching my daughter to drive. To start with, she did not know what she did not know. The whole topic of driving was a closed book to her. However, once she was behind the wheel, she began to be aware of the things she needed to learn. Now I have been driving so long (45 years), that I drive automatically without thinking. I know how to do it, but I am not conscious of what I am doing much of the time. I don’t know what I know any more. So when she asked me complex questions such as “when changing gear going down a steep hill, do I put my foot on the clutch before I put it on the brake, or do I brake first?” I had to think for some time, and often I had to get into the driving seat, go through the manoeuvre, and analyse what I was doing in order to become conscious of it, before I could explain it to her.

For me, that manoeuvre was an unknown know. I knew how to do it, but did not know how I did it, if you see what I mean.

The people who have the knowledge, are often unaware that they have it, like me and driving. The people who need the knowledge may often be unaware that they need it. Without an effective process to address the unknown knowns, the crucial knowledge may never get transferred. We need a process of helping people know what they know.

Questions are the route to the unknown knowns.

We have already seen the process from my driving example – the process is questioning.

There is a saying in the Middle East – “Knowledge is a treasure chest, and questions are the key”.  The person who needs the knowledge asks the difficult question, and starts the process of discovering the unknown knowledge.

The most effective means of knowledge transfer is through dialogue – via questions and answers. Through a question and answer process, the knowledge supplier becomes conscious of what he or she knows, and once they are conscious, they can explain or demonstrate to the learner. The explanation or demonstration can be recorded and codified and made explicit.

This works for teams as well. Teams have an unconscious competence in the way they work effectively together. Not only do the individual team members not know what they know as individuals, they doubly don’t know what the other team members know. So before you can start to capture or harvest any knowledge from a team, you need a team Q&A dialogue, carefully facilitated, such as After Action review or retrospect. Once you start the dialogue, and start discussing the reasons behind why things happened, the team will often piece together the learning as a group activity.

 The answer to the question might be a statement; sometimes it is a demonstration (as in my driving example). This depends on the knowledge, and the depth to which it has become unconscious.

The “self-submission” trap.

Now imagine that you did not use dialogue or questions, and instead that you asked the team members to write down what they know. You would never get the unknown knowns, and you would never get at the double unknown secrets of team delivery.

And yet many organizations expect just that – individual submissions as a feed into their knowledge base. They don’t pay attention to the step of making knowledge conscious, so all that becomes recorded is the known knowns – the shallow knowledge, which does not contain the necessary depth or detail. And then they wonder why they don’t get the value.

Instead, you should aim to make use of the dialogue-based processes,

After Action review
Peer Assist

Use these as your primary means to help competence to become conscious, to help the knowns to become known, and to start to generate some content of real value.

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Shared by: Nick Milton

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