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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The curse of knowledge, and stating the obvious

The curse of knowledge is the cognitive bias that leads to your Lesson Database being full of “statements of the obvious”

Obvious sign is obvious.There is an interesting exercise you can do, to show how difficult it is to transfer knowledge.

 This is the Newton tapper-listener exercise from 1990.

 Form participants into pairs. One member is the tapper; the other is the listener. The tapper picks out a song from a list of well-known songs and taps out the rhythm of that song to the listener. The tapper then predicts how likely it will be that the listener would correctly guess the song based on the tapping. Finally, the listener guesses the song.

Although tappers predicted that listeners would be right 50% of the time, listeners were actually right less than 3% of the time.

The difference between the two figures (50% and 3%) is that to the tapper, the answer is obvious. To the listener, it isn’t.

This is the “curse of knowledge“.

Once we know something—say, the melody of a song—we find it hard to imagine not knowing it. Our knowledge has “cursed” us. We have difficulty sharing it with others, because we can’t readily re-create their state of mind, and we assume that what is clear to us, is clear to them.

Transferring knowledge through the written word (for example in lessons learned, or in online knowledge bases) suffers from the same problem as transferring a song by tapping. People THINK that what they have written conveys knowledge, because they can’t put themselves in the mind of people who don’t already have that knowledge.

Just because they understand their own explanations, that does not mean those explanations are clear to he reader.

This effect can be seen in written knowledge bases and lessons databases, and often appears as Statements of the Blindingly Obvious (SOTBOs).

These are statements that nobody will disagree with, but which carry obviously carry some more subtle import to the writer which the reader cannot discern. These include statements like

  • “It takes time to build a relationship with the client” (Really? I thought it was instantaneous). 
  • “A task like this will require careful planning”. (Really? I thought careless planning would suffice)
  • “Make sure you have the right people on the team.” (Really? I thought we could get away with having the wrong people)
  • Ensure that communication and distribution of information is conducted effectively. (Really? I thought we would do it ineffectively instead)
The writer meant to convey something important through these messages, but failed completely. Why is this? Often because the writer had no help, no facilitation, and was not challenged on the emptiness of their statements.

In each case, any facilitator which had been involved in the capture of the knowledge, or any validator of the knowledge base, would ask supplementary questions:

  • How much time does it take? 
  • What would you need to do to make the planning careful enough? 
  • What are the right people for a job like this? 
  • What would ensure effective communication?
This further questioning is all part of the issue of knowledge quality assurance, to filter unhelpful material out of the knowledge base, or lessons management system, and to turn an unintelligible set of taps into a full tune.

Without this, people rapidly give up on the knowledge base as being “unhelpful”, and full of SOTBOs.

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How to find the "unknown knowns"

The Unknown Knowns are a major component of experts’ tacit knowledge, and to uncover these, we need Knowledge Pull

Unknown PeopleThere is a lot of knowledge out there in the organisation that we Don’t Know That We Know, and one of the truths of Knowledge Management is that we don’t know what we know until we need it, or until someone asks us really deep and probing questions.

That’s why an effective Knowledge Management program cannot be based on individual volunteering or publishing of knowledge, aka Knowledge Push, as this only find the Known Knowns.

Sometimes you find organisations who have set up a system whereby people are required to identify lessons themselves and to add them into a lessons management system, or to identify “knowledge objects” and add them to a database, or to identify new ideas and improvement suggestions and add them to a Suggestions Scheme.

I am not as huge fan of Push systems like this.

I think you capture only a small proportion of the knowledge or ideas this way, because you miss the Unknown Knowns.  People are not aware that they have knowledge and ideas, and if they are aware, they often discount the knowledge as “not important”.

Instead, don’t wait for knowledge, ideas or lessons to be volunteered – go seek them out. Go and do some proactive knowledge identification.

There are two main approaches for doing this; reactive, and scheduled.

The reactive approach requires someone to identify particular successes and failures from which to learn. The failures can be obvious, such as safety incidents or significant project overruns, and many companies have mandatory processes for reviewing these failures. But how do you spot the successes? Maybe you can use your company benchmark metrics, and seek to learn from those departments with the best results that year. Perhaps you could work with the knowledge from the manufacturing plant that never had an accident, as well as from the one with frequent accidents. Maybe you can look for the best sales team, and look to learn the secrets of their success.

Or maybe you can do both successes and failures – I did a very interesting study not long ago for an organisation that measures staff engagement using the Gallup survey. We picked the ten top scoring sales teams, the ten bottom scoring teams and the ten teams which had shown the most improvement over the previous year, and interviewed the team leader and a team member of each one, to pick out the secrets of successful staff engagement.

An alternative approach, common within project-based organisations, is to schedule learning reviews and knowledge exchange within the activity framework. These could be

  • After Action Reviews on a daily basis during high-intensity learning, or after each significant task 
  • Peer Assists early in each project stage, or during project set-up
  • Retrospects (or some other form of Post Project review) at the end of each project stage, or at each project review gate
  • A Knowledge Handover meeting at the end of a project, to discuss new knowledge with other projects
  • A Retrospect (or some other form of review) at the end of a bid process, when the company knows if the bid has been successful or unsuccessful.

There are many advantages to the scheduled approach. Firstly, success and failure are components of every project, and if every project is reviewed, lessons may be identified which can avoid the big mistakes later on.

Secondly, if lessons identification is scheduled, it becomes a clear expectation, and the company can monitor if the expectation is being met. This expectation is common in many organisations, thought the rigour with which the expectation is met seems to vary.

Finally, by scheduling and facilitating the learning dialogue, you can uncover the knowledge that nobody knows they know, until they start to discuss it.

That’s how you find the Unknown Knowns.

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Socrates on Explicit Knowledge

Here’s a reprise from the archives – Socrates on the limitations of the written word.

SocratesSocrates, as reported by Plato in The Phaedrus, was not a fan of explicit knowledge.

Explicit knowledge, in those days, meant Writing, and Socrates never wrote anything down – he had a scribe (Plato) to do that for him. He mistrusted writing – he felt it made people stupid and lazy by giving them the impression that they were recording (and reading) real knowledge.

Here’s Socrates

“He would be a very simple person…who should leave in writing or receive in writing any art under the idea that the written word would be intelligible or certain; or who deemed that writing was at all better than knowledge and recollection of the same matters….. Writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence….

You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer…..Is there not another kind of word or speech far better than this? … I mean an intelligent word graven in the soul of the learner, which can defend itself, and knows when to speak and when to be silent”.

In the form of a fable, he says this about writing as a means of transmitting knowledge

“The specific which you have discovered (writing) is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing”

In Summary, Explicit Knowledge, for Socrates, is poor because it cannot be questioned, gives always the same answer, and is the “semblance of truth”. Far preferable is Tacit knowledge (“an intelligent word graven in the soul of the learner”) which can be questioned.

Socrates (as befits one of the world’s leading philosophers) had a good point.

How then can we reduce these real risks when it comes to transferring knowledge? We have four options.

  1. For the most important knowledge, aim to Connect people rather than relying on Collecting the written word. Use Peer Assist and Communities of Practice, rather than relying solely on knowledge bases.
  2. When you do record explicit knowledge, ensure that the details of the author are attached to the knowledge, so that the reader can find the writer and question them directly. In this way the explicit record becomes a pointer to tacit knowledge, and a reminder (Socrates’ “reminiscence”) to the author. 
  3. Use explicit knowledge for those topics which require “one unvarying answer”, such as best practice, “rules of the road”, instructions, manuals and policies, bearing in mind that the answer may evolve over time, and that the written word must evolve similarly.
  4. When you record explicit knowledge (as text or video), bear in mind all the questions the reader/viewer is likely to have, and answer them. The FAQ format is a better format than dry prose or instruction, as it is reader-focused and question-focused.
I think Socrates would endorse 1, 2 and 3, and perhaps be less happy with 4.

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How to learn from critical decisions (video)

This video from the University of Bath, UK, shows Joseph Borders describing a varation of the Critical Decision Method.

This is a method used to elicit knowledge from an expert, in the context of an unusual even they were involved in, through an analysis of their decision making process.

You might use this technique as part of a Knowledge retention strategy for example, or as a form of Retention Interview.

The Critical Decision Audit: Blending the Critical Decision Method & the Knowledge Audit from University of Bath on Vimeo.

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How bullet points kill knowledge.

Bullet points may have their place in helping punctuate meetings, but are no way to capture knowledge. 

image from wikimedia commons

Discussion and dialogue are still the most effective ways of transferring knowledge from person to person. Although”we know more than we can tell”, we can still tell enough of what we know to transfer useful understanding and insight to someone else when they are standing in front of us, asking questions, and taking an active part in trying to understand. That’s why techniques such as Peer AssistKnowledge HandoverKnowledge Exchange and so on are so powerful.

However the nature of the human memory is that as soon as we hear something we start to forget it.

Notes from the meeting are crucial, even for the people who attended. Traditionally, facilitators of such events stand up the front of the room and write bullet points on a flip-chart. However when a good discussion gets going, there is no way that you can write bullet points quickly enough, and in enough detail, to capture the details, the subtleties and the context of what is being discussed. And most importantly, bullet points don’t capture the stories, and we learn best from stories.

Bullet points may be useful aides-memoire for those who were part of the discussion, but even then they are only useful for a very short time, and are totally useless for anyone who could not attend.

You can do a better job sat at the table, taking shorthand, but for the best results, you need to audio-record the meeting.

Then, what do you do with the recording?

  • Option 1 – transcribe it yourself. This is time consuming, but accurate. My favourite approach is to use voice recognition software trained to my own voice, and dictate into the computer while simultaneously listening to the recording (slowed down to about half speed).  The transcription can be used as the basis for a Knowledge Asset containing advice, good practice, stories and examples.
  • Option 2 – use a transcription service. This is quicker, but the transcription service will not understand any of the technical terms. You need to send them an entire glossary. This transcription can be also used as the basis for a Knowledge Asset.
  • Option 3 – edit the audio or video recording into a podcast or videocast. This can be useful, but a recording of an active conversation (rather than an interview) is actually very difficult to follow unless it is very well edited, and few people will sit through a recording of an entire meeting.
  • Option 4 – my preferred option – use options 1 or 2, and then in addition, get people to video-record a series of small summaries of the main points (rather like a big brother diary room).

Any one of these is infinitely better than bullet points on a flip chart.

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Are we the first generation to know less than our parents? And does it matter?

A famous author claims we are the first generation to know less than our parents, and calls this a “net loss of knowledge”. Is he right? 

Image from wikimedia commons – “The Dunce”

According to the writer, Sebastian Faulkes
, reported in the Daily Telegraph, this generation of will be the first in Western history to know less than their parents.

The best-selling writer said those now reaching their late 20s no longer felt the need to “capture” information, with the advent of the internet meaning it was always at their fingertips. Instead, he said, facts and figures were readily available at the “press of a button”, leaving the modern intellectual world in a “kind of catastrophe”. Speaking at the British Library this week as part of the City of London festival, he said it was an “extraordinary reversal” of Western history so far.

Firstly, is this true, and secondly, does it matter?

Faulkes is looking at shift from knowledge as being personal, held tacitly, to knowledge being collective, held in explicit form. This shift has happened before; when writing was developed, when the printing press was invented, when literacy become widespread, and when public libraries became widely available. None of these shifts were as abrupt as the shift operating now, but with each of these developments, it became less necessary to remember things, as you could rely more and more on the written word.

Prior to the first cookery book, for example, all cooks needed to hold the recipes in their heads. Once printed cookery books became widely available, for example with the publication of Mrs Beetons Household Management, or La bonne cuisine de Madame E. Saint-Ange, then we had “the first generation of cooks in Western history to know less than their parents”. They no longer felt the need to “capture” recipes; the advent of cheap printed recipe books meaning that recipes were always at their fingertips.

Was than an extraordinary reversal for Western Gastronomy? Probably not.

The publication of guides on any type of activity – gardening, metallurgy, navigation – means that we could rely less on our memory and more on the written word. The spread of the Encyclopaedia Britannica into many homes was part of the same trend. My Grandparents had a book called “Enquire within upon everything” – the very purpose of this book was that you did not have to know everything, but could look it up! Did this make my grandparents less knowledgeable than their own parents? Probably it did. Did it stop them writing down their own household hints? Probably it did.

Was this a bad thing? Probably not.

The Internet is the modern version of Enquire within upon everything. It’s not an “extraordinary reversal” of Western history so far, its a continued trend.

If it is a bad thing, then the gradual shift from head knowledge to captured knowledge has also been a bad thing. The introduction of libraries, the publication of guides, “Enquire within upon everything”, Mrs Beeton, the  Encyclopaedia Britannica, must all be bad things.  Socrates argued that writing down knowledge was bad, but I imagine few nowadays would agree with him.

I personally don’t think this shift is bad. The more we can store knowledge somewhere that it is easily accessed when and where we need it, whether that is cookery books on a kitchen shelf or knowledge on the Internet, the more we leave ourselves open to learn more.  Also the more we can store knowledge somewhere “in common”, the easier it becomes to develop knowledge, to innovate, to build on what is known.

The holding of knowledge collectively, in common, is part of the shift to Druckers vision of the productive knowledge worker.

So in summary, Faulkes’ statement quite possibly isn’t true, and that, as knowledge over history became consigned more and more to the written word, there may have been previous generations where their head-knowledge was less that that of their parents. And it probably doesn’t really matter.

An alternative reading of Faulk’s thesis is that the sum total of knowledge is declining, and its not just the tacit knowledge of the present generation that he is concerned about, but the sum total of tacit and explicit. I am not sure that this holds water either. Certainly explicit knowledge is much more accessible, but explicit knowledge does not seem to be decreasing, so I can’t quite see how the sum total is decreasing.

What is changing, is the ACCESS to knowledge, and what we are seeing in the current day is the biggest leap in access since the introduction of public libraries. But it’s not a catastrophe, nor a reversal, but an opportunity.

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Knowledge as "the voice of experience"

Is KM a way of sharing the “voice of experience”?

In many ways, you can look at much of Knowledge Management as being a systematic approach to identifying, distilling and transmitting the voice of experience around the organisation.

Experience is the great teacher, and experience which is shared through Knowledge Management can teach many people other that the person who had the experience themselves. People trust knowledge when they know its provenance and when they know it is based on lessons from real experience.

So how do we make this voice of experience heard? Here’s some ways –

  • Always attribute the source of the knowledge. Give its provenance, put people’s names against it. It shows that it comes from a real and experienced source.
  • Use people’s own words if possible. Include quotes. Let the experience talk.
  • Include pictures of the people who provided the knowledge. Knowledge seems more authentic of you can “see” the person who provided it.
  • Capture the stories. Provided they are true stories, told in the words of the people involved, they convey authentic experience.
  • Include the case studies. These are the record of experience.

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How the Emergency Services are resourcing real-time learning

It is common practice to invest time and resources in learning after a project.  Here are some examples of investment during a project. 

I blogged lasy week about lesson learning in the Australian Emergency Services, and made passing reference to Real-Time Evaluation. It’s worth spending a little more time on this topic, as this is a departure from the general practice of capturing lessons only in the aftermath of an event.

My colleague Ian sent me these two examples from the Australian emergency services putting resources on to the ground to collect lessons during an incident, rather than waiting until afterwards.

Learning from the Nov 2017 Heavy Rain Event
The Victorian State Emergency Service and Emergency Management Victoria teamed up over December 2017 and January 2018 to conduct a series of debriefs at the incident, region and state level relating to the heavy rain event that occurred at the end of November.
For the first time under the new arrangements a Real Time Monitoring and Evaluation (RTM&E) team was also deployed during the event to inform real time learning. The resulting report, together with the debrief outcomes, will be analysed for insights and lessons and included in EM-Share to support ongoing continuous improvement.

RTM&E Deployed into the State Control CentreOn 19 and 20 January 2018 a small Real Time Monitoring and Evaluation (RTM&E) team was deployed for the first time into the Victorian State Control Centre (SCC) to support the real time learning of SCC staff during the recent heat event.
It was a great opportunity to look at new arrangements and inform future continuous improvement activities across the Victorian Emergency Management sector. All outcomes will be also included in EM-Share.

These are examples of what I call “Level 3” lesson learning; the proactive hunting for lessons rather than reactive capture of lessons after the event.  Please note that Real Time Evaluation is not an alternative to Post-Event Evaluation – both are needed. However the benefits of Real Time Evaluation, and the Proactive capture of lessons, are as follows:

  • The level of resourcing is often greater, rather that trying to squeeze in evaluation time after the activity is over
  • Lesson can be acted on, and problems corrected, while the activity is in progress
  • The RTM&E team can look out for early signs of things happening, and can specifically watch out for lessons on specific topics
  • The RTM&E team can capture lessons while memories are still fresh, before people start to forget.
The main reason why RTM&E needs to be partnered with Post-Event Evaluation such as a Retrospect or After Action review is that until the event is complete, you don’t yet know the outworkings of the decisions you made earlier. For example, you may take a course of action that speeds things up, record that as a successful lesson through RTM&E, and then after the event find that there were a whole series of unintended consequences which meant that the course of action was, with hindsight, unwise. 

However, given that caveat, Real Time Evaluation, and the capture of lessons as an event unfolds, can be a really valuable partner to more traditional Post-Event Review.

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Is questioning the most important skill for the KM professional?

Perhaps the most important skill for the KM professional is the skill of Questioning.

Questions are the hook from which most of your knowledge hangs. Anyone with small children knows that itireless questioning underpins their early learning. The same principle applies in organisations.  Making knowledge conscious, making it explicit, and capturing or transferring that knowledge is triggered through the use of questions.

Poor questions result in poor knowledge, or result in knowledge never been identified in the first place. We recognised this recently when working with a company who had been trying to identify knowledge through Retrospects, without giving any training in questioning skills to the Retrospect facilitators. As a result, the knowledge gathered was superficial and of very low value.

Questioning is important in knowledge interviews, when you are trying to help the interviewee to reflect on their experience. Group questioning works the same way in the after action review and retrospect processes. In communities of practice, the facilitator often needs to “question the question”, and find out what a community member is really asking about and looking for, before they a question can be answered.

Questioning techniques include the use of open questions, the use of probing questions to get down to the next level of detail, the use of closed questions to home in on a learning point, and the use of summarising and feeding back to ensure you have fully understood the answers. We terach the skills of open questioning, and the use of question trees, in our core Knowledge Management traning courses.

Listening skills are also very important, and are part of good questioning technique.  Listening carefully to the answer, assessing how much knowledge has been provided, and asking additional questions to fill the gaps – this is also part of the Knowledge Manager’s skillset.

Ensure your KM staff are skilled in questuioning and listening.

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