Thursday, 23 July 2009

The Unknown Knowns

Originally uploaded by topgold
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 almost equally challenging issue 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. But how can someone share knowledge is they don’t know 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 (36 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.

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.

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 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. 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.

Now imagine that you did not do this, 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. And then they wonder why they don’t get the value.
Instead, look 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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