Monday 14 December 2015

Secrets, mysteries and not-knowing

There are two valid reasons for not knowing something - that thing might be a secret or it might be a mystery.

A secret is knowledge which exists, but for some reason cannot be, or has not been, found. A secret is, in theory at least, knowable. A mystery is something where the knowledge does not exist yet - at the current state of knowledge it is un-knowable.

To complicate matters, secrets come in at least two types. There are the "open secrets" - things that are not publicly authorised but are actually widely known; and there are the closed secrets, where the distribution of knowledge is officially restricted.

Every organisation deals with secrets and mysteries, but these two reasons for not knowing need to be treated differently in knowledge management terms.

Firstly the reason for secrecy needs to be challenged. The ideal situation, as far as knowledge management is concerned, is for all knowledge to be "common knowledge" unless there is a very good reason otherwise. All open secrets should be authorised and validated as common knowledge, and the number of closed secrets should be minimised.

Secrecy is often required - the "Chinese walls", for example, in legal and consulting firms that protect against conflict of interest. Unfortunate secrecy in organisations can become a habit and a culture. People can develop a mindset of secrecy, even when secrecy is not needed. "Better not to share this knowledge" people assume "just in case it reaches our competitors, and they use it against us."  As a result, the knowledge is not shared, and it does not reach those co-workers and colleagues who could use it against the competition.

Such secrecy (protecting against a perceived risk to organisational power through loss of knowledge to external competitors) is different from knowledge hoarding (protecting against a perceived risk to personal power through loss of knowledge to internal competitors). Over-strict secrecy is a misguided attempt to protect the company, hoarding is a misguided attempt to protect yourself. Both are dimensions in our KM cultural model, which we measure through our cultural assessment. Both represent a failure in the governance element of the KM framework. Either the secrecy rules are not clear, or the wrong behaviours are being modelled and rewarded.

Then there is the third type of cultural failure, where the knowledge is an open secret, but the "not knower" has just not bothered to look for it. This failure is a both failure in the not-knower themselves (a lack of curiosity, perhaps, or a lack of willingness to challenge the status-quo) and in the KM system (the open secrets have not become common knowledge).

Mysteries are not a cultural issue, they are a case of true lack of knowledge. The response to a mystery is to explore it (perhaps using deep dive methodology) and then to learn from it (through rigorous lesson learning).  The better an organisations explores and learns form its mysteries, the more effective it becomes.

If yu can reconigse the reasons behind not knowing in your organisation - if you can tell open secrets from closed secrets from mysteries, then you have a good chance of knowing what to do about it, and of improving the chance that the right knowledge will reach the right people in order for them to take the right decisions. 


Lisandro Gaertner said...

As a friend of mine always says: "Companies should start to manage, not only their knowledge, but their ignorance as well".

Anonymous said...

Indeed its front km frontline! Coincidentally, I was chatting with my client today and he said the same thing even though he doesn't know what's km. "We Arabic only learn what we need and dig deep into it, then put into action", he said. Doers are all the same around the world. Greetings from Africa;)
Martin Chen

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