Manage Ignorance, not Knowledge

Former US President George W Bush’s Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, once said there are four types of information:

  • What you know you know,
  • What you don’t know you know,
  • What you know you don’t know, and
  • What you don’t know you don’t know.

It’s quite well known in management as the Johari Window, so not new.

What you know you know is easy to manage: it’s what you could write down without prompting, it’s what you expect others to come to you to ask, it’s what you remember learning at school, college and university. You could write it down for others. Corporate knowledge management systems can usually collect this.

What you don’t know you know is harder to define and, certainly, harder to write down for posterity. It’s the things you know when asked questions, or trying to solve a new problem. When my wife asks for help sorting something out for her laptop, I can rarely give her a straight answer. I need to sit at the keyboard and work through it, responding to what appears on the screen, be it menus or error messages. It’s a black hole for a corporate system – probably best addressed with a sideways approach – and another topic in its own right.

What you know you don’t know is actually easy to manage – you can look it up in a book, ask a friend or, nowadays, search online.

It’s what you don’t know you don’t know that’s the problem – and it’s not the information lack that’s the problem, it’s not knowing. You don’t look it up or ask – you don’t know you need to – because YOU THINK YOU KNOW IT.

I previously wrote about the value of studying after gaining experience. Studying adds to your knowledge but not necessarily adding much to what you “know you know” – the real value is tipping as much as you can from the “what you don’t know you don’t know” box into the “what you know you don’t know” one. In doing so, most of your ignorance is now manageable.

(Posted as a blog on August 18th 2011)