What We Don’t Know We Know

February 22, 2010  

Last night I went to a seminar.  On the whiteboard, the seminar leader drew an oft-used framework:

There are things you “know.”  For example, I know I can speak English.

There are things you “know you don’t know.”  I know I can’t speak Chinese.

And there are things you “don’t know you don’t know.”  Obviously I don’t have any examples of this.

But it got me thinking.  There is one dimension that is never mentioned…

There are things you “don’t know you know.”

Inside of organizations, there is so much untapped knowledge.  To combat this, over the past two decades, companies have invested millions of dollars in knowledge management systems.  The objective has been to capture the company’s knowledge.

The problem is, the knowledge management databases usually become so large and unwieldy that they are unusable.  I can attest from experience that these systems often end up becoming digital piles of untapped information.  Finding what you want can be like finding a needle in a haystack.  Or, more accurately, it is like finding a specific needle in a stack of needles.

What’s the solution?

You might call it, “reverse knowledge management.”

Instead of posting knowledge which sits passively in a database waiting for someone to find it, you post your question to your “community” so that it can be answered at the time of need.  Of course, asking the world for an answer to your question is not new.  Yahoo/Google Answers did this a few years back.

But internally, especially when you have already invested in knowledge management systems, the dynamics can be quite different.

If you are using an internal collaboration tool like InnoCentive@Work, you might find that reverse knowledge management is an unintended benefit.  When you have a challenge you want solved, the odds are, someone else within your organization has already solved a similar problem.  But you probably don’t know who knows the solution or where to find the solution.

Sometimes the solution can be sitting in your knowledge management system…and you don’t even know it because it is too difficult to find.

Interestingly, “requests for information” posted on internal collaboration tools are sometimes solved not by the individuals with the expertise, by rather by the knowledge management team.  When a question is posted, the knowledge management team masterfully scours their databases to find a solution.  The advantage of this approach is that those with expertise in navigating the knowledge management systems do what they do best, thus freeing the rest of the organization to focus on what they do best.  And it has the added benefit of breathing new life into your old knowledge management initiatives.

So, what is it that you organization doesn’t know what it already knows?

P.S. I have to admit that I am a bit surprised.  If you Google “reverse knowledge management” (in quotes) you will see that the only place this term is used on the entire internet is in this article.

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6 Responses to “What We Don’t Know We Know”

  1. Mike Waddell on February 25th, 2010 4:44 am

    I guess you might also call this “water cooler knowledge management”. It’s really how the conversations around the water cooler work. Its the place where issues and challenges get aired and its the place where experience gets shared informally. That makes it the place of “not knowing what you don’t know” but somebody does.! So it’s the place where previously unknown knowledge is shared.

    Many a problem has been solved by a visit to the water cooler, the coffee machine and the printer.

  2. Ivana Sendecka on February 25th, 2010 10:31 am

    Hey Stephen,
    ;-)
    what a great topic to be pointed out.
    Organizations are filled with knowledge and know-how, we just simply forget the fact, that filing it in databases in some slow internal portals ain’t working.

    From my own experience, the best way how to get answers for your questions is not via systems, but via people

    I have been evangelist (when I worked for international consulting company) for using micro blogging tool Yammer.
    Firstly, my colleagues were looking at me suspiciously, but after few days, when I was just sending them files and contacts they were looking for for weeks, they “shut up” about wasting time in this interactive platform.

    We also had, knowledge management team in India, and by reaching out to the folks over there with personal emails and greeting>>starting human connections, I was able to get info for my assignment instantly.

    Organizations should don’t forget that they are made from people, people who love to help, share and give away their know-how. If you know how to create innovative platform where vast knowledge and years of experience can be shared, you are truly thriving ahead in much higher speed.
    ;-)
    so, let’s unleash our “don’t knows”
    ;-)
    cheers,
    i.

  3. uberVU - social comments on February 28th, 2010 9:49 pm

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by stephenshapiro: Learn what you “don’t know you already know” through reverse knowledge management – http://digs.by/1Tbg

  4. George on April 12th, 2010 3:53 pm

    I actually posted a comment on Stefan Lindegaard’s blog and then realized I should have posted it here:

    “In Japan they call reverse knowledge management “Yokoten”. This is a very common practice in Lean. In fact it’s the universal nature of TPS (Toyota Production System)… and perhaps the reason Toyota always scores at the top of the most innovative companies.

    The term “Yokoten” literally means “Across Everywhere”. In business terms this means best practice sharing. Ideas, and most importantly those that actually solve problems are communicated throughout the organization. The obvious concept is that others facing similar issues can quickly learn how a similar problem was solved.

    Knowledge management systems are great tools for implementing Yokoten, but it’s best when the system is simple enough to use and all users can access and search for information without needing to rely on system experts.”

    The bottom line, the org. culture can be driven to reduce the ammount of “What we don’t know we know”, just like Toyota has done.

  5. Dick Brandt on April 14th, 2010 8:35 pm

    I’m thinking some internet groups could be helpful. Perhaps laughlovers for standup material. So far just a thought.

  6. Nick White on April 15th, 2010 3:52 am

    Great post Stephen. I enjoyed the NESTA event by the way.

    We have the problem of not “seeing” what we have but we also forget. There are two other things! There are also things that “you forgot that you knew” and possibly a subset are things “no one in your company knows that you knew”. Most of what you knew is no longer accessible within your business. Corporate dementia or amnesia.

    Taking the first one this often results in a lot of reinventing of the wheel. Many companies these days have a policy of destroying information (hardcopy documents usually) after a period of six years. A lot of legacy corporate material has never and never will be digitised. As a patent attorney I come across this problem often. Most embarrassingly when prior art of 15 years ago from the same company comes back to haunt the new patents, at which point you have the usual refrain; “Did we really know that 15 years ago? I wished we had known that before we started!” I had one example where a corporate shredding problem nearly lost millions because if lost knowledge!

    Then you have the things “no one in your company knows that you knew”. Essentially what we are talking about here is the know-how walking out the door every day due to retirements, redundancies and people moving on. You also have the corporate rolling assignment when someone moves from R&D after two years and is now managing an operation that is outside of the R&D information loop, so they become organizationally excluded from the knowledge pool.

    I’m not sure there is any smart fix for the first problem…dementia is usually irreparable. But for the second I think the answer is simply a kind of corporate LinkedIn. You have profiles, contacts, groups and people post discussion points, problems and needs. But with a very important addition you include your alumni. Perhaps as an inducement they get paid a small retainer to stay on the network and a bit like the InnoCentive model get a prize if their “remembering” brings a tangible benefit to the business.