July 2021

By David Griffin, Senior Consultant at 42 Technology

The passing of Donald Rumsfeld this week brought to mind his famous quote about “known knowns”. Few people mention, however, that in his famous explanation he omitted the fourth quadrant – the “unknown knowns”. These are those bits of valuable knowledge that you don’t realise you have.

Management of corporate knowledge capital is of course a hot topic (and has been for at least 2 decades). Approaches vary widely, from “secure searchable global database” to “yeah, we really probably should do that”, but the first step is often for people to realise what constitutes valuable knowledge.

There’s been many a time when we’ve known more about the technical background of a client’s long running project than the client contact who inherited responsibility for it in the latest re-organisation. Not only might there be no awareness within the client organisation that such technical knowledge exists, but the people who might have that past knowledge might be blissfully unaware that the topic has even made it back onto the agenda.

Losing track of what you’ve already spent time learning is a costly waste, and one of the most common examples is failing to document why an idea (be it new product idea or possible solution to a problem) was rejected, thus almost guaranteeing it will eventually resurface and soak up more time before being rejected again.

Some companies wisely carry out periodic “formal capture” of ideas, holding workshops to ensure all the IP (in the broadest sense) which is vaguely floating around in people’s heads is brought to the table and reviewed. Sometimes this has a very specific function (“we’re about to enter a development collaboration and want all our background IP well defined”), but sometimes capturing such background knowledge is just a very good idea in its own right.

There’s another, more subtle category of unknown known, however. That’s the information that you know you know, but you haven’t realised the importance of it. This could be because a person in one part of the organisation has the solution but hasn’t met the person in the other part of the organisation who has the problem. Or sometimes you have both the problem and the solution but haven’t realised it because it doesn’t look like the solution you were expecting. Learning to abstract a generalised problem statement from a very specific challenge is one way that this can be overcome. Being encouraged to share challenges with colleagues in solution neutral terms is another.

So be mindful of the knowledge you accumulate. Ask yourself two questions: “What did I learn today?” and “What else does this relate to?”. Because at the end of day, it’s not the knowledge that’s valuable, it’s realising where it fits.

And when faced with a new challenge or requirement, take time to consider when and where and by whom the same or a similar challenge might have already been tackled – don’t simply assume that every question is a new one and every answer needs to be original.

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David Griffin

David is a Senior Consultant at 42 Technology and is an industry experienced mechanical engineer who spent a decade developing bespoke test and assembly automation, in diverse fields ranging from motor winding to asthma inhaler manufacture, several years developing and optimising solvent removal technology and continuous chemistry systems. He also spent a period in industrial inkjet printing system development.

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