KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

The unknown-knowns: you know more than you think

with 6 comments

A number of aidcommentators have talked about the known-knowns, the known-unknowns and the unknown-unknowns and what they mean for aid, development and international relations.

In summary:

Known – knowns: we know what the problem is and what to do about it – let’s get on with it.

Known-unknowns: we know what the problem is but not what to do about it. So we hypothesize and test until we know enough that these become known-knowns.

Unknown-unknowns: we don’t even know what the problem is let alone how to address it. These are beyond our scope of imagination so only individual decentralized action and feedback address them.

But there is one important type of knowledge that is frequently overlooked – probably because it is hard to pin down – that is the “unknown-knowns” i.e. those things we know, but aren’t aware we know them, or skills we have but either we don’t know we have them, or we can’t explain how we do them. In a sense, we know what to do even if we don’t understand the problem or know why what we do works.

This knowledge is real, but it is tacit so is hard to document and hard to transfer. Taking the example of a top athlete – they can most likely explain to you the main principles of their sport and what they need to do to train effectively – but they probably can’t tell you precisely what it is that sets them apart from other athletes who are proficient and practice all the same principles, but are not in the same elite class.

But if these things are known – but not understood, then how could we apply them in the world of development? What do we do if we can’t build a testable hypothesis around them?

In fact there are a few approaches that can be used – here are a few suggestions:

1. Look for exceptional individuals, groups an organizations to see why they are more successful. Even if they are not able to clearly articulate why they are successful – if you watch what they do ad compare to others you might be able to capture it, and derive some principles which could be applied by others. This is akin to the positive deviance approach which has been discussed a lot in recent aid blogs.

2. Mentoring and apprenticeship – by people but also between projects and organizations. Spending time with people who are competent and learning from them on the job is an age old practice, but one that now seems to be in some decline.  Learning from those who already

3. Invest in teams not just in projects. As a commenter remarked on my recent post on venture capital – angel investors usually invest in good teams as much as they do good ideas. Although this goes against our Cartesian approach to problem solving – maybe we should put together good teams that are known to be competent and creative and trust them to solve problems rather than looking at a problem as one with an engineering solution in which the people are merely “machines”  to implement a pre-defined process.

4. Find what people are good at, and have them do that. It sounds straightforward, but in practice it is rarely applied. E.g. people who are good at research often get to head up research departments and end up spending most of their time on administration!

5. Practice makes perfect. If you show potential in something and have the interest and determination to pursue it then keep on practicing it until you master it. Once you have really mastered it then you will have reached the stage when you can do much more than you can explain- when you are working at your best by using the unknown-knowns.

Footnote: For those that don’t recognize it, I’m transposing the conscious-competency model from personal development into the field of knowledge management and aid where it explains well the phenomena of those people and organizations that are effective without necessarily being consciously aware of why.


Written by Ian Thorpe

February 12, 2011 at 11:21 pm

6 Responses

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ian Thorpe, Roxanna Samii. Roxanna Samii said: Another gem from @ithorpe The unknown-knowns: you know more than you think (via @ithorpe ) […]

  2. Ever seen the Johari window? It’s very neat, and directly relevant.

    David Week

    February 13, 2011 at 3:21 am

    • Yes, the Johari Window is very similar to the conscious-competence model although it refers to personal characteristics rather than skills.It’s great as aself-assessment tool. It would be interesting to see if you could develop a “window” as a self-assesment tool around competencies or specific skills in development with entries such as “listens to beneficiary needs”, “able to work through complex bureaucratic procedures”, “able to influence key local power brokers” etc.

      Ian Thorpe

      February 13, 2011 at 5:49 am

  3. […] more: The unknown-knowns: you know more than you think AKPC_IDS += […]

  4. Great post, as always. Made me think of this piece of prose:
    “As we know,
    There are known knowns.
    There are things we know we know.
    We also know
    There are known unknowns.
    That is to say
    We know there are some things
    We do not know.
    But there are also unknown unknowns,
    The ones we don’t know
    We don’t know.”
    Rumsfeld was on to something. 😉


    February 26, 2011 at 11:48 am

  5. […] expand on the known-unknowns and turn them into known-knowns, but Rumsfeld forgot the mention the unknown-knowns. If you look at yourself and reflect on your own actions and past experience, and if you assemble a […]

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