Rumsfeld’s missing cat…egory

February 11, 2010

Arguably Donald Rumsfeld’s most famous remark was his “unknown unknowns” explanation of the Afghanistan situation of 2002.

“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. These are things we do not know we don’t know.”

This can be summarised in this grid:








(Mr. Rumsfeld came in for a good deal of criticism over these words, rather unfairly I thought. It is a perfectly understandable concept expressed in commendably simple terms, even if the Plain English campaign didn’t think so. Wikipedia’s article provides similar examples of this idea from other speakers.)

But, as is obvious when displayed in the grid format like this, there is an important quadrant left empty which really deserves equal attention: unknown knowns. These are the things that we don’t know we know.

I’ve long been rubbing my chin over this one. Almost anyone who works in a large organisation will know that a fair amount of time and effort is wasted on doing or re-doing things simply because individuals don’t know what the organisation knows. There’s a famous quote from within Hewlett Packard which expresses this well, although the attribution seems uncertain:

“If only HP knew what HP knows,
we would be three times more productive”

Apparently this is the domain of “knowledge management”. It’s a really thorny issue. Small organisations can probably get away without it as the individuals concerned will meet each other and be fairly aware of who knows what. Very large organisations have probably dealt with it to some extent otherwise they would die. But in the middle, we seem to be struggling.

The worldwide web in its various guises has made publishing information much easier (to the extent that the sheer volume is almost overwhelming) and search engines have made it somewhat easier to consume. Yet it still seems as hard as ever to find out who knows what in the organisation, and even what questions to ask where about what information is available.

I’m sure somebody, somewhere is working on it.


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