Ignorance, Fear and Knowledge Management

Donald Rumsfeld is credited with this legendary remark back in February 2002:
“...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.”

It was unscripted, and raised a storm of ridicule, winning for him a ”Foot in the Mouth Award“ and starting a satirical cult around his “existentialist” philosophy. (Catch a preview here).

I have to admit I felt a bit like a nerd among raucous jocks when the laughter about Rumsfeld’s remarks became loud and noisy… because his comments are actually unusually profound, and I’ve been thinking about ignorance management as an aspect of knowledge management for several years. (Confucius said something pretty similar, but I’m not sure how many people laughed at him).

My nervousness about advertising this was assuaged by a recent discussion on ACT-KM about ignorance management - I wasn’t alone in the room with Rumsfeld, after all, and other people were taking ignorance seriously too.

After all, why shouldn’t we? If we in KM are trying to link knowledge to action, then we need to look at the role of knowledge in action, and that implies looking at situations where we act or need to act in the absence of knowledge, or with imperfect knowledge. It’s also pretty clear why Rumsfeld is interested in ignorance: terrorists and guerrillas resist intimacy.

And it turns out there is a small literature on ignorance management. Michael Zack wrote an influential article “Managing Organizational Ignorance” back in 1999. Zack defines ignorance in terms of four “knowledge-processing challenges” shown below. His main goal is to help organisations figure out appropriate strategies to cope with each major ignorance type.

The Journal of Managerial Psychology published a paper in 2001 entitled “A historic perspective on organizational ignorance” which attempts to address Rumsfeld’s problem of dealing with unknown unknowns.

I hit the boards in 2002 with an article on ignorance management for small and medium enterprises for the Journal of Information and Knowledge Management. I wasn’t aware of Zack’s article at the time, but focused on the practical ignorance challenges faced by SMEs as they made step changes in their businesses, such as moving into new markets, growing in scale, acquiring new products, etc.

David Gray followed with a short piece in 2003 in the Harvard Business Review “Wanted: Chief Ignorance Officer”. His focus was on “healthy ignorance” – ie filtering out what you need to know and what you don’t need to know.

Now Shankar Sankaran has co-authored a paper entitled “Learning from Alliances: Knowledge Management or Ignorance Management?” (ask him nicely for a copy). He focuses on how organisations manage knowledge transfer across alliances, and figure out what they need to know and what they don’t need to know in order for the alliance to work effectively.

If you want to follow this strand of thought, then Szulanski’s work on “sticky knowledge” (reasons why knowledge does not move to clear up ignorance) is a good place to start, followed closely by the authors discussed by Shankar in his paper.

Another dimension of ignorance is organisational forgetting: Bowker and Star’s classic book Sorting Things Out (1999) has a whole chapter (ch.8) discussing this, with a good literature review.

Or there’s attentional tunnelling or sustained inattentional blindness: the phenomenon of paying so much attention to specific information sources, that you simply don’t see the information about unusual or threatening things. Ignorance as blindness, if you will. See a video of one amazing experiment where observers failed to see a person in a gorilla suit in a basketball game. This is an area of great significance to the military, where situation awareness is of acute concern.

George Day and Paul Schoemaker recently published a Harvard Business Review article on how organisations can improve their “peripheral vision” to improve situation awareness and reduce “ignorance as peripheral blindness”.

For myself, I’ve recently been thinking about ignorance as wilful not-knowing, and the role of fear and wishfulness or self-deception in organisational ignorance. I was prompted in this by Elie Wiesel’s account of his ordeal as a Jewish teenager in Hungary in the closing years of the second world war. The small Jewish community in his home town had been warned by a survivor of an initial deportation and massacre, that they were about to be exterminated, but they chose not to believe him. When the Germans arrived and the ghettos were created they still wouldn’t believe they were destined for the concentration camps. When the deportations started, Wiesel’s family was the last to go. On their final night, their ghetto was unguarded and they were urged to flee by a former maid, who offered them shelter in her village. They chose to stay, were deported to the camps, and only Elie survived.

It’s clear to me that a lot of organisational decisions are taken not merely in the absence of knowledge, but in the wilful absence of knowledge, or choosing not to acknowledge the information that’s plainly at hand.

But despite the serious work being done, it’s hard to resist satire about ignorance management: try this Ignorance Management assessment from Paul Wilkinson (who has lots of KM humour and cartoons on his site). Or try this sharp but true contribution from Calvin and Hobbes:

6 Comments so far

An interesting tool to map wilful ignorance might be a Johari Window (which presumably can be applied to organisations as well as individuals): http://www.noogenesis.com/game_theory/johari/johari_window.html

Posted on April 28, 2006 at 02:56 PM | Comment permalink

Nice piece Patrick

Like Matt, the Johari Window is useful but only when you are open to suggestions of what you might be missing.  Closed-mindedness is the archetypical pattern behind much ignorance.

Another way of contouring ignorance is to look at what we don’t know (where we can be conscious and learn from others), what we don’t know we know (the realm of intuition, wisdom and unconscious understanding) and what we don’t know we don’t know (epistemological areas).  The latter are where there is more uncertainty.  This model follows from work of Sohail Inayatullah (http://www.metafuture.org)

Posted on April 28, 2006 at 03:10 PM | Comment permalink

dave davison

Patrick: by way of Dave Pollard and Walter Dertz I found your post on IM (Ignorance Management) I have grabbed your Calvin and Hobbes cartoon to illustrate this post:

Thoughts Illustrated: IM continued..

Posted on January 06, 2007 at 08:26 AM | Comment permalink


Thanks Dave I agree that this is an important area, but the label might work against us - I’m not sure whether CEOs will happily pay for what might be interpreted as cultivation of ignorance!!

Posted on January 06, 2007 at 08:41 PM | Comment permalink

dave davison

Patrick: i agree that the concept could be a turnoff - but it is the contrarian appeal that strikes me as a unique positioning approach

Take a look at the business plan of Despair Inc. the creators of Demotivational posters like the one you used in illustrating your posst

It could be that Despair Inc could be interested in working with you to create posters and calendars from their archives (or de novo) to augment the Ingnorance Management branding

In this post on my blog I used a Consultants demotivational image which makes a very ironic point.

As I believe, going against the grain could be a powerful differentiator - and one which could be tested in pilot form to see how it plays

I believe you would need a full Ignorance Management toolkit, inculding Ignorance Audits,Ignorance Bases(as apposed to knowledge bases) really a full contrarian attack on the principal features of the KM consulting approach.

I’d be happy to dialog further with you if you’re not scared off by possibly offending CEO’s to set your pilot apart from the usual positive approach to solving client problems.

Thoughts Illustrated: There’s PROFIT in going against the grain!

Posted on January 07, 2007 at 04:03 AM | Comment permalink

dave davison

here’s a direct quote from the DespairInc.business plan:

“Because, in our world of instant gratification, people desperately want to believe that there are simple solutions to complex problems. And when desperation has disposable income, market opportunities abound.”

Posted on January 07, 2007 at 04:07 AM | Comment permalink

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