There is a thought experiment that I picked up a year or so ago, and the origins are sadly forgotten. It goes a little something like this:

You have found out that the world is in mortal danger. Aliens are coming. They land in 60 minutes. When they land, they will take over the planet and destroy us all.

You must inform the Prime Minister, and most importantly get her to take action. The future of the human race is in your hands. What do you do?

(At this point, a few observations. One person I tried this on recently said “It’s probably time to end it all.”; please ignore the current ineffectiveness of our political executive; stretch your imagination to the PM being able to actually make a decision.)

The formal channels to solve this problem would be to phone the Number 10 Helpline, or maybe Tweet Theresa (there’s a social networking campaign to end in disaster). In both cases you’d end up on the big pile marked “Green Ink Brigade”, and your chance to save humanity is wasted.

The only sensible approach would be to see how you could use your connections to be able to find someone who might know someone who might have an “in” in Downing Street, someone with the ear of the Prime Minister. Someone she trusts. (Again, suspend disbelief that that could include anyone at all at this moment in time).

When I try this with people who work in Central Government they probably have a slightly easier task with this. “I know someone who worked with the person who is currently the Private Secretary of the DG in the Cabinet Office…”

For those outside, it’s a slightly harder task.

In either case, the route to successful conclusion is to find links, connections; to find out someone you don’t know through channels you don’t know. Fishing around to discover unknown unknowns.

Back in 2002, those happier times when the rest of the world were worried because George W seemed a bit thick, the US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made a proclamation that garnered much ridicule at the time. Talking about the evidence linking Iraq to weapons of mass destruction, he pronounced:

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because 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. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.[1]

He probably could have worded it better, but nonetheless I’ve always liked the idea, because it sums up for me so much that is of challenge in modern organisations, particularly when it comes to the subject of the understanding of the flow of knowledge and information within businesses.

When you talk in organisations about the concept of “Knowledge Management” what inevitably arises are themes around virtual filing cabinets and digital libraries. Stores of information to be accessed and searched. And that stuff can be really important, although it’s always struck me usually for reasons of compliance and regulation more than for issues of getting work done effectively.

But traditional approaches to the management of information hinge on one really crucial factor; that people somehow know what it is they are looking for – known knowns or known unknowns. How can you search for something if you don’t even know that it exists? How can you even begin to look for unknown unknowns?

This is a theme that is coming up for me with a number of clients at the moment. Our expectations as users of Google is that information is at our fingertips, accessible and bountiful. Our experiences in organisations, with “corporate knowledge”, tend to be quite different. But this isn’t a systems issue, to my mind. It’s an issue of scale (corporate knowledge volume is insignificant in even the largest organisations in comparison to the sum total of the whole internet – therefore search and discovery is based on a massively big corpus of data, and therefore is more likely to throw up things you need), but also an issue of unknown unknowns.

Which brings us back to the alien thought experiment. If you want to work something out where you don’t know what it is you don’t know, the most effective and efficient way to do it is to talk to other people.

But there are significant barriers to that happening; Morten Hansen, in his  book Collaboration identifies four:

Not invented here means that people are unwilling to seek help from others because they believe that they should do it themselves; in my view this amplifies the bigger the organisation gets – the bigger the business then generally the greater the level of specialisation for every job, and the more specialised people are, then the more that they think that they should know everything and won’t seek help from others.

Hoarding means that people too often focus on the old adage information is power. I’m not going to help you because it might weaken my position politically.

The search barrier means that people can’t find others who might know. Corporate directories are generally classic cases of information based on known unknowns: I can search by name or by department; rarely by theme or subject.

The transfer barrier means that people from different disciplines or departments simply don’t understand one another, sometimes because of language, sometimes prejudice (“Bean counters”, “Nerds”, “HR” as the insults fly…)

So what to do?

I’m not arguing that good solid information management and filing isn’t important. It’s just not the only answer, and is probably much less important than many people think. What needs to go alongside is the promotion of networking and the engineering of serendipitous events.

Networking is still seen pejoratively by so many people; organisations don’t promote it; they certainly don’t facilitate it in any meaningful way. Why isn’t the role of knowledge management groups to foster networks across their organisations so that the conduits of knowledge (us) can become more effective? (I’ve come to realise that this is exactly what Euan Semple was doing back at the Beeb twenty years ago. The man is prescient.) Everyone should have their own personal networking strategy and plan. This is how organisations work.

Engineering serendipity is an even more alien concept to most corporates. I was speaking earlier this week to a client who said that they were amazed that a connection about work in progress was made between two colleagues only because they were both at a weekly management meeting; my response was it’s exactly for that reason that such meetings should happen.

Allowing, or even encouraging, random chance things to happen is so far from the playbook of industrialised organisations. Knowledge management is about management, control, structure. Not chance happenings. But again, it’s the serendipity that creates the magic (as an aside – my entire career can be traced back to going into a particular temp agency on a particular time at a particular date and landing a particular gig doing photocopying).

These two ideas are going to be becoming even more important inmy work in 2018. I’ll keep you posted.




2 thoughts on “The Rumsfeld Paradox

  1. Nice article. Literally engineering serendipity – for which Steve Jobs was the poster boy, as you know – can be hard to get right. Some scientists complained recently that the open areas in the new Crick building – there to promote collaboration – make it too noisy for those in the surrounding labs to concentrate.
    Still a good principle, although I think bean-counters co-opting it as a rationale for open plan offices when the driver was really to save money / shed staff has set us all back. How do you think the new stuff like WeWork is doing?

    1. I’ve no doubt that the primary driver behind most “modern workspace” initiatives is to save money, and that there is probably an uncalculated equation balancing ground rent saved against loss of productivity.

      On the WeWork type places, it’s a difficult call. New businesses by their nature tend to be more open because nobody has the first clue what they are actually doing. Put a big corporate team into a WeWork and I don’t necessarily think they’d behave very differently to how they would in their previous office.

      As for the Crick Institute, I walked passed it yesterday and it’s absolutely enormous. That might also be part of the problem. The canteen is huge…

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