Unknown knowns and knowledge management

A link from the ever-fascinating Language Log took me to the ever-enigmatic k’alebøl‘s post on Rumsfeld, Bush and the Swedenborg conspiracy.

In it he discusses Donald Rumsfeld’s famous fascination with known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. Now, I have my differences with Donald Rumsfeld, but I’ve never understood the ridicule he’s gotten from some quarters on this point. To me it seems like sound epistemology and an extremely useful thing for a man in charge of a war to be be aware that there are threats he doesn’t know to be afraid of and questions he doesn’t know to ask. In fact, my criticism of Rumsfeld’s policies could hinge on my belief that he has failed to take his own advice.

Anyway, I had noticed the same thing that k’alebøl did: one of the cells in Rumsfeld’s contingency table is missing. Rumsfeld doesn’t address unknown knowns.

From the Knowledge Management Systems class I took this spring I gather that KM consultants see that cell as their bread and butter. In their jargon it is called “tacit knowledge” (which differs somewhat from the use of the term in psychology). The KM expert’s job is to help you capture tacit knowledge, tame it, burn your brand onto its rump, and move it into the Known Knowns corral.

(At which point you can fire the staff who knew things you didn’t know they knew and move operations offshore to where people know only what you tell them to.)

Del.icio.us gets tastier

Why didn’t I install this ages ago? Yoz Grahame’s del.icio.us search plugin for Firefox. Now I’m just two clicks, the typing of a search term, and one retrieval away from my bookmarks. Sweet. My outboard brain just got 100% more efficient.

Perhaps more significantly, del.icio.us has a new tagging interface. In the past, Joshua Schachter had expressed a reluctance to taint users’ immediate intuition of the best tags for an item by giving them too much guidance from their own or others’ past tagging behavior. He seems to have backed off from that position some: the new del.icio.us tagging form gives you tag recommendations, then shows you a low-fi heatmap of your complete tag list with the recommendations highlighted, as well as the most popular tags used by others. The form is nicely dynamic with a whiff of RIA and ajax about it, too. A great improvement in functionality next to the multi-step process that used to be necesssary to tag an item then look back and see how your usage compared with that of others. Although as with the rest of del.icio.us, it’s unlikely to be clear to naive users quite what’s going on.

del.icio.us tagging form

I feel gratified because this is just the direction I was hoping to see tagging interfaces move in in the not particularly earth-shaking paper I wrote for a class this spring (“Tags: What are They Good For?“). Now let’s see whether Schachter or others find ways to make tagging easier still.