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.)

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