Hunting the Snark

Stefan Stern, in today’s Financial Times, adds a new category of ignorance, Unknown Knowns, to Mr. Rumsfeld’s famous taxonomy.  This is information inside your corporation that would help solve a problem or manage risk of which you are unaware.  There is indeed a knowledge management problem for many organizations, poorly linked information systems, anecdotal knowledge that has never been captured, but our experience suggests that managers rarely even stop to ask the questions: has anybody in this organization done this before? Who might be an expert on this topic?

To improve this situation, we think it’s time to take a leaf out of Atul Gawande’s book, literally.  His work, The Checklist, describes how surgical errors have been reduced through no more complex a method than requiring doctors to run through an oral checklist prior to surgery to make sure they have the right patient and they are planning the correct procedure for this patient.   Translated into a business setting, the checklist approach would force teams tackling an issue to go through a specific set of questions to determine where in the organization key information or experience might be located.  For long run projects, the team could even name someone “the checker,” whose performance would be measured by the ability to ferret out internal pathways already trodden by others.  Without some improvement in this vital area, we will all be condemned to share the fate of the unnamed shipmate in Carroll’s “Hunting of the Snark:”

“There was one who was famed for the number of things He forgot when he entered the ship: His umbrella, his watch, all his jewels and rings, And the clothes he had bought for the trip.

He had forty-two boxes, all carefully packed, With his name painted clearly on each: But, since he omitted to mention the fact, They were all left behind on the beach.

The loss of his clothes hardly mattered, because He had seven coats on when he came, With three pairs of boots–but the worst of it was, He had wholly forgotten his name.”

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