Advancing organizations beyond the Unknown

Any act of learning should have as primary mission the unearthing of the subjects that we are not aware that we don’t know, so that we can later assess on what skills can be acquired or at least being able to identify the people who already possess the knowledge in the matter.

Any organization in the modern world face the critical challenge of adapting to a constantly changing environment and competition. In a society where talented knowledge workers are scarce and in very high demand, it becomes a matter of survival to leverage every skill available in the organization as well as optimizing the intake of external talent. It is not enough to simply hire experienced resources and hope it all works out. Most probably it will not.

A challenge of constant change puts any individual in front of the unknown in its different shapes. The unknown is what I want to talk about today.
The unknown can be charted with a matrix where both knowledge and lack of knowledge are represented in their own axes. This gives us the following four areas for our discussion:

  • The known known.
  • The known unknown.
  • The unknown known.
  • The unknown unknown.

The “Known known

it is the area where there is sufficient expertise and experience within the organization. This is generally the area where the company has developed its business resulting in an edge towards the competition together with all the frameworks that have been used extensively to build that business knowledge.

Known known” represents both the revenue area as well as the comfort zone. Any suggestion to transition from this area will in many occasions be met with a natural opposition by the people who have amassed enough experience in the areas of business and frameworks.

A safe environment for subject matter experts where they are encouraged to be the ones leading the evolution, the innovation, the shaping of the organization ways. Trying to enroll the middle management and the community leaders within the teams avoid the notion of decisions made “from above” and will ease the natural frictions caused by constant change.

The “Known unknown”

is the area of awareness of the problems and strategy creation. This zone answers the question of what problems exists with the current model and implementation by proposing guidelines and directions that should be explored and eventually become the part of domain expertise.

This can only happen when there is enough expertise and self-confidence in the resources in-house as to devise a certain strategy and invest in the required skill acquisition, either by upskilling the existing workforce or by adding dedicated resources to the mix.

This transitioning obviously is on the collision course with the know known neighborhood, thus making the enrollment of the workforce in the task crucial to its success. In some extreme cases, the organization needs to be ready to let go of the existing resources that will eventually not be able to change their mindset.

The remaining two areas are far less understood and considered but they are equally important.

The “Unknown known” –

This area is established in the territory of what is either so obvious or so hidden that is overlooked. This overlooking can cause highly damaging disruptions. The obvious knowledge, expertise and practices may get lost overtime or simply not be passed on to the new arrivals to the organization. Soon, this may both create a need for a costly re-alignment and also be the reason for many resources not being able to build on the prior expertise, which can cause a loss on the edge of the group against the competition. Not less relevant, knowledge and experienced resources that are being ignored will surely suffer a big deal of frustration and eventually become less prone to participate in any modification of the status quo, when not actively engaging against.

It must not be left to chance to distribute the existing knowledge in a group. Not only the business logic but also the very foundations of how things are done together with the factors that led to the decisions. This will help in the understanding of the current state and make it easier for new arrivals to relate to it.

And lastly,

The “Unknown unknown

it represents that area where the lack of expertise is not in the open. This is probably the most compelling area as it can jeopardize entire sections of an organization by allowing blindfold guidance that can end up in sub-optimal delivery, plain failure or massive re-implementations of any development done under that guidance.

This area of unknown is possibly the most painful to clear. Lack of internal communication or knowledge sharing willingness, inadequate planning for building up expertise, insufficient external talent acquisition or, once acquired, overlooking or active rejection of the experience by the groups on the new skills due to lack of management.

A decisive intervention by the leaders in the organization must be put in place to minimize this impact. Carefully crafting incorporation of experienced people into the teams, attending to the fundamentals of diversity but also of common grounds. Organizations must be able to imprint this culture of acceptance, of learning and collaboration from top to bottom, while middle management must be evaluated by the success in building a thriving collaborative environment.

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Software engineer with over 20 years of experience in architecting, designing and developing on java technology stack. He holds expertise in application security implementations. Recently diving deep into Python and associated frameworks.

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