There has been a lot of work on knowledge management, and rightly so. Knowledge management, at its simplest, means that the company ensures that its people know enough to do their jobs properly.
Then there’s ignorance management. This is the fond hope that the people who work for you understand what they are doing, do it properly, and communicate what you need so that you can take the right decisions. This is a fond hope, not a strategy or process.
Knowledge management is easier to manage. We already know what we know, it’s just a question of making sure that the right people know it. It’s far from being that simple but in concept it’s starting from a base of knowledge. Ignorance is obviously not starting from somewhere you don’t know.
Ignorance has produced most of the recent disasters we are still working through. Management ignorance has trusted people in banks to sell products which they didn’t understand and for which they had not foreseen the repercussions. If that’s starting to feel uncomfortable, then it should. We all suffer from it.
What don’t we know?
We suffer from employing experts, whether professional advisers, or experts running technical departments. We don’t understand the details of what they do, although we could if we put in the time. Unfortunately, we don’t have the time. If a technical manager is running a department and has got behind in their technical discipline – you won’t know this – then it is quite possible that they will be measuring the wrong things, and you will be taking the wrong decisions based on that. Worse, you can have a non-technical manager running a department who can be completely bamboozled by the technical difficulties and expense required, and may, in all good faith, come to you, the owner, and say we need this kit and that resource. The blind leading the blind. And then there is a predilection for people to develop their area, or possibly even empire build. All at the expense of the organisation’s health.
What can you do?
Make sure your people keep up their technical disciplines.
Invest in training.
Make sure your technical people don’t use all their own metrics so that all their prophecies become self-fulfilling.
Invest in yourself, and learn enough to ask a lot of questions.
If you use external experts, as well as all the above, use them to question your internal experts.
Don’t let egos get in the way.
If you internally promote somebody across departments, make sure they get some training on how that department works and how it interacts with the rest of the business. Don’t assume that because they’ve been there sometime that they will know all this. They won’t. And support them just as you would a new employee. It’s not just for their benefit, it’s so that their new department knows that you are looking.
You will know if you’re experiencing this. It will simply feel uncomfortable. Things will feel slow and unduly difficult. You won’t know why, and when you ask, you get answers that sound OK, but you don’t feel reassured. Yet you know you have to be more agile and flexible to compete in this fast moving world. So you might wonder – is somebody protecting their position here? Don’t wait for the crisis. Do an ignorance management inventory – there’s a tool for this in the paper below.
Remember, good entrepreneurs do the high level thinking and plenty of detail. Businesses don’t grow if you don’t know.
You can’t understand it all, and you’ve only got limited time. But if it’s your business, then it is your neck. Do it yourself or ask your external experts to keep an eye on it. You need to know enough to make sure that you’re not living in a fool’s paradise through ignorance.
With thanks to Chris Rivinus and his paper Ignorance Management