In some book I have long otherwise forgotten, I picked up a hilarious quote about Seimens that I have occasionally pondered over and mused since then, “If Seimens knew what they knew, they would be a great company.” At first this may seem paradoxical, the sort of contradiction like government efficiency or jumbo shrimp that jumps out at the reader, but the more one thinks about it, the more sense it makes, and the more relevant the saying is far outside of the problem of corporate silos, as it deals with the problem of implicit and explicit knowledge. How do we know what we know; how do we recognize that we understand something? This is not as easy as one might think, and it is a problem that repeatedly finds its way into conversations and literature. As this may be a bit difficult of a problem to conceive, I would like to describe this problem of unknown knows, as former Secretary of Offense Donald Rumsfeld put it in one of his more memorable observations.
Let us begin with the most trivial, and therefore least sensitive aspects of this problem of informal knowledge, and that is the way this problem relates to art and literature. The most famous example of this problem, perhaps, is that of Moliere’s bourgeois gentleman, who did not realize that he had been speaking prose all his life. He had informal knowledge of prose, which is “ordinary” speech that does not have poetic devices like rhyme or meter or parallelism, but he did not know that what he was speaking and reading in an ordinary fashion had a category name, namely prose. This is not an uncommon problem in our own lives either. For example, this morning I was driving to work and listening to an audiobook from the Great Courses series about how to understand and appreciate opera, and the professor for the course introduced an aria from Rigoletto and I realized that I knew the opera because it had been parodied as one of the blurbs for the Rick Dees Weekly Top 40, which I listened to religiously on Sunday mornings between 6 and 10AM as a teenager during the heydey of my chart collection days. I had known that the tune itself came from an opera, but I had no explicit knowledge as to what tune had been copied. Like Moliere’s gentleman, I did not know what I knew, and that was my familiarity with some of the tunes of Verdi’s operas.
Why is it that we do not know what we know? There are a variety of reasons why, and the following is by no means an exhaustive list. Sometimes we recognize things but do not see them as part of a larger pattern, or do not have a term for them. For example, we may get hung up on different types or different meanings of love in English because our language does not capture the same amount of categories that we find, for example, in Greek, with the difference between eros, phileo, storge, and agape. A lack of precision can hinder explicit understanding, or too much precision and arguments over terms can lead us to ignore the connection between related concepts and understandings. Additionally, we may have knowledge enough to recognize something as familiar without knowing why it is familiar or where we have seen or heard it, or where it comes from, or what it means, while we know that it has to come from somewhere. We can, for example, hear a “Weird Al” parody and know that it is making fun of something without knowing the original song that is being parodied. Additionally, we may have a great deal of implicit knowledge because we live our lives according to worldviews that block off whole areas of experience and knowledge as being unworthy of investigation, such that our ability to process miracles or divine providence would be hindered by a worldview that has a materialistic bias. Alternatively, worldview bias can make us think that we know something that, in fact, we do not know, because it is not a fact but rather a figment of our own imaginations. But that is a subject for another time.
And if this is true of individuals that there is much we know that we do not know we know, this is even more true as we leave the individual level and move up to institutions and groups and organizations. When we move beyond the individual problem of implicit knowledge to the group problem, we reach the level of difficulty that was hinted by the title of this essay, namely the way that companies and institutions and organizations do not always know what they know. A big part of the problem, unsurprisingly, is the problem of communication. A front line employee may know what is going on with a particular customer, but that knowledge may not reach the people who are in charge of maintaining that relationship formally. Likewise, management may know of impending layoffs but may not want to lower the morale and productivity of those employers who are being let go until it is absolutely necessary to do so. Additionally, one department may have a particular process or have developed something that would be of use to another department, but the lines of communication between them are not open enough that people can learn from the best practices of their coworkers. Similarly, people in branch offices may lack knowledge of what focus the headquarters of home office has, just as people at the headquarters may not know what insights the local offices possess through their front-line and local perspective. And so it goes.
Ultimately, the problem of not knowing what we in fact know is something that cannot entirely be eradicated, but it is something that can be better managed. Developing personal or institutional reflection can provide the opportunity for implicit knowledge to be pondered on and properly sorted and categorized and abstracted into larger insights. This process can be iterative as experience is broadened and deepened, and such insights we can can be recognized as provisional in nature so that they do not become hardened into biases. We can always work with others in the institutions we are a part of in order to improve communication and cultivate curiosity in what others are doing that we could in fact do ourselves. If there is likely to always be a gap between what we implicitly know through observation and experience and practice and what we explicitly know because we have terms for them and understand how they fit in the grand scheme of events, we can at least work to minimize that gulf and to actively seek to integrate our knowledge into its proper context where it can be the fuel for insight and understanding. Doing so requires a fair amount of work, it is true, but it is work well worth doing.