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Accentuate the Negative

Knowledge management, the art of mastering the information that lies within your company's walls, involves more than discovering what you know; it's what you don't know that's important.
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When I was a freshman in college, I became obsessed with the idea of "negative space"--the notion that things are shaped as much by the void around them as by the pith and substance of their being. Think of the picture of a vase, which--through an effort of mental inversion--is transformed into two profiles joined in a kiss. I even began a novel about a biographer attempting to craft the life of a nonexistent person by examining the places real people weren't. If it sounds complicated, it was--also thoroughly pretentious.

Which is not to say that the idea of negative space itself lacks validity. All lives are shaped, for good or ill, by absences. The absence of money. The absence of love. The absence of God, or of faith in God, depending on whom you talk to. The absence of opportunity.

All of which is a long-winded way of explaining my take on knowledge management (see " Get Smart"), the art of mastering the information that lies within a company's walls. (Yes, I know, information and knowledge are no more interchangeable than liverwurst and foie gras. Forgive me for not bowing to jargonal correctness.) Although unquestionably a worthy pursuit, knowledge management exhibits one fundamental weakness: it does little to help companies identify what they don't know--their intellectual negative space, if you will. And that piece can shape an organization's destiny. "It's what individuals don't know that is a disaster from a success standpoint," says Andrew Michuda, CEO of knowledge-management outsourcer Teltech Resource Network Corp. "It puts companies out of business."

Knowledge management, in a utopian I-have-more-time-than-I-know-what-to-do-with world, would involve not just discovering what answers we already have but also what questions we never thought to ask. They might be questions that our competitors are already addressing, in which case we're in serious trouble. They might be questions that our customers have thought of but never expressed, in which case we have an opportunity to improve. Or they might be questions that have not yet occurred to anyone else, in which case...well, of such stuff are legends made.

A bit of this already goes on, chiefly on product-development teams, where members ask themselves at the beginning of each new stage, "What do we know that we didn't know before, and what have we still not learned?" But limiting the application of such queries to R&D assumes that things are modifiable only in their embryonic states. "It should be a yin/yang thing," says Thomas H. Davenport, professor of management-information systems at Boston University. "All the time you're doing work, any kind of work, you should be asking, 'What do I still not know?"

And whom should you be asking? Out-of-the-box thinkers aren't necessary--but out-of-your-box thinkers are. "Peter Drucker always says, 'Talk to your noncustomers," says Davenport. "I guess you could also talk to your nonchannel partners and so on, to get a sense of why they're not working with you. That might tell you what other people in your industry know that you don't." Michuda, a lover of hidden connections, advises going even further afield. "The best thing to do is brainstorm with experts in related industries or fields," he says. "You can take their perspective, which will naturally be different from yours, and apply it to the problem within your company."

Both approaches acknowledge a humbling truth: that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of even in the wisest CEO's philosophy. No one is ashamed to admit that he or she doesn't have all the answers. Why can't we be equally humble about our poverty of questions?

Has what you didn't know you didn't know ever hurt you? Tell me about it.

-- Leigh Buchanan, Editor

Last updated: Sep 15, 1999

LEIGH BUCHANAN | Staff Writer | Editor-at-large, Inc. Magazine

Leigh Buchanan is an editor-at-large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture.




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