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On ignorance

A fear of newbie consultants (well, at least of this consultant when young) is being asked a question which you can’t answer. This fear dissipates after a couple of years, when you should have the confidence to say “I don’t know”.

Hundreds of years ago it was thought (probably wrongly) that an educated man might possess a large chunk of extant human knowledge; now it is inconceivable. Knowledge grows exponentially and the last hundred years have been characterised not only by a population explosion as by an even greater knowledge explosion. More recently we have seen the democratisation of knowledge with the crowd-sourcing of information through YouTube, Wikipedia and the like.

If Donald Rumsfeld, the former US Secretary of Defense, is remembered for nothing else, he will be famous for his remarks on “things we know we know, things we know we don’t know, things that we don’t know we know, and things we don’t know we don’t know”. Although lampooned for this, he hit upon one of the main problems of knowledge – how do we know if the perfect solution to our problem has already been discovered, yet we are unaware of it? 

And this can be exacerbated in corporate life. Working in a large corporation can blinker you to what is going on outside; the corporate resources; the corporate mindset; the corporation as a whole, can provide a world that seems to be seems self-sufficient. 

A few years ago, a few of us set up a consultancy called Business Catalysts. Its purpose was to offer an external perspective on a business’ strategy and operations that insiders might be blind to. We coined the concept “organisational permeability”: the extent to which an organisation and its people are in contact with and open to new ideas. The thought was that Business Catalysts would increase organisation permeability.

Sadly, this was an idea whose time is still yet to come... 


Calvert Markham 

Wednesday 10th February 2021
Hands on typewriter