By Eng. Janaka Seneviratne

Knowns and Unknowns

“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” Donald Rumsfeld

It is an established fact that an organisation is only as good as its employees. However, only having the right employees would not transform a good organisation to a great one.  To make it happen, the leader has to use the employees’ wealth of knowledge as a critical and dynamic resource. This effort is termed as the ‘knowledge management’.

If a CEO embarks on a journey to introduce ‘knowledge management’ elements to an organisation, it is better to find answers to a few pertinent questions. These questions include: how many of the staff could be described as knowledge workers, how many of the staff describe the organisation as a knowledge organisation and how many of the staff define what they know as ‘knowledge’? If the response for each of the aforementioned questions is around ninety percent of the work force, then, the CEO is well on the right track to create an organisation of excellence.

Organisation Excellence Framework

In the economically developed world, the incorporation of internationally recognised “Organisation Excellence (OE) Frameworks” to both private and public sector organisational business plans have gained exponential growth during the last decade. Many use the OE framework as a tool to introduce the elements of continuous improvement and innovation to the organisational processes, and to retain the high performing employees and as enticing avenues for personal development. The following commentary on ABEF contains elements of practical application based on the writer’s involvement on the practical application of the Australian Business Excellence Framework (ABEF) into the local government sector. ABEF is an internationally recognised, performance based quality standard. While the private sector organisations are well ahead of the journey on introduction of ABEF into their business planning process, the Australian public sector is also fast bridging the gap. The aim of this journey is the improvement of the efficiency and effectiveness of the public sector service delivery and also the enhancement of the responsiveness to the public. The ABEF considers seven elements. It includes Leadership; Strategy and Planning; Information and Knowledge; People; Customer and Market Focus; Process Management Improvement and Innovation; and Success and Sustainability. The scope of this article is on the element ‘Information and Knowledge’ and it focuses on “the effective application of the information and knowledge required to achieve the organisation’s objectives and the need for efficient and effective processes to acquire, analyse, apply and manage the information and knowledge”.

Types of Knowledge

“Knowledge is defined as a familiarity, awareness, or understanding of someone or something, such as facts, information, descriptions, or skills, which is acquired through experience or education by perceiving, discovering, or learning. Knowledge can refer to a theoretical or practical understanding of a subject. It can be implicit (as with practical skill or expertise) or explicit (as with the theoretical understanding of a subject); it can be more or less formal or systematic.” (Wikepedia)

Organisations have two types of knowledge assets. Type-One Knowledge is the information an organisation holds as Databases, Business Plans and Reports etc. Quantitative and qualitative measures of this knowledge type could be easily recorded. Type-Two Knowledge is the knowledge, skills and experience, the employees have developed over their careers. This knowledge is elusive and usually remains in employees’ personal protective custody.

Type of Organisations

In terms of knowledge management, there are three types of organisations, viz. Knowledge -Blocked, Knowledge-Aware and Knowledge-Centred. The first step is to identify where your organisation sits within this spectrum. Consequently, the next step entails the development of a strategy to convert it to a Knowledge-Centred Organisation, if it is not already. A Knowledge-centred organisation recognises the value of the intangible asset “what organisation (people) know” and encourages the flow of knowledge across all traditional boundaries. It fosters a climate of trust for the people to feel safe in sharing their knowledge.

Repercussion of sleep walking

When organisations are unaware of what they know, there will be duplication of information, reinvention of solutions and eventually the generation of waste. The leaders of such organisations continually fail to comprehend that the summation of existing individual knowledge is much more than the simple addition of each. This is why leaders often praise individual excellence, believing that it would motivate others. More often, it leads to the demoralisation of others as an individual excellence cannot happen without the support of others around the individual, directly or indirectly. Collective knowledge is much more sound and powerful. It must be emphasised that the scope of knowledge management exercise is beyond an extension of just having an internal communication plan.


What do the organisations do with the knowledge residing in abundance? Many organisations follow a consistent and coordinated approach to collate, refine, integrate and improve Type-One knowledge. That is a basic business need for survival. However, the biggest challenge for an organisation is to unlock the Type-Two knowledge. The tactical strategy is to break barriers to the knowledge-flow across the administrative boundaries and increase the awareness among employees where the elements of knowledge exist and thereafter promote the sharing of the identified knowledge to facilitate informed decision making.  An organisation’s overall performance is heavily dependent on the application of Type-Two knowledge. Until sharing of the Type-Two knowledge and becoming an innate or second nature of it to all employees, the effective application of Type-One knowledge is severely hindered. Hence it impacts the quality of overall performance of the organisation.

Fanatics of Information Technology Solutions

Knowledge Management solution is not an Information Technology (IT) solution, although many pundits try to attribute the knowledge management concept to IT software applications. Definitely, this is not an implementation of an IT tool for the employees.  Hence, the IT Unit should not lead the organisation’s knowledge management policy development process. This is to avoid ending up the process by adding another software package to the corporate IT network.

The Solution

The solution entails an implementation of a very grass root level informal communication mechanism and a knowledge recognition strategy within the organisation disregarding administrative unit boundaries of the organisation. The objective is to quell the fears of sharing knowledge and benefitting each other from the shared knowledge.

It is important to promote knowledge culture within the workplace and create an environment where knowledge of all shapes and sizes is shared. To provide employees with an easy-going atmosphere, this must happen in an informal way. The leaders must be aware that there are other business unit people who know the subject areas assigned to rest of the units. Leaders should tap and share this knowledge across the organisation by developing internal communities of practice. Some organisations have even developed corporate online lists of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) and encourage staff to submit questions and answers to update it continually, irrespective of which division they work.

This is a stepped process, it requires first to identify the need of having a corporate project “Knowledge Management Policy and Strategy Development”. This will be followed by conducting a survey to identify where your organisation sits in terms of knowledge management. The results of initial two steps would be fed to develop the knowledge management policy and strategy. The most important practical step would be the development of knowledge management practice categories and “Communities of Practice” (CoP). Staff are to be encouraged to join to any CoP as they wish. At corporate level, there should be a robust a communication strategy and mechanism to facilitate the operation of CoP groups. As a sustainability initiative, the superiors must recognise through a reward system the employee efforts on the participation of knowledge sharing mechanism.


Sound decisions based on shared knowledge would enhance employee performance and job satisfaction. This will promote innovation. The organisations will benefit from this implementation with outcomes such as improved customer service, improved staff retention and streamlined operations. When employees are involved in corporate problem solving, irrespective of their employment status or job location, they are a happy bunch of staff. Then they start to communicate openly and constructively. This is a recipe for a healthy organisation.

Eng. Janaka Seneviratne is a Chartered Professional Engineer, a Fellow and an International Professional Engineer of both the Institution of Engineers, Sri Lanka and Australia. He graduated from the University of Moratuwa in 1987 with a degree of Civil Engineering and he holds two Masters Degrees in Local Government Engineering and in Engineering Management.  At present, he works for the Australian NSW Local Government Sector. He shares his 31 years of local and overseas experience to inspire young professionals. He is a columnist of Daily Financial Times, the premier business publication in Sri Lanka. This is a reproduction of one of his published articles. He is contactable via


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