Uncovering the hidden data: the unknown, knowns.

Where is the Hidden Data?

Uncovering the hidden data in business is vital. Throughout my career, I have been excited by the hidden data and knowledge within businesses. Seeking them out to challenge and verify business ‘knowns’. The analysis often generates strategic and operational insights.

In a series of articles, I am going to present approaches to understanding and accessing the hidden depths of business that often lie undisturbed and underutilised. The knowledge can be in many forms including, ignored or inaccessible data, valuable insights trapped in siloed individuals and departments, or untapped skills and talent in the workforce.

Known, unknowns and the Johari Window

I’m a fan of matrix representations! Significant examples include the SWOT analysis and Ansoff’s Matrix. I am also a fan of the famous quote made by Donald Rumsfeld in 2002 who was the then US Secretary of State:

…as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know” (Rumsfeld 2002).

(For some nerdy info read on, otherwise skip the next paragraph!)

The quote was formed using the principles developed in a tool by psychologists Luft and Ingham (1961) called The Johari Window. The model was designed to help individuals increase self-awareness. Fundamentally, the tool analyses things that are known (and not known) about oneself, against things that are known (and not known) by others about that same individual. Using a 4×4 matrix, it groups those things into four quadrants, as shown below:

Johari Window - KNown, unkowns


The Johari Window

Understanding and Accessing the Hidden Data


Reflecting on the quote from Donald Rumsfeld and combing with the Johari window, I realised that another opportunity or interpretation was to use the 4×4 matrix to explore the facets of awareness and knowledge. Taking the famous quote in turn:

  1. “…known knowns” are the things we know we know.  We are aware that we have knowledge about these items. Examples in business could be:
    • existing customer base
    • key suppliers
    • internal metrics (staff numbers, EBITDA, projections)
  2. “…known unknowns” are the things we know we don’t know. We are aware of the things we don’t know. Examples include:
    • future political and other environmental changes
    • changes to inflation and interest rates
    • competitors strategic development pathways
  3. The final element of Donald Rumsfeld’s quote is “there are unknown unknowns”. The things we don’t know we don’t know. We are not aware of the things we don’t know. These events have been defined as black swan events. Examples of black swan events we can state (with hindsight):
    • the global financial crisis of 2007-2008
    • Brexit
    • the rise of the Internet

Putting these together and presenting on a 4 x 4 matrix, it omits a quadrant (see below). The missing quadrant is unknown knowns: what we don’t know we know.


Accural’s Matrix of Hidden Knowledge

This article is about uncovering the hidden data and conceptualising different types of knowledge within our SMEs that we want to unleash. The next article will examine how we tap into the unknown knowns.

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Richard Jones

Richard Jones

Strategic and business consultant for SMEs. Doctor of Family Business, Chartered Management Accountant and Fellow of IOD.

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Our vision is to help SMEs develop and execute successful strategies. The blog focuses on a wide range of finance, strategy and management topics.

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