I am the information hoarder. I’ll read any article that comes my way, whether it’s via Twitter, email, LinkedIn, whatever. Any podcast, any webinar – sign me up! This is usually a way of avoiding doing actual work, but I justify it by calling it education or research.

Just in Time Learning

The other day I heard about a great concept called “Just In Time Learning” in a terrific podcast about productivity. It’s the solution for infojunkies like me. It involves only learning about something when you actually need the information, instead of just in case you might need it one day. For information hoarders, this could be the perfect cure and a path to increased productivity.

But a corollary to this, as my (psychologist) wife pointed out when I mentioned the concept to her, is that you may not actually know what you don’t know. Confused yet? No? … Good.

You see, in any field or endeavour we embark on, whether it’s writing, poker, rose gardening, or internet marketing, there is a learning curve. Depending on the subject, the curve can be steep or gradual. The more there is to know about a particular field, the longer it will take us to learn all that information and to master the skills involved. But there’s a point where we begin to realise what’s possible. A kind of event horizon where we can start using our intuition to fill in some gaps and think what might be possible and available in that field, based on what we’ve already learned.

The Four Stages of Competence

In psychology, this is concept is known as the four stages of competence.

The stages are:

  • Unconscious incompetence – you’re clueless and you don’t even know it. You may not even acknowledge that a particular skill exists or is useful. This is classic head in the sand.
  • Conscious incompetence – This is there you recognise that you’re lacking in knowledge about a particular field, and that you have a lot to learn.
  • Conscious competence – By now you’re on your way and you know quite a bit about the particular endeavour, although it still takes some conscious effort to operate effectively.
  • Unconscious competence – This is the stage where the skill or endeavour has become second nature. You don’t even need to think about it.

Depending on the subject, it could take 5 minutes or a lifetime to progress from unconscious incompetence to unconscious competence.

How They Fit Together

So where does Just in Time Learning fit with this?

To become truly effective at something – to the point where you can start doing more than just learning – you need to have enough awareness about the field to know what you can do, if you have a mind to. Without this awareness, you’ll be limited because there will be a whole raft of possibilities you don’t even know about, so you’ll be doing things you may not need to do, and missing opportunities to automate a process or do things more easily. You’ll be neither efficient nor effective.

Known Knowns and Unknown Unknowns..

I can’t resist mentioning Donald Rumsfeld’s famous quote on this topic. I remember seeing this in the newspaper about 10 years ago, when it was announced Rumsfeld had beaten out Arnold Schwarzenegger for the Foot in Mouth Award. Rumsfeld said:

“… 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.”

On first reading this sounds pretty complicated, and even a bit nonsensical. But when you deconstruct the statement, it actually makes perfect sense! Rumsfeld is describing all the points along the four stages of competence.

Using Knowledge Efficiently and Effectively

In order to be truly effective, we need to recognise at which point we are along the spectrum for a particular skill set. From there, we can aim to reach the point of conscious competence, and can start using strategies like Just in Time Learning. But while you’re in the conscious incompetence stage, it’s a waste of time trying to do too much, because your time will be better spent learning.

So, hoard all the information you can until you have enough information to know what you don’t know. Once you get to that stage, where your time will be better spent acting, put the learning on hold until there’s a specific skill you actually need. As long as you know it’s possible, the lesson will be waiting.

What are your experiences with known knowns and unknowns? Share in the comment section below.