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Rethinking your CPD: Ignorance Management


Knowledge Management was all the rage twenty years ago. It was the latest fad packaged and sold to corporations by an army of management consultants. ‘If only we knew what we know’ became the rallying call of many CEO.

This was also the start of the second generation of the world wide web. Static HTML pages became interactive and new tools made it possible for almost anyone to contribute, regardless of their technical knowledge.

Fast forward to the present and we can rely on powerful search algorithms to seek out information dispersed across the internet. We also expect to be able to have our say; contributing more information (and opinions) into the mix.

So do we now know what we know?

There are certainly ‘known knowns’ as famously stated by former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.  But as lifelong learners we also appreciate that there is a hierarchy where data may get turned into information, that could become knowledge and ultimately generate wisdom. However hard we study it is impossible to understand everything in a complete way.

So arguably in this Information Age, the wisdom of Confucius still applies: ‘Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance’.  Hence, current thinking is that Knowledge Management could better be positioned as Ignorance Management. What don’t we know that would be helpful to know? What did we know that we have now forgotten?

How do we learn to avoid ignorance?

Unfortunately ignorance is not bliss (a proverb adapted by poet Thomas Gray). It can also mean we don't know that our knowledge is lacking (the so-called Dunning-Kruger effect). Knowing how competent we are and how our skills compare to those of others is more than a ego boost. It helps us judge when we should rely on our own decisions and when we should seek the advice of others.

But, psychological research suggests that we're not very good at evaluating ourselves accurately.  We all like to think of ourselves performing ‘above average’. These studies also show that those with the least ability are often the most likely to overrate their skills to the greatest extent. Why? Because knowledge gaps also prevent them from being aware of their the errors in judgement.

So arguably this is where the ignorance management bit comes in.  

As individuals we should ‘Get a Coach’. They can help guide our learning activities by providing a reality check. They can help us uncover our blind spots: ‘what we don’t know that we don’t know’. As surgeon Atul Gawande says ‘it can be the (unknown) small things that matter’.

This is also an important part of the Johari Window technique that helps people better understand their relationship with themselves and others. If you are a line manager, please take the time to help your colleagues discuss, discover and address important gaps in their knowledge and understanding. It is also important to keep on learning. The more knowledgeable we become, the less likely we are to have unknown gaps in our competence. Keeping on learning also keeps you in the habit of picking up new knowledge.

For more on this topic I’d also recommend watching this short TEDx video ‘Why incompetent people think they're amazing’.

John Castledine, Head of Learning Development and Design, National Institute for Health Research

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the NIHR, NHS or the Department of Health and Social Care.