Do you know what you don’t know?

Written by Dave Garbutt

19 July 2021


Words and phrases come and go, some gain traction whilst others fade into obscurity. Moments of brilliance or genius are often attributed to lateral thinking, creativity or thinking outside the box with admiration directed to the author. However, being told to use these “tools” to solve any given situation usually results in hitting a brick wall contemplating the age-old adage:

“When you are up to your armpits in crocodiles, it’s hard to remind yourself that the original objective was to clear the swamp!”

Most of us are not equipped or mentally endowed to tackle issues through creativity, lateral thinking or being outside the box. But, does that condemn us to a life of mediocrity or failure? Not at all.

Dumb question or a key to unlocking possible solutions?

At first glance, the question is daft or rhetorical, or both. After all, if I don’t know what I don’t know …. then clearly, I simply don’t know, and that is that! Not so fast. Let us take a simple example:

You look down the train track to where it enters a tunnel. There is a distant light in the tunnel. Your immediate perception is that the light is at the end of the tunnel. Your senses confirm this, as there is no noise, wind or smoke associated with the light. Because hiking through the tunnel is quicker and easier than over the mountain, you proceed into the tunnel.

The End …
Bullet train 1 … You 0 … what you didn’t know killed you!

When you don’t know what you don’t know you cannot take appropriate action. Indeed, in such circumstances the decision maker is likely to repeat the errors of the past. This is a bit like the mouse caught in the labyrinth continually retracing its steps without ever escaping.
However, when the question is asked “What don’t I know?” It triggers questions that focus attention on the unknown “What is the source of the light? How can I find out?”

Possible answers could be identified by any number of options:

  • Observe the light – does it remain constant (end of tunnel) or is it increasing or decreasing in size (a train on the move)?
  • Test the train track for vibration – none (end of tunnel) or yes (train in the tunnel)?
  • Place your ear on the track to detect sound – none (end of tunnel) or yes (train on the track) etc.
    Identifying the unknown, triggers a process to unlock potential solutions that could lead to informed decision making.

Rapid growth and a lack of control

MNO’s (Mobile Network Operators) to be competitive have used a number of rapid deployment options to establish their networks. These have varied from self-construction to full turnkey roll-outs with a variety of intermediate options. We were advised that the technical telco supplier managed the importation of project equipment, the construction and implementation thereof in the field. All projects had been completed and signed off. What we, the MNO and the supplier didn’t know and couldn’t satisfactorily establish was what control if any had been exercised over the process.
The technical telco supplier was happy to assist. We investigated the suppliers accounting system and inspected their physical inventories. The outcome? 100 generators were held in the supplier’s store that had been paid for but never collected! This despite clean audit reports (the value was material). The CFO (Chief Financial Officer) and CTO (Chief Technical Officer) happily organised the collection of the “unaccounted/wayward” generators.
“Do you know what you don’t know?” can produce unexpected results especially when a lack of control exists.


Personally, I enjoy sudoku, a challenging game, as it provides increasing levels of complexity requiring the development of new strategies to overcome and resolve the puzzle. Old strategies only get one so far and then the search begins for a new insight, a new method of discovering elements of the solution. Sudoku is a game of patterns, some easy and others highly intricate.
The identification of a new pattern or solution strategy is best answered, for me, by asking “Do I know what I don’t know?” The point here is that this simple question is not a one-off silver bullet but rather a handy method of focusing attention in any number of circumstances to get to information to support decision making. Each solution unlocked opens further doors and opportunities to discover new insights and solutions. This is not genius …. Just hard work.

Telco fixed assets – what you don’t know

Having worked exclusively, around Africa since 2004, on IFRS (International Financial Reporting Standards) and its application to telco fixed assets, I am probably qualified to make the following general observations:

  • Telco fixed asset registers (FAR) are not IFRS compliant;
  • Assets capitalised by project or composite invoice – are lumpy;
  • Depreciation on lumpy assets represents an average and not reality;
  • Experience and useful life estimates are non-existent nor applied;
  • Assets are not componentized or properly measured initially or subsequently;
  • Assets have no known location information;
  • Asset recognition and derecognition principles, are not IFRS compliant;
  • Assets no longer in use or totally impaired remain in the FAR values;
  • Fixed asset management staff have little, if any, knowledge of IFRS;
  • Telco fixed assets represent between 75% to 85% of the MNOs assets on the balance sheet;
  • Asking any CTO when or how they make use of the FAR is usually met with an enquiring “What’s that?”;
  • FAR staff usually equate to about 10% of the financial staff attending to accounts receivable which only represents approximately 2% of the total assets of the entity – (what’s wrong with this picture?);
  • CWIP is seldom controlled or properly accounted for;
  • The FAR is “managed” as an audit compliance issue – best treated as a tickbox or ignored;
  • Auditors, with little, if any, knowledge of telco fixed assets, regularly and erroneously sign off IFRS compliance on the largest telecom asset and FAR for the annual audit.

Highlighted above are but, some of the issues encountered on a regular basis. To expect that FARs in such conditions can provide information for decision-making purposes is equivalent to yelling at a hurricane to go away. So, if you are in your ivory tower and ask the question posited – the best you can get to know is, it needs to be fixed; else, GIGO (garbage in = garbage out) will continue to apply.

However, if the sole purpose of fixing the problem is to become IFRS compliant, you would be wasting your entity’s money.
It was Colonel David Stirling (a British maverick in the second world war – who formed the current day SAS with the motto “He who dares wins”) who convinced an HQ general to form the Long-Range Desert Group. His unit created havoc behind German lines in the Sahara, destroying enemy airfields and planes. He personally destroyed more planes than any pilot in the war. The fact that such innovation had never been done before was irrelevant!

The correct application of IFRS to a telco’s complex fixed assets opens the door to an incredible treasure trove of information for enterprise analysis across the board from the C-Suite to everyday asset management. If this is the objective, then funds expended on IFRS FAR compliance and related analytical tools will be handsomely rewarded. Constantly asking, “Do I know what I don’t know?” will open insights giving rise to “He who dares wins”.

The plague of functional silos

My auditing professor at university was at pains to point out that in general we are molded by our chosen careers and develop what he called professional disabilities. These disabilities cloud our thinking, shape our responses and decision making. For example, typically:

  • Accounting professionals – are prudent, conservative and risk-averse;
  • Engineering professionals – are always right, when in doubt, see rule #1 the engineer is always right; asset management
  • Marketing and sales professionals – are extroverts, high-risk takers and not accountable;
  • IT professionals – are talented at describing (rather than solving) complexity which only they create and understand;
  • Legal professionals – are the only ones who can discern without a shadow of a doubt – that if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck and walks like a duck …. It’s probably a polar bear;
  • And so on.

Read more – Do you know what you don’t know?




Related Articles