Why does common knowledge remain unacknowledged within an organization? SFGate has tapped into an unreported vein of lore about the San Francisco zoo.
"I was putting a sign up in front of the tiger exhibit, with my butt hanging over the edge," said the former keeper. "The cat was pacing back and forth at the bottom of the grotto." The keeper said one of his more seasoned colleagues happened by, grabbed him by the belt loop and jerked him back, away from the edge. "He shared the secret that people knew - the cat could jump up and take me down," the keeper said.
And well known in zoo lore is the story about an entomologist who, as a teenage science student in the late 1950s, visited the tiger grotto with former zoo director Carey Baldwin to see if the enclosure was secure enough to contain the tiger.
"Mr. Baldwin had been told by one of the zookeepers that the tiger might be able to escape by jumping across the moat and onto the flowerbed between the public guard rail and the moat," the entomologist, David Rentz, recalled in a posting on his Web log.
"We got a large piece of meat and tied it to a long bamboo pole and approached the tiger enclosure. We were at the other end of the bamboo pole - about 15 feet away from the meat. Baldwin held the pole at the edge of our side of the moat. Once the tiger saw it, he literally flew across the moat from his position on the other side, grabbed the meat, and sprung back to the grotto all in one graceful movement.
"It happened so quickly that it was hard to believe what we had seen," Rentz said Saturday in a telephone interview from his home in Queensland, Australia. "It scared the hell out of me. It scared the hell out of both of us.
"Then Mr. Baldwin closed the tiger's access to the outside - supposedly forever," Rentz wrote on his Web log. "Notes were left to the zookeepers to never let this tiger outside again."
Dan Oestreich describes the phenomenon of "undiscussable" problems within organizations. Their existence is known with the same certainty as anything else. What distinguishes these problems from others is that they deal with subjects that are impossible to schedule on an agenda. By tacit agreement their discussion is "verboten". Oestreich writes:
An undiscussable is a work-related problem that people hesitate to address with those who can do something about it. It isn't that people don't talk about undiscussables. They talk about them frequently -- in the hallways and parking lots, bathrooms and across the cubicles. But it isn't with the person or the people most often associated with the issues. AKA "the dead moose on the table," it's what people come out of a meeting to share with one another privately that should have been part of the agenda.
Organizations and even whole societies are full of undiscussable subjects. They even go out of their way to create these "open secrets". When Mark Steyn is threatened by the Canadian Human Rights establishment for expressing his views on radical Islam it eventually has the result of creating another verboten subject.
Not just the Canadian Human Rights people, but a whole spectrum of organizations throughout the world, create taboos which eventually stifle the internal cognitive processes within them. And those taboos are so entrenched it often requires a crisis -- an impending bankruptcy, a corporate takeover, or a revolution -- to overturn them. Management consultants are paid large amounts of money to initiate "communications processes" through which the unacknowledged problems of a failing organization can once again re-enter the realm of "actionable knowledge".
The San Francisco zoo story provides an example of something all too common within organizations: the emergence of the open secret. If Carey Baldwin is to be believed, the keepers of the SF Zoo have known for nearly sixty years that the tigers kept within their enclosures only out of their own free will. The wall and moat were shams to preserve the illusion that the big cats were enclosed. In reality, the public's safety was dependent on the behavior of the "good kitties". Given their only recently marred record, the tigers have really exceeded our low expectations of their behavior.
In contrast, human institutions can be less intelligent than we give them credit for. They can ignore critical information simply because the word is out that the subject is not to be discussed. They can take data and bury it; discover knowledge and extinguish it. Because they have internal interests which take priority over their official ones. Even the death of a 17 year old zoo visitor won't change things. The only thing anyone can be sure of is that all parties concerned will hire lawyers who, by track record, are far more dangerous than tigers.