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The Knowledge Awareness Matrix

Most everyone has seen the Productivity Matrix with the following rows and columns:


  Urgent Not Urgent
Not Important    


The idea is to focus most of our activity in the Important and Urgent quadrant. It’s critical to pay attention to Important but Not Urgent items so that they don’t suddenly become Urgent And Important. Avoiding putting effort into the other two quadrants is essential to productivity.

There’s a different type of matrix that can be used when gathering requirements. Use it to help identify information that might not otherwise have been discovered until the last minute or even after an application goes to production.

Murphy’s Law of Requirements: Unspoken requirements will always be revealed at the most inopportune time.

Think of it as a Knowledge Awareness Matrix. The intersections of knowledge and awareness show who is most affected, the Subject Matter Expert (SME) or the Business Analyst (BA). In all cases, it’s assumed the knowledge is needed in order to have a full picture of the requirements.

  Aware Unaware
Don’t Know BA BA

I got the idea for this from a Donald Rumsfeld comment while he was Secretary of Defense. “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

PMI discusses this in terms of risk and refers to it with regards to evaluating risk. I use it when planning interviews with SMEs.


The four categories are:

  1. Knowledge the SME is aware of – Things they are conscious of knowing and aware that other people will need to know.
  2. Knowledge the SME is unaware of – Things that are intrinsic to anyone with similar experience or in a similar profession. They may not be aware they need to tell other people about them because the assumption is that everyone knows what they know. Or they know it so well they don’t even think about it. Professional jargon, including acronyms, or a well-established process are places where this often comes up.
  3. Knowledge the BA is aware they don’t have – Questions that need to be asked because it’s readily apparent the information is necessary to acquire. This is most often the first draft of the questions that the BA writes for the initial interview. As elicitation continues, the awareness of other needed information becomes apparent. It’s important to identify items in category 2 as part of this process.
  4. Knowledge the BA isn’t aware they don’t have – Information that they don’t have and aren’t aware they need. This can be edge cases, specific rules, or data combinations that aren’t communicated.

In my experience, Categories 2 and 4 are the most dangerous and can cause the biggest problems in any situation.

They are the biggest source of last-minute changes, and it’s the BAs job to ferret them out.

Category 1 techniques

The question I try to ask at the end of every elicitation interview is “Were there questions you expected me to ask that I haven’t?” Often this helps to drive out information that the Subject Matter Expert (SME) knows and is aware that they know but forgot to mention during the interview.

Using reflective listening on a continual basis not only checks the BA’s understanding but may also help the SME remember other facts that they need to share.

Another technique I like is Example Mapping, which fleshes out a user story with rules and examples and that can drive out further detail. If you want more information check out Matt Wynne’s blog post here:

Category 2 techniques

Most BAs are familiar with the idea of egoless questions. This is useful when working with a SME that is extremely experienced and knowledgeable. Approaching them as a student, even when knowledgeable about the domain, can often make them more aware of what they know and the need to share it.

Questions that can be used to find edge cases that aren’t immediately obvious:

  • Has this process failed in the past?
  • What happened?
  • Was it fixed, or did you have to come up with a work around?
  • What did you do?

Another way to help elicit intrinsic knowledge is to interview a more experienced SME with a junior member of the staff in that area. Often the less experienced staff member will have their own questions, which effectively doubles the BAs interviewing power and will further prompt the more experienced person to provide information.

Category 3 techniques:

This is really the bread and butter of any BAs work. Asking questions, and capturing the answers is the most important thing we do. The most important tool in this case is a good set of questions. Taking time to prepare for the interview, reading any documentation, and researching any terminology specific to the area so you can speak the same language are all helpful in this instance.

Keep a record of the questions you’ve used previously in this domain, it can save you time if you need to do an interview with other domain experts.

Always focus on the domain expert’s needs in the interview. The goal is to present yourself as an advocate to get their problem solved. You want to be a trusted advisor, which will help your source be more open and comfortable about asking for your help.

Category 4 techniques:

This is the hardest category to work with, for obvious reasons. If you’re not aware you don’t have information you need, how are you supposed to ask about it? This can often combine with Category 2 in unfortunate ways. In this case the answer is to listen carefully and ask lots of follow up questions.

Things to watch for:

  • Unfamiliar terms
  • References to people or processes you weren’t aware of.
  • Answers that are overly generalized or vague.

Often following up on these questions can uncover additional information, either information that the SME hasn’t provided, or information that they didn’t know they needed to provide.

One technique to deal with this is from sales. There are lots of articles on sales web sites about discovering customer needs. Approaching the business with this approach helps them see you as an ally and trusted advisor in solving their specific problem. That will help things focused on what and why, rather than how, which is a big part of the BAs role, and the focus of the whole process.

What techniques have you used to uncover items in categories 2 and 4?