Data, information, knowledge, wisdom

The implied hierarchy in that headline above is something of a chestnut in knowledge-management circles. Especially because of its risible final implication: if we have data-management, information-management and knowledge-management, shouldn’t we have wisdom-management too?

Well, actually, yes – but not in the way that most practitioners would expect. The point is that these aren’t a hierarchy – they’re dimensions. (More accurately, they’re a way of linking the dimensions that looks like a hierarchy, but is merely one of many possible ways of linking them – of which more below.) These dimensions align quite well both with the Cynefin complexity modes and also the classic ‘four dimensions of soul’:

  • data (aligns with Cynefin ‘rule-based’ domain, also ‘physical’ dimension): the raw ‘stuff’ of content – on its own, without any other dimension to provide context or interpretation, is in effect just random noise
  • information (aligns with Cynefin ‘analytic’ domain, also ‘conceptual’ dimension): the metadata of impersonal context, to provide first-level filtering for interpretation of data
  • knowledge (aligns with Cynefin ‘complex’ domain, also ‘relational’ dimension): the metadata and connections supplying personal context, providing translation into the specifics of the individual – the ‘personal construction of reality’
  • wisdom (aligns with Cynefin ‘chaotic’ domain, also ‘aspirational’ dimension): the metadata and connections supplying transpersonal context, providing a prepackaged interpretation – the ‘social construction of reality’

The point here is that we actually need all of these dimensions in balance to arrive at something that’s usable, but it’s entirely possible to develop in fewer dimensions and still have the illusion that we have something that works. Some examples:

  • data only: meaningless noise
  • information only: context witout content
  • knowledge only: ‘gut instinct’ with no way to explain it to others
  • wisdom only: the principle, ‘the moral of the tale’ without even the tale, let alone anything else – Victorian-style ‘pearls of wisdom’ that seem meaningless because there’s nothing to attach them to everyday reality
  • data and information only: content and context, but no connections to make applicable in personal practice (‘knowledge’) and no means to interpret it in terms of a business metric, or any broader principle or value (‘wisdom’)
  • knowledge and wisdom only: a self-centric assumption, without any supporting fact (‘data’) or context (‘knowledge’), that asserts that what applies to one individual applies to everyone, as in the much-misused slogan “the personal is political”

We need those dimensions to be in balance in order to support a genuine movement of knowledge, wisdom etc throughout the organisation. That apparent hierarchy of ‘data » information » knowledge » wisdom’ is one way to achieve this – but it’s not the only one, nor necessarily the best in every environment. The implied mapping above to the Cynefin ‘attractors’, or transition-pathways between domains, can help in this: for example, in the ‘complex’ domain, the recommended tactic of ‘probe / sense / respond’ implies that we need to start with the personal (‘knowledge’) with a bit of help from principles and values (‘wisdom’), link from there to context (‘information’) and then try to make sense of the raw data around us. In the ‘chaotic’ domain by contrast, we must start from principles (‘wisdom’) in order to guide the rapid choices we need to make in the recommended tactic of ‘act / sense / respond’.

The above is still only a partly-formed idea, I’ll admit, but it does seem to make sense – or at least, more sense than the rigid assumption that data, information, knowledge and wisdom are always and only a simple hierarchy. Comments/suggestions, anyone?

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