Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Is knowledge all there is?

I spent a fair bit of time this week helping a client with their information strategy and information management policy. Their definition of information included “Emails, Databases, Documentation and Knowledge”, which is a mixed bag if ever I saw one!

Clearly they needed to get a better handle on what they were dealing with, so I introduced them to a little pyramid that I had worked on several years ago (back when I was thinking about pursuing a career in knowledge management). I call this the Wisdom Pyramid, and use it to help differentiate between raw data, meaningful information, contextualised knowledge and applied wisdom.

Wisdom Pyramid

Wisdom Knowledge Information Data Pyramid

The example I usually use to bring it to life is that of a traffic light changing colour from amber to red.

At a data level there is a single bit of information, isolated from context and basically without meaning, unless one is familiar with that particular data type.

That data becomes information when meaning is given to it so that a human can more easily understand it.

The information becomes knowledge when context is considered, in this case that the traffic light is one I am heading towards.

Wisdom is exhibited when that knowledge is applied to my situation, so that I stop the car at the red light.

The pyramid is pretty useful, although there is a catch with wisdom as we only call an action wise when knowledge is applied correctly to a situation. Incorrect application is at worst foolish, and at best thoughtless.

Much ado has been made about the management of corporate knowledge, especially the attempt to capture explicit knowledge, although tacit knowledge is also sometimes acknowledged as something that must be transferred. The real issue however is how do we inculcate wisdom into our staff so they make wise decisions and not foolish ones?

“Take hold of my words with all your heart; keep my commands, and you will live. Get wisdom, get understanding; do not forget my words or turn away from them. Do not forsake wisdom, and she will protect you; love her, and she will watch over you. The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.”
Proverbs 4:4-7 (NIV translation)

You grow wisdom by growing people, and that’s where most knowledge management should start – tools are useful (and Elcom has some good KM tools) but mentoring, teaching and encouraging wisdom in our people is where the real benefits come from.


  1. Great picture, bad choice of words. The top two are typically called "semantics" and "pragmatics" in NLP, searching for these would get lots of prior art.

  2. See also this similar diagram on Insightful Learning: