The Data-Information-Knowledge-Wisdom hierarchy, sometimes called the DIKW pyramid, is a model originating in information science that is commonly used in Knowledge Management. It has been critiqued before (1) and that is not my intent here. I still find it relevant and useful as a trigger for deeper thinking and conversations. As a side note, the original model is a simple triangle, not a pyramid.
In my recent adaptations of the DIKW hierarchy/triangle, which I have transformed into a more complex pyramid model with a base, edges and multiple faces representing different aspects of an organization's knowledge ecosystem (more about that in a future post, perhaps), I have dismissed wisdom and replaced it with innovation. I had some reasons for doing that but I am now reconsidering and trying to find a way to re-inject some wisdom in the model.
While attending this year's KMWorld conference, which is heavily focused on the data and information layers of the hierarchy or the bottom of the pyramid, I only heard the word wisdom once. It was in the last keynote panel and not surprisingly (2), it was brought up by Larry Prusak who joined via a remote connection. That is what brought me to reconsider my dismissal of wisdom.
I would rather inject wisdom throughout the model than have wisdom as an outcome or ultimate level in the hierarchy. We certainly need wisdom to address the challenges of the data and information layers of this hierarchy. Lots of people are becoming very knowledgeable about AI. Do they all have the wisdom necessary to apply AI? Is there a mandatory course on the wisdom of AI in Data and Information Science academic programs? Is there a course on wisdom in KM academic programs? I have not addressed it in any substantive manner in my own teaching of KM (3) and that could be a gap to fill.
If knowledge is the capacity for effective action, wisdom brings in the notion of sound judgment in the application of that knowledge. For example, I may have knowledge of physical techniques to disable someone which I have learned in a self-defense class and that gives me the capacity for effective action. If I have enough wisdom to accompany that knowledge, I should have enough good judgement to know when to run away and when to stand my grounds and fight (something like that).
If talking about knowledge in a way that clearly differentiates it from information is already a challenge in organizations, talking about wisdom further elevates the challenge, especially if conversations around profits and bottom lines are the dominant narrative. However, I have also found that as long as the conversation provides some value and is perceived as insightful to the participants, all is not lost even if it doesn't immediately address a corporate challenge that is top of mind for corporate leaders. There is a time and place for these conversations. Serendipity also plays a role.
As a result, I am on a quest to find ways to inject wisdom into conversations or perhaps just to have conversations about the role of wisdom in organizations. How can I seed conversations around wisdom? How do I connect these conversations to a sense of WIIFM (what's in it for me?) so that it's not an impractical philosophical discussion. It could very well be that it connects to employee engagement and wellbeing, a sense of belonging to a community that cares beyond the bottom line. Wisdom is about doing the right thing, working towards the greater good.
There is another term I am trying to use more: collective intelligence. I'm wondering here if I'm not using the word "intelligence" in "collective intelligence" to mean the same thing as wisdom. However, if I say "collective wisdom", I don't want it to be confused with the wisdom of the crowd. There is a place for the wisdom of the crowd but if the wisdom of the crowd is the folksonomy, collective intelligence is the ontology and I am more interested in the ontology. And finally, here is an adjacent question: Is there a difference between a smart organization and a wise organization?
One aspect of collective intelligence is that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. As individual employees, we cannot know or do as much with our individual knowledge as we can as a collective. The collective intelligence of John and Jane (John/Jane) is bigger than the the sum of John and Jane's knowledge (John + Jane). When John and Jane collaborate, they unleash new capacities for collective action. When John and Jane collaborate, do they also become wiser? What's the connection between collaboration and wisdom or doing the right thing?
The leap or missing piece between the capacity for effective action and the wisdom to activate that capacity at the right time and in the right place seems to be "agency". More about that in a future post perhaps.
(1) Weinberger, D. (2010). The Problem with the Data-Information-Knowledge-Wisdom Hierarchy. Harvard Business Review.
(2) APQC (2015). Big Thinkers. Big Ideas: Larry Prusak -- practical wisdom.
(3) George Mason University, Organization Development and Knowledge Management Program, Knowledge Management and Collaborative Work. Syllabus, Fall 2022.