The wisdom of impractical knowledge



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In the 1980s, when the idea that data, information, knowledge and wisdom formed some sort of pyramidal value chain, knowledge started to get redefined as "actionable information." This was not the first time in Western history that knowledge was tied to the practical as opposed to a purer understanding of the cosmos, but within the business world it seems to have stuck. Knowledge that does not help you make better decisions is not knowledge worth having, or possibly is not knowledge at all.

This idea would be dangerous if put into practice.

Let's say your company is trying to decide if it should acquire a promising startup. Sure, there is a set of numbers you'd better pay attention to. That's the easy part. But you can't possibly predict what it is you need to know to make the decision, and any attempt to do so could have disastrous consequences.

For example, let's say the startup has a new way to make contact lenses. Let's say one of your engineers wants to go to a video game conference. Under the rule that says that it's only knowledge if it leads to making better decisions, the engineer should not be enabled to go to the conference. She, therefore, fails to attend the session on new video card technology that compensates for the ocular weaknesses of individual users, and thus the company fails to anticipate the breakthrough that obviates the need for contact lenses.

The problem here is not with the redefinition of knowledge as actionable information that leads to better decisions, for what your engineer would have learned certainly would have affected your company's decisions. The problem is that acting on that definition of knowledge would keep your company from sending your engineer to a place where it is unlikely she would have acquired what turns out to be actionable information. This seemingly hardheaded, pragmatic view of knowledge, if put into practice, can lead to less knowledge and worse decisions.

In fact, if you want knowledge that leads to better decisions, you need a way to include more. Indeed, you need to know more than any one individual can know. Fortunately, we now have technology that makes us better at that than ever: networks.  Social networks have always enabled this: One of your VPs is in a knitting circle with (I'm just trying to get away from saying "plays golf with") a product VP at a chip company who mentions a new vision-correcting algorithm rumored to be under development-or, more likely, whose teenage child has read about it in a gaming magazine-and now you've learned some "actionable information." Our new technological network enables those social networks to extend around the world, to post information in referenceable ways, to filter and forward information with surprising efficiency, and to build the trust that enables even competitors to share what they're thinking about. Knowledge now lives in networks.

The irony is that the view of knowledge as actionable information that leads to better decisions was initially suggested as a heuristic for reducing information: In the sea of information, knowledge supposedly consisted of the few islands that actually have practical implications. Knowledge thus seemed manageable. The problem is that you can't tell the islands from the oceans ahead of time. Telling one from the other, in fact, requires making decisions.

The greatest irony is that in this view, just as knowledge is a reduction of information down to what matters, wisdom is proposed as a reduction of knowledge. That's why data, information, knowledge and wisdom arrange themselves into a pointy pyramid. But wisdom is not really knowledge filtered and condensed into a bouillon cube. Instead, wisdom often starts with an openness to the farthest reaches of the sea of possibilities-seen from a vantage point that defines the person and gives coherence to her vision.

That is a very different model of data, information, knowledge and wisdom than the pyramid suggests. Each layer is not a reduction of the other. And they are not a mere sea of equivalent molecules. They are more like a primordial soup. The wise person comprehends broadly and is able to bring molecules into connection. Knowing is creating. Deciding is affirming creation.  


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