How To Work Towards A Better Understanding Of Wisdom


Thursday, 8.51pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom. – Isaac Asimov

The management thinker Russell Ackoff wrote and spoke about the lack of discrimination in the education process between things like data, information, knowledge and wisdom.

He argued that there was a hierarchy of importance in a sense: an ounce of information is worth a pound of data and an ounce of knowledge is worth a pound of information and so on.

In this view we are surrounded by data, or at least things that can represented using symbols that we then call data.

The way in which we look at data and ask the who, what, where, when type of questions and the kind of statistical analyses we do with that data when we ask “how many” creates information.

Information describes data.

When you know and can tell someone else how to do something you start to create knowledge.

Knowledge has to do with ways of doing – instructions for action.

And then there is why you do something – the explanation behind the activity and that is the foundation for understanding.

Ackoff says that the point about information, knowledge and understanding is that they help you do things more efficiently – get things done better.

He goes on to argue that wisdom is about effectiveness, it is “evaluated efficiency”, “efficiency multiplied by value”.

That sounds wrong to me.

Sounds wrong in the sense that the evaluated efficiency is a little bit like a derivative of something else – it has the ring of calculus to it. The multiplication is clearly a mathematical approach that has overtones of functions.

You could write this as an equation –

wisdom = f(information, knowledge, understanding) x value

I wonder if instead wisdom is something that emerges in our minds as a consequence of engaging in the activities of gathering information, creating knowledge and sharing understanding.

In this sense, wisdom is not a function but an emergent property.

The difference is that if you had one unit of information, knowledge and understanding you could, by adding value (whatever that is) create wisdom.

But that doesn’t happen.

We know in daily life that it’s the repeated work we do which eventually lets us spot patterns in what is going on that leads to us being able to make decisions that others might consider wise.

Maybe this is being pedantic.

Or maybe not – maybe searching after wisdom is a fools errand.

We aren’t going to find it – but it will emerge if we work on the activity that makes up our day-to-day life.

With this approach, wisdom is found not somewhere out there but where you are right now, waiting to emerge from what you do next.

Right now.


Karthik Suresh

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