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Moving up the wisdom hierarchy


If you're an aggregator "harnessing collective intelligence", what are you aggregating? If it's data and information, you're competing with just about everything--Google searches, reference docs both online and printed, the majority of tech books and articles, etc. But if you're aggregating up the hierarchy through knowledge, and especially understanding and wisdom, you're adding huge value to someone's life.

If you're in knowledge management, what exactly are you capturing and managing?

If you're a teacher, what are you teaching? Facts and information, or practical knowledge and understanding? Are you teaching the What and the How but without the Why and the When? More importantly, what are you testing? (Not that in the US most public school teachers have a huge say in this, unfortuntately)

If you're a tech writer, what are you writing?

If you're creating tutorials and docs for your users, what are you focusing on? Remember, kicking ass and creativity usually doesn't happen at the data, information, and even the knowledge level. If you're not taking your users up the top tiers, you might be missing the chance to give them more inspiring (cognitively arousing?) experiences.


The idea (and a zillion variations including mine) of the Data-Information-Knowledge-Wisdom (DIKW) hierarchy has been going around for quite some time (especially in knowledge management circles), but how come everyone isn't paying more attention to it?! Some are, of course--Richard Saul Wurman in particular, has made a point of referring to his work as "the understanding business", rather than stopping with information or even knowledge.

[Other links: Russell Ackoff wikipedia entry, data-to-wisdom curve, WIKID + Power model, a different take on the origin of the DIKW model]

And fortunately, even those focused on information architecture and information design often consider knowledge and understanding as well as information.

The thing is, the demand for tools and services that take us (mere mortals with our slowly evolving brains) keeps increasing, potentially exponentially. According to Wurmans' Information Anxiety (one of my all-time favorite books):
"There has been more information produced in the last 30 years than during the previous 5,000."

There are a gazillion places to get a roundup of basic data/facts and information (which of course we need). It's not tough to find "what to know and how to do" knowledge out there either. But it's not until we get to the higher levels that we start truly getting if and when we should use something. What are the long-term consequences? What are the ethical considerations?

If we could teach kids in elementary school just one thing (besides reading), my wish is that it would be systems thinking. But too much of even our adult training/education (including much of what I create) is focused on short-term "just-the-facts-mam" or how-to hacks and tutorials. We obviously need reference info and how-to's, or everything comes to a grinding halt, but without the higher elements of understanding and wisdom, we might never recognize that the thing we're learning to do is NOT the right choice!

One of the easiest ways to bump something up a level is to simply include a few things like:

When NOT to use something
(Our Design Patterns book, for example, talks about not just how and when to apply patterns but when not to.


How to recognize when it was NOT a good idea to use or apply this [whatever]

Lessons learned from others, real case studies good AND bad

Links/referrals to communities of practice

Simulations (best of all--provide the tools and scenarios that let them discover what the long-term consequences could be)

So, what are you doing to move up the hierarchy... or to move your users (students, customers, readers, members, guests, etc.) up the hierarchy?

[Update: Shawn Callahan left a comment with an alternative perspective that's well worth the read.]

Posted by Kathy on April 23, 2006 | Permalink


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» Maybe Regurgitation Isn't the Answer from Chasing the Wind
I have long believed that schools have been failing to prepare students for dealing with the insane amount of information in the world. Everything seems to be "repeat this fact after me;" then I'll test you on it until your... [Read More]

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» The Hierarchy of Wisdom: where do you stand? from teaching.mrbelshaw.co.uk
Kathy Sierras Creating Passionate Users blog must be one of the best on the net. Not only does she cut straight to the chase but she manages to say things worth reading by those involved in business and education alike. Her recent post on... [Read More]

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» Creating Passionate Users: Moving up the wisdom hierarchy from Knowledge Work
If youre an aggregator harnessing collective intelligence, what are you aggregating? If its data and information, youre competing with just about everythingGoogle searches, reference docs both online and printe... [Read More]

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» The Wisdom Hierarchy from SmartTechWriting
Kathy Sierra has some wonderful information on the wisdom hierarchy model, known in Knowledge Management circles as the DIKW hierarchy (Data - Information - Knowledge - Wisdom). I'm copying a section that particularly jumped out at me: If you're ... [Read More]

Tracked on Apr 26, 2006 8:53:36 PM

» Moving up the wisdom hierarchy // Creating Passionate Users from //engtech
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Tracked on May 3, 2006 10:31:13 AM


Excellent post. I would put it this way. The ability to distill data and information into something usable is one of the most challenging tasks that everyone from software developers to analysts face.

Posted by: Deepak | Apr 23, 2006 5:57:17 PM

Another way of categorising higher level cognitive skills is Bloom's Taxonomy http://www.nwlink.com/~donclark/hrd/bloom.html

another is the categories of cognitive and metacognitive skills http://www.education.auckland.ac.nz/learning/tech/ict/education/it6.asp

I muse on these issues at http://tonyforster.blogspot.com/2006/03/i-have-been-thinking-why-i-teach-game.html

Posted by: Tony Forster | Apr 23, 2006 6:13:40 PM

yeah it is the collection of data/knowledge/or whatever they teach at school. Most of those who have high GPAs are good at it. But what we (and our kids) really need in life is not much of the collection but the ability to respond, given a query. Like blogosphere, the value resides in motion and conversation and action, but not much in the collection (internet has made it easy to do). Academics over-emphasizes reason; that kills the talent. It is ironical many talented people like Steve Jobs constantly drop out of the school to keep our life fun and amazing and move our lifes forward.

What is "new" in fashion or music or art is simply "new" taste. But when you bring "new" taste in the academic research, you thesis will be rejected unless it is technically different and "adding up" to the collection of the past research.

Posted by: kenji mori | Apr 23, 2006 7:02:47 PM

Hmpf ... I can't think of anything curmudgeonly to say about this, even though it's Sunday. :)

Well ... OK ... I got past the cute horse pictures. :)

So ... wisdom, creativity, systems thinking, etc. Michael Hall taught me that there are really five stages to mastery of a discipline

1. Unconscious incompetence ... you see someone doing something and you say, "that looks easy". You don't know that you don't know.

2. Conscious incompetence ... you try to do it and fall on your tush. You now know that you don't know. :)

3. Conscious competence ... by keeping at it, not giving up, repeating what works, etc., you get to the stage where you can do it, but you still need to think about it.

4. Unconscious competence ... now you can do it ... it's second nature ... just like the person you saw doing it before you.

You've probably all seen this part, but here's where Michael Hall went ahead and did what he does so well ... extended the model!

5. Conscious competence 2 ... just because you can do it without thinking, you in fact don't think about it. But now suppose you want to teach someone else. The process of teaching forces you to bring what's been unconscious back into consciousness again. This last stage is crucial to attaining mastery!

Or, to quote Will Rogers, “There are three kinds of men. The one that learns by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.”

Posted by: Ed Borasky | Apr 23, 2006 7:42:10 PM

We're on the same wavelength... again! See my post on this:

Posted by: Karyn Romeis | Apr 24, 2006 2:28:21 AM

I normally nod in violent agreement Kathy but this time I shake my head in despair. The idea that their is a pyramid from data to information to knowledge is misguided and misunderstands the nature of knowledge our ability to do things including coverting data to information. Knowledge also includes our understanding and our wisdom. I've seen people use the DIKW pyramid and with a straight face actually believe they could do wisdom management.

Here is an alternative perspective on DIW: http://www.anecdote.com.au/archives/2006/03/data_informatio.html

I also sense you have a technical perspective of knowledge management consisting of capturing and managing knowledge as if it was an object. I think this is partly true. We've just written a paper on ways to talk about knowledge management here: http://www.anecdote.com.au/whitepapers/wp7.php Our current system asks you to provide some info before you get the pdf, but we are changing that as we speak to more open.

I hope I haven't sounded too high and mighty. I guess this model irks me. Love your work and your on the top of my RSS's to read.

Posted by: Shawn Callahan | Apr 24, 2006 4:20:56 AM

Great post. I just wonder how you see your work as a Java certification developer in the light of this "Why, if and when" stuff. Do you think that the Java certifications (especially the basic ones, like SCJP) aim at it? Aren´t they just "What and how"?

Posted by: Mauricio | Apr 24, 2006 6:56:25 AM

Great post, Kathy. I had a similar thought a couple months ago with this post - http://www.wikithat.com/wiki_that/2005/10/information_vs_.html . A portion of that post:

Knowledge Management has historically been a polished, static, rigid, broadly defined body of information - everything you could want to know about X. It was all ‘what’ but no ‘why’. KM is rarely viewed in the context of a process that is taking place nor do processes focus on ‘knowledge’.

Posted by: Kris Olsen | Apr 24, 2006 7:07:30 AM

I think I want to agree with Steve. As attractive as it might be to skip over the Data and Information parts of knowledge and go straight to Wisdom, this turns out to be more or less impossible because of the way our minds work. If you don't have a well developed low-level understanding of something (Data) then your mind's pattern-matching functions are not going to be working very well.

To relate back to CPU, the way to use this idea is to make sure that your "kick ass" trajectory incorporates this at the top of the curve. In other words, at some point, you might want to stop helping users get just a little bit better at a low-level task and try and help them wrestle with the bigger questions.

Posted by: Charlie Evett | Apr 24, 2006 11:32:09 AM

Kathy, when should someone use Java and when should someone use Ruby?

You cannot just hand someone wisdom. You can give them rules of thumb, but they will fail dramatically often enough. Wisdom, comes from experience. And even then, people who've had lots of experience will offer dramatically different views.

In the realm of training it's instructive to compare honest and dishonest trainers. The dishonest trainers will give their pearls of wisdom. Always do X. Never do Y. L is better than M. A certain class of students/participants lap this stuff up, write it down, highlight it, and walk away thinking the class was great and that they're the cat's meow. It's sad to see how manipulable some people are.

The honest trainer will often say, "it depends". The honest trainer will often list some factors that need to be considered. And the honest trainer will tell people that they will need to work hard after the class to build deep expertise.

Posted by: bob | Apr 24, 2006 12:48:03 PM

Shawn: Thanks so much for bringing this up -- you've obviously spent a lot more time thinking about this particular way of looking at it (or not). I agree the idea of "wisdom management" is absurd. And I agree that the labels get pretty fuzzy--I've struggled with that one myself--my business card for the last ten years has said, "knowledge designer", even though we spend most of our time thinking about "how can I help people understand this?" [so they won't have to memorize so much]

I updated the original post with your link.

Ed: Thanks! I think the conscious/competence idea makes sense to talk about here for sure. Your electric fence quote made me cringe, though -- I've had some first hand experience in the last few days : )

Mauricio: I think you're right about the SCJP exam -- it is primarily focused on what/how. We try in our SCJP book to give some additional context for understanding (again, to reduce the amount that you must memorize), but we're pretty low on the hierarchy. In Head First Java, we spend much more time on the whys and whens than we do in the cert book. I'm going to keep this in mind for the next revision of the exam, though...

Kris: thanks for the pointer to your post on relating this to wikis. I hadn't thought about it this way, but it makes a lot of sense.

bob: I *kind of* agree, but I think it's not black and white. I agree that it's virtually impossible to *transmit* wisdom, but I don't believe that means there's nothing we can do to help reduce the time it takes for someone to reach higher levels of knowledge, understanding, and in some cases wisdom (although a lot depends on how you define wisdom). Simulations, in-depth case studies/lessons learned can go a long way. But I do agree that simple "pearls of wisdom" without the bigger context do not provide wisdom, although they might keep people out of trouble in the beginning. And I believe an honest trainer can offer plenty of rules of thumb as long as they give the appropriate caveats about not giving the rules too much weight and explaining that "it always depends, but when you have no idea what to do, try this as a default, blah blah blah...
Part of being a beginner is accepting that you should not get too attached to the "rules" you learn in the beginning, since many of them will need to be refined or even discarded for you to progress into more advanced levels. So, I do not think rules of thumb are a bad idea in the right scenario, and with the right disclaimers. The idea of education/learning that I find most interesting right now is in how to help reduce the time it takes for someone to be able to benefit from the wisdom of others--and to start making it "their own". If someone has a deep enough understanding and a broad enough context, they can often do things "as if" they had the wisdom of years of experience, and if a less-skilled person is able to match the decisions of an expert, it may not matter how much wisdom they've gained through direct experience, but I admit that it's a Really Big If.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Apr 24, 2006 1:56:40 PM

When thinking about these issues, I always go back to the way I was taught in DOS days about the way memory architecture resembled folders within drawers within filing cabinets. A useful analogy I guess, but not one that should have occupied one day of a five day introduction to computing.

Consequently my rule is never to teach/explain in the way you were taught.


1) remember how you were taught.

2) contrast the experiential expectations which that teaching suggested to you with the reality you encountered.

3) adapt the way you were taught to give greatest focus to the elements that are most commonly employed in getting the most common tasks done.

It is much more important to get your "students" doing stuff and thus building their confidence than it is to fill them with brain-deadening detail.

Posted by: John | Apr 24, 2006 3:07:34 PM

I am not sure how much one can truly speed up wisdom acquistion by teaching it. In my experience of training people, as much as I try to convey the wisdom I have gained, the novice does not really understand what I have told them, until they have gained their own personal experience. Even when I give examples of past mistakes, and the wisdom to be gained from them, people find new ways to screw up because they have not truly understood the concepts. We learn more from our personal mistakes because it points out the flaws in our reasoning and understanding.

It is also interesting, that as much as we try to be 'wise' in our decision making, illogic will unpredictably disrupt our logically thought out ideas and schemes. Many times our actions are based on intuition and gut feeling, which we try to logically rationalize, after the fact. ;)

Posted by: Mary-Anne | Apr 25, 2006 4:03:52 AM

I've been struggling with employers for years with this issue. As a documentation and training specialist who wants to work with a company that prefers to MAKE money, rather than spend money incrementally according to an MBA's projection, I am increasingly aware that repeat business is a good thing, as is word-of-mouth referral business. Why spend money in complex development cycles if only one customer wants to buy it. Why bother with documentation in the first place if the quality of documentation never encourages the customer to become expert in using the product. Since I work in industries that create (often innovate) hardware in the $20-50K range, I am constantly frustrated by the dinosaurs who are convinced that anything more than a reference manual of connections and button functions constitutes giving away intellectual property. Of course, I've been laid off many times in the past few years ... no work.

Posted by: Margherite | Apr 25, 2006 1:23:00 PM

As a high school teacher and an Alabama Best Practices 21st Century Learning Fellow, I am always trying to produce and inspire more passionate users. My senior English students are usually passionate about their social lives, but it takes a special task to get them passionate about learning. I have turned to technology to give them the tools to make the "pointless" stuff they are forced to learn more palpable and realistic. Your blog is at the top of my RSS feed, and I am always quoting you on my blog and to my students. Thanks for your wit and creativity. I feel that everything you said in this post relates to teaching and student learning. Thanks.

Posted by: Brandi Caldwell | Apr 28, 2006 10:38:38 PM

Also worth comparing your stack with the Maturity Levels defined by the Carnegie Mellon Software Engineering Institute's CMMI model. There is a Wikipedia page here.

The CMMI model suggests that an organisation's processes can be improved from ad hoc processes towards optimizing (wise?) processes.

I don't fully buy it myself, but I thought the analogy was interesting. There is a tendency to enforce Waterfall project management processes using this sort of model.

Posted by: Dominic Sayers | May 3, 2006 6:52:54 AM

I agree with you that system thinking should be introduced to students in the early years of schooling. Later in career people fail to see the bigger picture. System thinking teaches to see the forest as well as trees.

Posted by: Mallik | May 10, 2006 10:08:17 PM

Thought I'd throw in this link, to an article by Donella Meadows about systems and systems thinking. It's called How to Intervene in a System. Originally published in the late lamented Whole Earth Magazine, and republished a few times on the web. There's even a Wikipedia article about it, although it doesn't link to the original on the Whole Earth web site.

Posted by: Nils | Mar 8, 2007 10:49:34 AM

Moving up the hierarchy is fine, but what about moving down? What comes in below data? I've recently been exploring this domain and came up with some surprises:


Below transaction is the communication medium between other systems which have the same wisdom hierarchy.

Posted by: Grant Czerepak | Jul 17, 2007 3:37:45 PM

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