David Weinberger
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The great chain of knowledge

14 August 2000

If I hear one more time that someone's KM product goes beyond knowledge all the way to wisdom, I will hurl. (For those who don't speak American, "hurl" is slang for "toss one's cookies," i.e., "revisit lunch.")

First, it debases yet another word. As vendors get more desperate to differentiate themselves, they're grabbing at words that actually have some meaning and importance. How many wise people have you met in your business career? If you've met any, you're lucky. More than two and you're leading a blessed life. In the entire world of which you're cognizant, how many truly wise business thinkers are there? Let's see, there's Peter Drucker, and then there's, um, well, did I mention Peter Drucker? We need the term "wisdom" for the few people who are actually wise; turning it into a synonym for "clever" or "knowledgeable" is a crime against language.

Second, does anyone give any credence at all to the claim that a knowledge management system could actually make someone wise? It would be enough if it made people a little smarter.

Third, this line of thought assumes that there's a ladder of intelligence. At the bottom is data, then information, then knowledge, then, ulp, wisdom. But there are two things wrong with this way of thinking. First, there's a discontinuity in the ladder. Information contains data, and knowledge contains information, but wisdom doesn't necessarily contain anything in particular. That is, we expect a knowledgeable person to have lots of data and information at her fingertips, but a wise person could conceivably bewise without that. So, it's a ladder with a whole bunch of missing rungs in it.

And it's not a ladder at all. If I'm knowledgeable, that knowledge may flower in lots of different ways. It may make me clever, strategic, comprehensive, detail-driven, idealistic, creative, hard-nosed, dreamy, tactical, or funny. Knowledge foliates us. That's why it's worth having; otherwise, it just turns you into a know-it-all. In other words, the ladder of knowledge turns into a blossoming bush.

If you want to see wisdom as the next step up from something, it's not knowledge or else our colleges would be full of wise people. It seems to me more likely to be the next step after experience. But how experience gets transformed into wisdom is a mystery unlikely to be fathomed by even the best-intentioned "wisdom management" systems.

David Weinberger is editor of the Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization