Information, Knowledge, and Wisdom – The Hierarchy of Learning

2 May

The internet has profoundly changed the manner in which information is created, published, and disseminated. For virtually every topic imaginable, you can do an internet search and come up with not just one or a few relevant items, but a veritable cornucopia of opinions, guides, tutorials, examples, and even further questions. Sometimes you find just what you need and you’re off to accomplish whatever brought you to the web in the first place. But I’m sure you’ve also had the experience of coming away from such a session with more questions than you arrived with; different questions, often questions reflecting a deeper understanding, but more of them nonetheless.

At this point in its evolution, the internet is very good at delivering information, but not as good at delivering knowledge. Knowledge is information that is both filtered and modified by context and experience. For example, I can easily go and search for information on how to insert an image into a Word document, but there are a number of ways to do this, and knowing which is most appropriate depends on a fair amount of contextual information about the type of document you’re working on, how the image is related to adjacent text, whether you need a caption, whether you want that caption to appear in a list of figures, etc. Experience with placing images in Word documents is what enables one to know what questions to ask in order to clarify the context in a way that actually leads to a solution.

This is just one example, but I imagine that you have had similar experiences yourself. You search around on the web for the answer to some question, you find various answers, and you experiment with them until you find something that actually solves the particular problem that you had. It’s not that the internet wasn’t useful; it was incredibly useful in providing potential solutions, but you still needed to learn how to apply that information to your specific situation.

This leads me to postulate that knowledge = information + context specific experience. I’ll even push on this idea a bit more, and postulate that wisdom = knowledge + global experience. What I mean by this, is that knowledge is about being able to assess the details of the situation you are in and come up with a solution. Wisdom is being able to look at not just the details of the situation you are in, but the wider scope of the various factors that led to that situation and being able to consider alternatives. To return to the example of embedding images in a Word document, wisdom would involve asking questions like what goal you are seeking to achieve through the document you are producing, and considering whether there are other tools (e.g PowerPoint) or even other approaches (e.g. screen capture) to achieving that same goal.

So, in the internet age, how do we move from simply finding information, to acquiring knowledge and even wisdom? Social media and online communities are excellent vehicles for this process. They provide us with a way of connecting to other people who have related experiences, and they give us the opportunity to share our experiences and learn from theirs. In particular, I think that smaller online communities related to associations, trades, or groups can be especially powerful in this way because the participants have enough of a common context to be able to quickly understand the problems/experience that others bring to the table. These communities effectively become informal communities of practice that can be highly effective at helping members move from information, to knowledge and wisdom.

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