I’ve been curious about knowledge and wisdom for as long as I can remember. When I was growing up in a rural farming community, “practical knowledge” or “common sense” was critical and so-called “book learning” was seen as generally irrelevant. Practical knowledge was gained through thinking, observation and practice or “trial and error.” Practical knowledge often (hopefully) matures to become “wisdom.”
From a young age, I knew that my preoccupation with our well-worn set of Encyclopaedia Britannica was considered a harmless hobby but I was determined that “book learning” would be in my future. In the meantime, I studied practical knowledge in action and regularly interrogated my grandfather on topics ranging from alfalfa to philosophy. He was a thoughtful and reflective man and his responses most often guided me in discovering an answer for myself. His example led to my appreciation of what I consider the thinking-knowledge-wisdom (TKW) continuum.
In the years that followed, I embraced “book learning” through formal education and independent study. By the time I had completed a master’s degree in library science, the “information age” was about to launch the world into overload via the World Wide Web. Through life experience I discovered that although knowledge may be readily available, it is not wisdom. Inquiry, thinking and experimentation can create knowledge but wisdom typically demands a greater investment.
Wisdom requires time, reflection, extensive experimentation and failure. Our society places a high value on perfectionism, discouraging the valuable learning that occurs through failure. When we’re able to recognize failure as “research” or an opportunity to gain knowledge, we can solve problems, develop critical insight and ultimately, move along the T-K-W continuum toward wisdom.
Some describe our current era as the “post-information age.” Writing in 2014 in Wired magazine, management thinker and author, Julian Birkinshaw,* described four major difficulties in today’s information-saturated world.
1. “Paralysis through analysis” occurs when abundant information leads us to feel we must do just a little more research or analysis before taking action (sounds familiar!).
“Easy access to data makes us intellectually lazy” according to Birkinshaw. While his discussion refers primarily to organizations with “big data” and data analysis capacity, we’re susceptible to this problem as individuals too. Abundant information supporting our preferred option can be misleading and by-passing “thinking and judgment” frequently leads to unexpected and/or unreliable results.
2. “Impulsive and flighty consumers” refers to reduced attention resulting from endless multitasking. Birkinshaw notes the consequent changes in relationships with customers as well as employees. Viewed from the individual’s perspective, availability of information—anywhere and anytime—has created an attention deficit.
3. “A little learning is a dangerous thing” is Birkinshaw’s caution about using easily accessible information without the expertise or practical knowledge to support it. One could envision this challenge as too much “book learning” and not enough “practical knowledge.”
4. Birkinshaw writes that successful organizations of the future “will be smart about scanning for information and accessing the knowledge of their employees, but they will favour action over analysis, and they will harness the intuition and gut-feeling of their employees in combination with rational analysis.” Ignore the wisdom of employees and co-workers at your peril.
The post-information age has increased the stakes and the opportunities for individuals and organizations. While thinking, knowledge and wisdom (T-K-W) seems within reach of everyone with an Internet connection, the key to success is increasingly a capacity for focus and discipline. Clarity and attention have become essential and elusive skills in our era of distraction.
* Julian Birkinshaw is Professor and Chair of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at the London Business School