From Information overload to Understanding (and how to get there from here)

January 21, 2009

Information, Knowledge, Wisdom, Understanding.

Do these all mean the same thing? Do any of them mean the same thing?

It is commonly said that “knowledge is Power”. Today we have “knowledge workers”, “Knowledge base”, Information technology (IT), and Managed Information Services (MIS). We have been told (and rightfully so) that we are living in the “Information Age”! But I submit to you that most of us have information overload. With a simple “google” we can pick the world’s brain, but does it give us Knowledge or just information? Is there a difference?

In my last job, I would get 75 emails a day! Half of them I was required to read (what does that say about the other half), and half of those required a thoughtful response, sometimes even research before responding. I could easily sit at my desk for 2 to 3 hours a day doing nothing but answering email, but my primary job was on the road meeting with customers. So often I would find myself sitting on my couch at night answering emails until 10 PM at night. My EX-Wife loved that (maybe that’s why she is my EX). What was even worse is that I would sometimes send out and email at 10 or even 11PM at night and three minutes later I would get a response from that person, usually from a manager. I would usually send up a quick follow up “get a life” email. I think I was really talking to myself 🙂 Few of us can imagine business without email. But it has gotten out of hand. It has gotten to the point that people expect you to respond IMMEDIATELY to an email that they send you. Have you ever gotten a phone call from a person who just send you an email asking you if you got their email AGHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!! (that’s the sound I make when I pull my hair out). It has gotten to the point that I feel like I need to say “sorry for the delay” if I get back to someone a day or two later on their email. They were wondering if I was traveling or on vacation. It couldn’t be vacation because they would have, should have, gotten an automatic out of office reply. And traveling isn’t really an excuse anymore because you have a Blackberry or a Treo or an iPhone to get your email where ever you are, DON’T YOU?  When we are soooo connected something gets lost.

If we are going to have an intelligent conversation we should start by defining our terms. This will insure that when we are using the same words that we mean the same thing. Since I am writing the blog let’s use my definitions (seems fair to me :-)).

Information: Data, Facts, figures, (raw & unfiltered)

Knowledge: Relevant Information, The ability to see the pattern or relationship of Information. A good example is a mathematical word problem that has more information than you need to solve the problem. The first step is to filter out the unnecessary info until you have only what you need to solve the problem. The irrelevant info impedes your ability to solve the problem. We will get back to this later to discuss what is relevant, and who decides?

Wisdom: The correct or right application of knowledge. Applying what you know to your life, or situation. Action is involved. It is “the how” of knowledge. Have you ever heard it said of someone that “they have read all the books on _______, but they can not do what they know”. Why? They have knowledge, but they lack Wisdom. On this point I once heard a wise boss say that “No one gets paid for what they know” (this is contrary to popular belief). He correct us by saying “you get paid for what you DO with what you know”! I think he was on to something.

Understanding: A result of what I learned from the experience of applying the wisdom. Ask yourself, did I learn anything from my experience? Can I draw any conclusions? Is this learning applicable to other areas or situations?

Information -> Knowledge -> Wisdom -> Understanding. What is the relationship between them?

To get from Information to Knowledge you need Analysis, filtering of data to determine what is relevant. Who does this? We all do it (some are just better at it than others), and we all SHOULD do it! Just because you are not the foremost expert in the field doesn’t mean that you can’t have valuable insight. Sometimes it takes a divergent viewpoint to see the subtleties that are missed by the “experts”.

To move from Knowledge to Wisdom you need to apply what you know (this may take courage because you could be wrong). It requires that you take action on what you believe to be true or right. This is the cure for analysis paralysis. Action!

To achieve Understanding from Wisdom requires reflection, examination, consideration. It requires time to think about what you learned. This is what truly gets lost when we are flooded with more, and More, and MORE INFORMATION! If we are going to gain understanding then we need time to think about, and reflect upon what have we learned, what have I learned from the experience of putting my knowledge to wise use. I am lucky in this regard, my current position allows me to drive ~ 35,000 miles a year. How is that lucky, you ask? I get a lot of “windshield time” just me, myself & I staring at a windshield. That is a great time to think. I can not tell you how many times the answer to a difficult problem came while driving. I always carry a pen a pad with me. Usually scribbling down just enough of a note to jog my memory when I get somewhere safe enough to really write down my thoughts. By the way, that’s how this article got started.

Our life is frittered away by detail…Simplify, simplify.
—Henry David Thoreau

That’s My $0.02
Vince McHugh

Next time let’s talk about “Meta Data” and how that can help us move from Information to useful knowledge.


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