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Social media is challenging notions of the DIKW hierarchy

Picture this scenario: Your car broke down on the way to work and you need to bring it to a mechanic. You have a choice of three different garages to get your car back on the road and get to work:

1. The first has a few monkeys with primitive tools and no experience fixing cars. We've probably all been to this garage at some point.

2. The second has some junior mechanics and manuals. They seem competent, but they don't have any experience with your particular car.

3. The third has mechanics, manuals, and a master technician who has a lot of experience with your car.

You get the gist of where I'm going with this. Unless you have a soft spot in your heart for monkeys, you'd choose garage #3.

The point of this exercise is to illustrate a topic that's been around for a while, but is taking on new meaning with the rise of social technologies in the knowledge management space. And that is the Data, Information, Knowledge, Wisdom (DIKW) hierarchy, as described by Jonathan Hey, and many before him.

To paraphrase, data is unprocessed information. As in the case of the first garage, unless you have a lot of monkeys, the likelihood that they will stumble upon the problem and fix it are pretty slim.

Information is data that has been processed. Some thought has been applied, but it is still somewhat limited -- like the manuals that the junior mechanics use. If the problem is well-described in the manual, you are in luck. Otherwise, you'll probably end up with a bill, but no solution.

Knowledge, and/or wisdom, is information that has proper context and has been reflected upon. (Note: There are mixed notions about the DIKW model. Not all versions include all four components, with some more recent versions omitting or downplaying wisdom. For our purposes here, we're using knowledge and wisdom interchangeably.)

The DIKW model is a uniquely relevant topic as social technologies take hold and challenge not only the relationships between data, information, and knowledge within enterprise organizations, but also how information and knowledge is captured and transferred amongst your staff.

Consider your own organization and how it connects to the data/information/knowledge hierarchy. What kind of "garage" would you want your employees working in? More importantly, what garage is going to deliver the best possible repair to your customers?

Hey's version of the DIKW hierarchy goes so far as to describe knowledge or wisdom as "generally personal, subjective and inherently local -- it is found '[within] the heads of employees.'" I'm not sure I agree with this.

While I readily acknowledge that the further you move up the hierarchy, the less structured it becomes and the harder it is to capture. I believe that some knowledge can be codified and captured, and that organizations need to think about how they can make this happen, and if social tools can play a role in making this happen.

What do you think? We'll be exploring this -- including metadata within the context of content, information overload, and knowledge retention -- in greater detail as part of our Info Pro-file series. Have an opinion? Leave a comment or e-mail us at to have your thoughts featured!


Carlo said...

Thanks for this post, and I think you're right - knowledge requires context and meaning and that is extremely hard to capture. I recommend reading "Knowledge-Based Client Relationships" and "Living Networks" by Ross Dawson. Both hit this subject right on the head.

Phil Green said...

Thanks for your comment. Funny you mention Ross Dawson, because we just posted an interview with him about knowledge and E2.0. We also have a contest going on right now to give away his newest book, “Implementing Enterprise 2.0,” if you’re interested. All you have to do is comment on this post to enter:

Jack Vinson said...

Caution: The DIKW hierarchy in any form is subject to a lot of criticism. I have always found it a quick description of the differences in these concepts, but then it starts breaking down when I put more critical thought into the question. The whole idea that one can be drawn from the other becomes difficult when you consider experience, culture, social networks and the rest of human behavior.

That said, it will be interesting to see where you go with the connection to social media...

Atle Iversen said...

In your example, I would say that having a mechanic with knowledge would mean that he could fix the problem without having to "learn as you go" (reading the information (manuals) while trying to fix it).

In a hands-on profession (mechanic, surgeon etc), you probably can't gain the proper knowledge without practice. You can share the information, and parts of the knowledge, but often you really need to gain the knowledge yourself, on your own.

I believe wisdom is reaching a higher level - understanding the "why". In this case, it could be the understanding that the reason that you car broke down and a certain part needs to be fixed/replaced is because of a different, seemingly unrelated part that has problems due to the local climate or whatnot.

After fixing hundreds of cars, you may gain extra wisdom beyond the common knowledge. This may allow you to say why you think you shouldn't repair the car, as your experience tells you that at this point it is better to buy a new car than to repair a dying car.

I don't believe the DIKW hierarchy is any different for social media, except that it has become easier to share, and therefore more people are experiencing information overload (very seldom "knowledge overload")....

Looking forward to the next posts - my 2 cents on the subject:


Phil Green said...

I think your examples here are correct. Certain aspects of knowledge in hands-on professions (e.g., mechanic and surgeon) cannot be captured by a knowledge repository, much less by social media. This is because the learning is very much “mind-body.” You must learn by doing.

However, both of these professions are also very much driven by other forms of knowledge that are disseminated in more traditional ways. For example, manuals, journals, and/or continuing education courses for mechanics and doctors.

The point is that social media can speed the capture and dissemination of this type of knowledge. And therefore the lines between information and knowledge begin to blur.

Lastly, I like your final distinction that wisdom incorporates the “why?” This type of knowledge is extremely difficult to capture, but it is what allows humans to understand how and when to use this knowledge across new domains and in very different situations.

Lukenews said...

Phil you wrote:

"Hey's version of the DIKW hierarchy goes so far as to describe knowledge or wisdom as "generally personal, subjective and inherently local -- it is found '[within] the heads of employees.'" I'm not sure I agree with this."

Why do you note agree with it?

Knoweldge is the stuff that is inside people's heads. Information is knowledge that has been made explicit through some means, e.g. text, writing, etc.



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