Settling the eternal semantic debate: what is knowledge, what is information…

(As of February 2012, a new post on this blog updates and extends this one: What the heck is knowledge anyways: from commodity to capacity and insights).

While being away in Ethiopia and characteristically without internet access, a debate was raging on the KM4DEV list, fiercer and hotter than it ever was. Another phoenix of KM is renascent and this is perhaps the phoenix of all phoenixes in the KM world: what is knowledge, what is information?

To understand this debate, you should know – if you don’t already – that a common way of explaining this difference has been to use the DIKW pyramid. And here DIKW does not mean ‘Do it knowledge worker’ like my mate Jaap amusingly suggested, but rather: Data – information – knowledge – wisdom.

This pyramid is here:

The DIKW pyramid: The starting point of 1000 fallacious KM approaches? (credits: unknown)

The debate on KM4DEV has been rather heated because Dave Snowden added his grain of itchy salt by provocatively mentioning that he “would reject the DIKW pyramid, aside from the fact it’s just plain wrong, it’s difficult to explain and leads to bad labels” and that “Anyone talking about wisdom as a higher level of knowledge should be taken out and shot for the good of the field”. Now of course the point is not to shoot anyone down and this is obviously not the man’s point either, but rather to consider carefully whether indeed this DIKW is a pyramid worth fighting for, or whether we should not get busier with constructions of another genre…

I personally find the DIKW also quite limited and rather dangerous.

It is limited because to me, data and information on the one hand, and knowledge and wisdom on the other, are of very different nature:

  • Data and information are tangible, they are explicit. They are what some call ‘explicit knowledge’ (to me yet another flawed fad). Basically they are plain bits of text or signals (data) or organised/formatted/packaged bits of text/signals (information) that are concretely available for our senses: in print or images (sight and touch) and in sounds and music (sound). I’ll actually have to think further about taste and odour on this one.
  • Knowledge is intangible by definition (to me anyway) in the sense that it represents the way that we combine data and/or information with a variety of inner characteristics (experience, skills, attitude, emotions, interest, intention and need to use data and information) to make sense of this data/information and apply it to a given situation where we need to apply it. In that respect I believe knowledge as a noun is not a terribly useful concept. The act of knowing, on the other hand, is much more relevant as it refers to our capacity to invoke all these inner characteristics to make informed decisions. In other words knowledge/knowing is about lining up what we have in our mind that may be useful for a particular situation (1).
  • Wisdom, well I guess I’m not wise enough to touch this one in depth. The only relation I could imagine is that wisdom – induced by experience, repeated exposure to various incarnations of similar ideas and actions in various contexts – may be what helps us make a better informed decision between two seemingly similar choices. It could relate to the triple loop learning that I blogged about in the past.

But more importantly, this DIKW model is rather dangerous in the sense that, by posing a linear representation of data all the way up to wisdom, it assumes a natural hierarchy among these four variables. And it seems to suggest that one is better than the other when we are talking about different things. If explained to people first exposed to knowledge management (gosh, that term again, that’s where the problem starts: one cannot manage knowledge!!!) it may give a feeling that they are at a certain level.

In reality we are all at different levels of understanding – partly because we may be interested in or need some information and not other: For some areas, we may have accumulated a lot of experience, in others we may be on a completely new territory, so we should not feel like we are at a certain level.

And anyway in any given context we would use data, information, our act of knowing and the wisdom we have accumulated (whatever that may be if it is not accumulated and analysed experience) in various forms and shapes.

So for me, if you lack better models to make sense of it, feel free to use DIKW but do it with caution. As for me, I’ve never used it as learning / coaching principle and I’m not planning to either…

(26/02/2010) By the way, I summarised the whole KM4DEV discussion on the KM4DEV wiki:


(1) In workshops, to explain this ‘knowledge as information in use’, I often refer to the equation K=I*ESA (knowledge is the product of information mixed with experience/skills/attitude, as pointed to me by Jaap). Thinking about it I think this equation also deserves a good brushing off but it sounds certainly more sensible than the DIKW pyramid.

Related blog posts:

Published by Ewen Le Borgne

Collaboration and change process optimist motivated by ‘Fun, focus and feedback’. Nearly 20 years of experience in group facilitation and collaboration, learning and Knowledge Management, communication, innovation and change in development cooperation. Be the change you want to see, help others be their own version of the same.

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  1. I agree with these comments. Could we say that this kind of systematization comes from the fact that the literature on KM and many practitioners too often address it from a purely technical perspective ? We are talking about tools, organizations, but the political, cultural and strategic dimensions are neglected.
    I tend to think that KM has to be integrated into a communication strategy rather than in a human resources management plan.
    Using this type of pyramid is understandable when one is primarily concerned to store (hoard) and capitalize (in an economic sense) knowledge as if it was “only” a good, a kind of product.
    I have little experience in the specific area but I think the fundamental issue lies rather in the quality of relationship that can be fostered and maintained among stakeholders. Am I wrong?

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