The Coming Storm

Human Knowledge, Responsibility, and Wisdom

Human Knowledge, Responsibility, and Wisdom

It seems like a lot to tackle. Almost on par with "Life, the Universe, and Everything." So points for ambition. Of course, some points will be deducted when I start to cut corners in order to keep this post manageable. In casting such a wide net, and then tailoring it down, what I really want to focus on is the central role of responsibility - or what I sometimes refer to as the "R-Word". This makes it feel suitably unpopular, even threatening. I guess I could even call it "R-Rated" which just makes matters worse.

This would normally send me off on a rant about how so much energy in our world is expended on escaping and evading responsibility, or casting it off and projecting it onto others. But I will resist that temptation. I will focus instead on why responsibility is a good thing and why it stands at the center of what we can reasonably define as knowledge. 

Firstly you will note I have used the phrase "human knowledge" which, it is true, is probably needlessly repetitive. Is there another type of knowledge? Than human. It turns out that there are some uses of the term knowledge that either explicitly or implicitly diminish the "human" element of knowledge. So by saying "human knowledge" I am pulling the human element back into the picture. Also, following Aristotle, this "human" element is invariably and irreducibly "social". Aristotle stressed that we are social animals and it is one of his declarations that has withstood the test of time, not to mention many critics, rather admirably. Stitching them together in the phrase "human knowledge" reminds us that knowledge is a social artifact and this is a more controversial statement in some circles than it might generally appear. But it is a statement that can be well-supported and, even more importantly, it is one that can be profoundly useful.

The Knowledge dynamic

And the award for the most detail stuffed into a single diagram goes to...The Knowledge Dynamic. This is a model that I worked up something like 15 years ago and that I have addressed in a number of past posts (see for example The Anatomy of Knowledge and The Truth about Content). I remember being taken to task by someone prominent in the Knowledge Management field because my dynamic re-invoked the Data-Information-Knowledge pyramid. What saved me at the time, I was told, is that I at least had the good sense to leave "wisdom" out of the picture. On this point, I was in complete agreement with my adversary feeling, until very recently, that it was absolutely ludicrous to even use that word in our time. And yet, we see it here and we note that it has been associated with the supporting concept of "responsibility". Clearly something has changed. 

In fact, three things have changed. One is not visible in the diagram but the other two are. Not visible is an insight that the initial diagram helped me to see. And I saw it while working, as I so often do, with the concept of "content" (and its place in this dynamic). What I saw was the operation inside the "dynamic" where knowledge supports decisions (judgment) and it orients and fortifies the information that can be mobilized in support of those decisions. These both lead to actions - and to events that happen in the world. These events have consequences, outcomes, and these lead to new experiences. What I realized is that for the learning process to function the people making the decisions and taking the actions need to experience the results if they are going to learn anything and if their knowledge is going to evolve. And what experiences are they most likely to attend to, and learn from? Those for which they are held responsible. Personally responsible. If the consequences are negative then they are held to account. Not like a politician or a banker where "whoopsie" seems to be an acceptable facsimile of accountability. Genuinely held to account. They will learn as a result. They will learn it the hard way, as it were. Accordingly, we can say that, in this dynamic, responsibility makes the world go round.

The other two changes are plainly visible. One illustrates the curious role content plays in this picture. We won't dive into this topic here, as it merits its own infuriating post, but suffice it to say content is an organizational asset that has been abstracted away from any one individual information transaction, made reusable in a variety of contexts and ways, and intentionally grounded in data resources and knowledge precedence. You can see that it is an overt kindness to the reader that we move on from this topic. The other change is the introduction of wisdom into the mix. Through the tender mercies of a number of academic colleagues, I was reintroduced to the Greek concept of Phronesis, or practical wisdom. By a path too bizarre to recount, I reengaged the idea of wisdom as the learning that accumulates from the knowledge that has been acquired and seasoned through the judgments made, actions taken, and consequences experienced - with responsibility connecting all the dots. Wisdom then emerges, as it were, from the knowledge dynamic when it is functioning properly - where the participants are responsible actors who partake in the consequences of their actions. Seen in this light, and I would submit only when seen in this light, we can catch a glimpse of wisdom. 

We also see that the wisdom that does emerge will in turn colour our knowledge and our judgment, giving them their latent orientation. Previously I have defined, and continue to define, knowledge as the meaningful organization of information, which I then extend with expressing an evolving understanding of a subject and establishing a justified basis for judgment and the potential for effective action. Yes, you can hear Plato in the background but also Aristotle. In a similar vein, I am inclined to define wisdom as the meaningful organization of knowledge and judgment. It's not perfect but nor is it bad. 

The more I think about it, the more weight I am inclined to give responsibility in this dynamic and the more weight I give to responsibility the more credible it becomes to talk about practical wisdom. 

I will confess that there was another influence on my thinking here. It was the impression made upon me by the work of Reg Revans and the idea of action learning. One of the things that leaps out at you from the work of Professor Revans is how intently he zeroes in on how managers - the people genuinely responsible for organizations, operations, and outcomes - learn by reflecting on their experiences with other managers who can understand what it is they are talking about because they too feel the weight of genuine responsibility. For whatever reason, his particular take on responsibility sank in with me and I seemed to have pushed it even further. 

All of this came into focus while I was preparing a presentation for a recent conference - one where I would be speaking about the ways in which this asset known as "content" has evolved (hence Content 4.0) and what role it might play in how the organization of the future might operate. Naturally this included how organizations can engage and manage the emergent technology phenomenon of Artificial Intelligence (AI). To bring this post to an abrupt conclusion, I would suggest that it seems uncontroversial to say that in the age of the smart machine (sending a respectful nod to Shoshana Zuboff) these three things count for more, not less - human knowledge, responsibility, and wisdom

Human Knowledge in the Age of the Smart Machine


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