4 min read

Knowledge management, information technology, data architecture: these are the hot topics of our technology-driven age. This brave new world has been described as a “Knowledge Economy” and as suffering from “Information Overload”. In the scramble to stay ahead of the game, is it possible that we have forgotten a deeper level of understanding? I am referring to the kind of understanding that the philosophers of old used to call “wisdom.”

I propose four levels of understanding: data, information, knowledge, and wisdom. They could be presented in the form of a pyramid (like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs) as follows:

The Hierarchy of Understanding

Like Maslow’s pyramid, the flow is from the bottom to the top. In other words, we need data before we can have information. We need information to generate knowledge. And we need knowledge to form the basis for wisdom. So how do we define these levels?

Data is simply a collection of facts or pieces of evidence that have not been analyzed or interpreted and that alone provide no real understanding. Yet, they are essential to the formation of information.

Information is what we have once we have analyzed and organized the data in a way that can be interpreted. As a kid, I collected marbles and I had many colors, sizes, and opacities. Some were crystal clear. Others were dense and allowed no light to pass through them. Some were large and others small. I used to play marbles at school during recess (I think I’m showing my age here). Of course, there were days when I would literally “lose my marbles,” and days when I would gain marbles. So, every so often, I would take inventory of my marbles and organize them into groups. This way, I could see whether I had a net gain or a net loss. Once I did this the raw data became information. I don’t think I ever did this, but I could have even drawn a graph depicting the trajectory of my marble collection by size, color, or opacity.

Knowledge on the other hand is what happens when you take information and do something with it. Sometimes I could see that I was losing my large marbles (called “bulldozers”) and I would have to strategize ways to gain them back by making deals with the other kids. After all, one’s bulldozers were the indication of marble wealth. I might even see a pattern in my information that I could use to my advantage. If I saw that on a certain day—when the bigger kids were not in the playground—I tended to gain rather than lose marbles, I might choose not to play those days and thus increase my advantage.

This is called knowledge—
it is the result of gaining
through the application of

Wisdom is another level altogether of understanding. Wisdom is what happens when you take knowledge in one area (as in marbles) and begin to see patterns of connection with other areas of life and business. It’s like an expanding sphere of connectivity—through continued experiences and learning from those experiences, you begin to see principles that connect life in ways you never before imagined.

Jesus did this when he wanted his disciples to understand that God would care for their needs. He saw patterns as he observed the wildflowers in nature. He saw that they were exquisitely clothed. Yet, they did not last even through one full summer but were gathered and burned after the season’s harvest. Jesus saw a pattern. He understood that life is a whole. Things are connected. The principle that was active in the beauty of those lilies was also active in the lives of his followers. This should give them comfort and empower them to carry on free from the debilitating tyranny of worry.

Wisdom sees the connectivity of life and uses that understanding to make decisions that bring benefit to the organization, even when others do not yet see these connections. Wisdom can be a lonely road because it is so rare in leaders today.

What do you think? How would you define wisdom? What kinds of connections have you seen in life and work? How have these helped you in your business?


Lead photo by author, taken while touring a WWII battleship in Boston.

Portrait of Dr. Waddell

Dr. Greg Waddell is passionate about helping church leaders equip their people for ministry. He believes there is wild potential in every believer that begs to be released. He can help you develop and implement practical strategies for increasing the ministry capacity of your congregation.