If people can be wise, why not organizations?
We all know an individual—more than one if we are lucky—who has something beyond knowledge. More than being smarter, they simply seem to know what’s right. It is not as easy to say the same about organizations. Which is odd because organizations are nothing more than human constructs. It makes no sense that organizations would have less access to wisdom. If anything, it should stand to reason that they would have more.
Where wisdom comes from is an important question for an individual, but even more important for an organization or enterprise. That’s because we’ve come to expect more and greater things from enterprises. A smarter planet. Environmental sustainability. Capable, lifelong learners. Whether it’s a corporation, a nonprofit, or a civic institution like a school or university, we want to believe that these enterprises represent our best collective effort.
So, here comes the question: Are organizations growing wiser?
One of the most reassuring things of late has been discovering that Columbia University teaches a course in ignorance. Stuart Firestein, who designed and teaches the course, believes that ignorance is more important than knowledge. In an interview with Casey Schwartz of the The Daily Beast, Firestein spoke about how college professors are vomiting out facts to students in exchange for payment. He realized, though, that in his actual work on neuroscience, facts were the most unreliable part of the whole operation. “We don’t know bupkis,” he tells Schwartz. “We should be talking about what we don’t know, not what we know.” Firestein seems to be the latest in a long history of smart people reminding us of an important Socratic idea: knowledge is not wisdom.
Yet that enduring Socratic idea flies in the face of the ‘data-information-knowledge-wisdom’ (DIKW) sequence that technology promotes, and that most enterprises have come to believe in. Most organizations seem convinced that wisdom is just the outcome of a better algorithm. Big data will save us—which is why technology is now positioning big data as the next great natural resource. David Weinberger, best known as the author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, has taken the DIKW sequence to task, both in a Harvard Business Review blog post back in February, 2010 and more recently in his latest book, Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room.
Essentially Weinberger’s point is that Moore’s Law has the world awash in data, which has created the need to justify the value of our ability to capture and store so much data. At first, the sequence was simply that data begets information. Then when Alvin Toffler warned us all of information overload in Future Shock, the sequence got extended so that information begot knowledge. The result is degradation, not elevation, of centuries-old understanding of what constitutes knowledge, and knowledge’s relationship to wisdom. Weinberger is adamant that knowledge, being simply the higher value we extract from information via algorithm, “is pretty far from what knowledge has been for its 2 500 year history.” Perhaps we have entered an age where we’re satisfied with wisdom that really is just the most valuable, actionable information we have, derived from algorithms that see patterns that human experience is less able to recognize. Or perhaps we’ve entered this new age without being completely conscious of how we’ve altered what’s considered wisdom, or what we’ve lost. That makes it hard to know if organizations are growing wiser, because we might have let what we mean by wisdom change. Like an overweight society easily satisfied with convenient, processed food, enterprises might be comfortable and satiated thinking of actionable information that has high market value as knowledge—or even as wisdom.
Rather than producing a wiser organization, too often organizations that reward expertise end up with a fragmented and compartmentalized culture, as people pursue narrower, deeper tunnels rather than an integrated, holistic perspective.
John Seely Brown, a researcher who specializes in organizational studies with a particular bent towards the organizational implications of computer-supported activities, believes that our information-only diet is the cause of one of our major disabilities: tunnel vision. Our unhealthy relationship with information limits what we can see. Organizations tend to become more and more interested in what they’re interested in. While that kind of intense focus sounds good at first blush, its consequences over time are not so good. It robs an organization of peripheral vision, pushing out of view things that are almost always vital to meaning and understanding. The result is decisions or designs that cause at least as many problems as they address.
Brown seems like yet another modern voice reminding us of an important Socratic idea that wisdom is fed by curiosity. And yet, most enterprises seem to operate by the proverb, ‘Curiosity killed the cat.’
Curiosity is stifled in most organizations. Sometimes without thinking, organizations prevent their own people from looking up and out and making sense of the world. That can be as simple as not being open to new ways of looking at things or as luddite as limiting—or denying—access to the Internet, as in the practice in many organizations, especially schools. There are numerous ways that organizations reinforce their prevailing wisdom by strengthening the walls of the tunnel that blind them to a wider view.
Enterprises, institutions and alliances have a powerful ability to construct meaning—often widely shared meaning—even when that meaning doesn’t correspond to the world around us.
Curiosity is also often outsourced. Rather than incorporating people’s perspective within it’s own walls, organizations ask outsiders to be curious for them. These are organizations that end up research rich, but insight poor. They come to know the world around them in an abstract, arm’s-length manner at best. Curiosity can also be channeled into expertise. Without question, expertise can be a good thing. After all, we hope for the care or services of an expert in many situations. The problem is that pursuit of expertise alone often isolates and insulates. Think of expertise as producing stronger branches and a weaker tree. Rather than producing a wiser organization, too often organizations that reward expertise end up with a fragmented and compartmentalized culture, as people pursue narrower, deeper tunnels rather than an integrated, holistic perspective.
It’s tempting to dismiss Socrates’ hyperbolic humility when he says that it is wiser to know you don’t know rather than believe you know when you don’t. Organizations do so at their own peril, though. They have an even greater capacity to live in the reality that they construct than do the individuals who make up the organization. Enterprises, institutions and alliances have a powerful ability to construct meaning—often widely shared meaning—even when that meaning doesn’t correspond to the world around us. It’s as if organizations have the ability to bend light in a way that makes reality disappear.
Incuriosity In Perpetuity
Many of us put the best hours of our best days into organizations. Day after day, week after week, year after year. And yet, so many of our organizations leave us with a widening delta between expectation and experience, vision and reality, hope and fear.
The idea of an unexamined life not being worth living might well be Socrates’ best known. His belief in living an examined life—a life in pursuit of true wisdom through curiosity—was so strong he went to his death in defense of it. We might do well to ask ourselves if the unexamined organization is worth perpetuating. Does it deserve to go on? Many of us put the best hours of our best days into organizations. Day after day, week after week, year after year. And yet, so many of our organizations leave us with a widening delta between expectation and experience, vision and reality, hope and fear. What if we’ve managed to sequence DNA correctly, but sequence wisdom wrong? What if wisdom is not a step up from knowledge, but a step down from the nature of the universe? Or a rope bridge between the two? Will incurious organizations using better algorithms on bigger data really make that step or span that chasm?
For Socrates, understanding what we are was the first task. What he did was to persistently and ruthlessly question the ideas and concepts we rely on every day and seldom think about. He believed that a good life came from the peace of mind of doing the right thing. The right thing, to him, came from rigorous examination, not social codes.
There are very few organizations today living examined lives. Their immortality may be what robs them of the need. But it also robs them of the wisdom they could have.