Not all knowledge is created equal. Knowledge is one of those vague, global terms of which people assume they know its definition. Very seldom in conversations about knowledge or learning will someone raise a hand and ask, “Hey, what is knowledge anyway?” unless he is Aristotle or some philosophy major. One can postulate that there are different types of knowledge.
A hierarchical structure is one method to use to classify knowledge. We show here a knowledge architecture that has seven levels: null, data, facts, know-how, memories, wisdom, and connections. Notice that the model begins with a state known as “void”. In this state, even the recognition of nothing does not exist.
Each layer of the hierarchical knowledge architecture is separated from other layers by a specific type of insight. Insights differ according to the particular level of knowledge on which they are acting. Seven insights elevate knowledge through the hierarchy: instinctual, definitional, contextual, utilitarian, experiential, reflective, and networked. The progression of insights up through the hierarchy represents increasing sophistication in thinking with “connections” as the highest order of knowledge.
Void + Instinctual Insight = Null
We see “instinctual insight” acting on the void to create null, the first layer of knowledge. This is the base level of knowledge. Null emerges from void as primal instincts create an awareness of one’s environment. This level of knowledge is deemed null because this level is the level at which simple consciousness of existence or non-existence occurs. Expressed another way, null takes on a binary state, 1 or 0. In the void even this simple a consciousness does not exist. Note that null represents the “whole” as within Zen philosophy.
Null + Definitional Insight = Data
We see “definitional insight” acting on the null to elevate knowledge into data. At this level, thought processes give definition to objects and actions in the null. In other words, definitional insight labels a collection of unnamed and unidentified things so that distinctions are drawn between them. Each object or action is now defined and becomes data.
Data + Contextual Insight = Facts
“Contextual insight” acts on data to create facts in the next layer in the hierarchy. Facts represent a richer and fuller set of knowledge than pure data. For example, if we take the word “coffee” as data there is no context for what coffee actually means. Given some context such as the commodities trading market, coffee takes on the meaning of a traded good. If food service is the context, then coffee takes on the meaning of a beverage. Contextual insight allows distinctions be made between data to create different facts.
Facts + Utilitarian Insight = Know-how
“Utilitarian insight” acts on facts to create know-how. How is an object to be used and for what purpose? In our coffee example, utilitarian insight emerges to provide the know-how for what to do with coffee. In the commodities market context, know-how would be how to trade coffee on the spot or futures markets. In the food service context, know-how would be how to prepare coffee for consumption. Without utilitarian insight, coffee has no real value. Simply speaking, utilitarian insight provides the knowledge of utility.
Know-How + Experiential Insight = Memories
“Experiential insight” acts on know-how to create memories. Actions taken or the execution of know-how generates experience that can be remembered and used for improved execution. Following the coffee example, experience in making coffee enables a barista to remember how much foam to put on top of a latte.
Memories + Reflective Insight = Wisdom
“Reflective insight” acts on memories to create wisdom. Reflection works on a “meta-plane” of thinking and takes on a new layer of abstraction in the knowledge hierarchy. Insights are not simply generated on single points of execution but on a set of memories. For example, remembering how to make a latte is a memory but being able to forecast demand in a coffee shop during the course of a day takes wisdom. Wisdom emerges as a person can take a step back to reflect and learn from prior actions and decisions.
Wisdom + Networked Insights = Connections
“Networked insights” act on wisdom to create connections, which represent the highest order of knowledge in the hierarchy. Making connections links related or unrelated pieces of wisdom to generate knowledge that would not emerge otherwise. For example, connecting the preparation of a perfect latte to the film “Seven Samurai” in which one of the samurai has dedicated his whole life to perfect his skills as a swordsman represents connecting two topics that on the surface are completely unrelated. Networked insights create connections that drive thinking further and generate the highest order of knowledge, connections.
At what level of knowledge do you work most of the day? At what level do you believe your colleagues, subordinates, and superiors work? Do you drive yourself to think at higher levels within the knowledge hierarchy? At what level do you believe you can add the most value to your work group or your organization during times of large-scale change?