Wisdom Management

The actKM community has been debating whether it’s time to extend knowledge management into wisdom management. The great and the good have waded in.

Joe Firestone thinks the definitional ambiguities of KM would be far exceeded by the definitional ambiguities of wisdom management, making it an unproductive endeavour. Steve Denning believes there is already a growing literature and service provision in the field of wisdom management, citing the work of Dorothy Leonard and Gary Klein. Gary, by the way, doesn’t think he is doing wisdom management or even exploring wisdom, but Denning knows best.

Dave Snowden in characteristic fashion believes that wisdom management pundits should be taken out and shot. Yet others say they would never have imagined themselves delivering services in managing “knowledge”, so why should it not become possible for wisdom?

One can understand Steve Denning’s progression from storytelling to leadership to wisdom. He has already covered two thirds of that path in his influential books. Both storytelling and leadership, in different ways, depend on what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called “the willing suspension of disbelief”. The storyteller asks his audience, “trust me, follow me, even when my story seems to defy the way everyday life works”. The leader asks her people, “trust me, follow me, even when the path looks difficult and against your immediate interest”.

And the idea of wisdom management does seem to have that “trust me, I know best, you’re not really qualified to question me” character to it. “Wisdom” is sufficiently imprecise to make its possession effectively unverifiable in a general objective way, and sufficiently confusable with charisma to make its claims believable at least by some. There are two problems with this.

The first is that the risks of asking for a willing suspension of disbelief escalate as you move from stories, to leadership actions, to general claims for “authentic” wisdom management. We know when we’re listening to a story, and we generally know how to understand and trust stories. We also know how to assess the track record and reputation of leaders – often through stories – though it’s easier to be let down badly by leaders than it is by stories.

But asking for generic trust for unverifiable wisdom management processes smacks of what cults do. If the message is at any point “you’re not qualified to comment or think about this, you’re not wise enough, trust the people who know” then you are definitely in cult-like territory with all its associated dangers.

The second problem is that wisdom management as an evolution of knowledge management takes KM in a retrograde direction. Wisdom management cannot but focus on the knowledge and ability of privileged individuals. It’s possible to do good work in expertise transfer, and in building the capabilities of employees beyond information management, but this is only one aspect of KM and not its most critical.

If KM has learned anything in the past decade it is that a focus on the knowledge of individuals gets you only so far. Most of the really big knowledge problems affecting organisational effectiveness are about how organisations process and use knowledge collectively, how they learn collectively, how they make decisions collectively.

Show me a disaster – Katrina, Enron, 911, Challenger, Columbia – and I will show you problems with how individuals’ knowledge fails to scale to an effective organisational response. The notion of wisdom management is a gigantic red herring based on an increasingly outdated individualism.

12 Comments so far

Luke Naismith

Thanks Patrick - I was actually half way through writing a blog post myself on wisdom management. 
I think you and Steve are on the right track that wisdom has more to do with leadership and stories than management - perhaps ‘wisdom leadership’ as a moniker rather than wisdom management? as wisdom is more about the conversation and the personal experience.  As you point out, this means that wisdom will have trouble with scale. 
My view is that wisdom has more to do with advice, mentoring and life-long learning.  Wisdom may actually involve allowing mistakes to happen (safe-fail) rather than trying to find the right knowledge for the right context.  Wisdom also involves ethics, sincerity and cutting through the crap. 
I think that there are some future avenues to explore here, not to replace KM but as a useful adjunct (if you are willing to suspend your disbelief!!).
Will contemplate a bit more…

Posted on April 15, 2008 at 03:54 PM | Comment permalink

Boris Jaeger


maybe you’ll take a look at the following. It might be useful to digg depper!?

Defining Wisdom | A Project of the University of Chicago

“a $2 million research program on the nature and benefits of wisdom. ... The Wisdom Research Network website is an international networking utility that enables scholars and scientists from all academic disciplines to exchange ideas and engage in richer conversations through online discussion forums.”

Link: http://wisdomresearch.org

Regards from Germany,

Posted on April 15, 2008 at 04:04 PM | Comment permalink

Patrick Lambe

I did, and took the wisdom assessment quiz linked from the blogs page. My score was 3.5 “moderate” wisdom levels. The assumptions behind the questionaire were not explained, and are probably highly arguable, but not being in the “high wisdom” range, I’m probably not qualified to argue the matter.

I think “wisdom” as a broad banner provides dangerous cover for mountebanks and rogues without a compensating utility, in a way that is not true of “knowledge”. I think KM does have utility (despite its attractions to snake oil salesmen) because it has proven its ability to gather a number of well understood technical disciplines together and seek to harness themin the service of a common cause (eg IT, IM, IA, Process Management, Intelligence, decisionmaking, HR, OD).

I don’t think “wisdom” as a label has that utility. So I’m sceptical. I find it much more productive to think about specific aspects of “wisdom” where you can pin down what you’re looking at, and can make headway in figuring out how it is cultivated and enhanced and supported. Eg decisionmaking, expertise, experience, character, reputation, trustworthiness.

I am intrigued by the wisdom research grants on defining wisdom, however, so I will keep an open mind ... I only hope it doesn’t produce something as trivial as the assessment scorecard I took!

Posted on April 15, 2008 at 04:41 PM | Comment permalink

Matt Moore

Wisdom management cannot but focus on the knowledge and ability of privileged individuals.

Which I suppose is what makes it appealing. It becomes about individual development - “let’s send off the C-level Execs to hang out with some indigenous dudes for an afternoon” rather than the challenge of social co-ordination.

Wisdom is important. It’s not something I have a ready supply of - but I wouldn’t trust academics & consultants to give it to me (well, not all of them anyway).

Posted on April 15, 2008 at 05:12 PM | Comment permalink

Patrick Lambe

Great post from Luke Naismith thinking through the connections between wisdom and life journeys, learning, transformation and courage.


And from Matt Moore on a possible demographic boost to the penchant for wisdom management, together with the suggestion that mindfulness is one of the qualities of wisdom.


Posted on April 17, 2008 at 09:00 AM | Comment permalink

Larry Irons

"wisdom management”...hmmmm...sounds like an even more extreme oxymoron than knowledge management...however, your report about Firestone’s response, though typical Firestone, represents one of the more enlightening and even-handed observations I’ve read from him...I’ve always thought we can aspire to managing the way knowledge is shared, and at best succeed in directing it, but managing knowledge seems overly artificial...and claiming to manage wisdom is downright arrogant.

Posted on April 17, 2008 at 10:35 AM | Comment permalink

kim sbarcea

I have been watching from the sidelines the ACT-KM “wisdom debate”. I would be very concerned if KM morphs itself into “wisdom management” with “wisdom architects” replacing KM managers. I am with Dave on this - take anyone who prattles on about wisdom management out and shoot them. It is elitist and a step backward for KM IMHO. Who in this world could we point to and say “they have wisdom?”. The Dalai Lama perhaps, but certainly not besuited consultant types who will no doubt latch onto wisdom management faster than you can say bollocks!

Posted on April 17, 2008 at 03:50 PM | Comment permalink

What is the meaning of life

“trust me, follow me, even when my story seems to defy the way everyday life works” - not sure i can have too much trust after this

Posted on June 04, 2008 at 01:58 PM | Comment permalink

Steve Denning

The point that I was making in the ACTKM discussion was that “wisdom management” was no more of an oxymoron than “knowledge management”.

So one question was: why were the exponents of knowledge management reluctant to apply the same violence to the exponents of knowledge management that they were recommending be applied (i.e. assassination) to anyone who talked of wisdom management?

A related question was: did this reluctance have anything to do with a disinterest in knowledge about knowledge management, and more about protecting their fiefdom against intruders?

Patrick writes: “Show me a disaster – Katrina, Enron, 911, Challenger, Columbia – and I will show you problems with how individuals’ knowledge fails to scale to an effective organisational response.” The problem in all these cases was not what KM traditionally focuses on: the supply of knowledge. In all those cases, the supply of knowledge was already available. What was lacking was the demand for relevant knowledge.

The examples given don’t have much to do with wisdom. They do shed light on why KM needs to give more attention to enhancing the demand for knowledge. That is one of the important areas where leadership storytelling can usefully enter the picture.

Posted on June 04, 2008 at 09:15 PM | Comment permalink

Patrick Lambe

Hi Steve, thanks for dropping by. I’ve gone back over your posts in the actKM listserve, and they do seem to be pitched as defences of wisdom management. Perhaps you should have made your oxymoronic point more explicitly.

I don’t really understand your two questions, but my point in my post and the following comment above was that KM does seem to have more “organising power” than wisdom management does - in that it seems to have succeeded in harnessing, however loosely, a bundle of related disciplines into a roughly common purpose. I don’t see that characteristic in the notion of wisdom management.

So I think there is a substantive difference, despite both fields’ propensity to hijack by hucksters.

I think your comment that KM traditionally focuses on the supply of knowledge is a very simplistic and inaccurate view. It has become a much more complex field, as any review of the research or practice would reveal.

I agree that the examples don’t have much to do with wisdom. They were given as examples of some of the very serious issues that KM still needs to try to grapple with, and from which an over-excited focus on wisdom management (or storytelling for that matter) would prove distracting. I do not see the connection with storytelling in these cases… to my mind they are infrastructural issues more than leadership issues (unless you look at leadership as a part of infrastructure). For my understanding of infrastructure, see the work of Bowker and Star, and Diane Vaughan.

Posted on June 09, 2008 at 04:19 PM | Comment permalink

Steve Denning

Your post proves my point more eloquently than I could ever express. I rest my case.

Posted on June 11, 2008 at 09:29 AM | Comment permalink

Patrick Lambe

I don’t see a case, Steve, and I don’t see that you have even tried to address my points. I’m trying to figure out where you are coming from, and can see three possibilities:

(a) This is a passive-aggressive and not wholly serious blog hit and run.

(b) You are genuinely trying to communicate something and I’m genuinely not getting it in which case perhaps if you told a story I might understand what you’re trying to say.

(c) This is a symptom of our “wisdom distance” in which case I think your brand of “wisdom”, is, frankly, solipsistic.

Posted on June 11, 2008 at 09:42 AM | Comment permalink

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