Benchmark Ethics: Wisdom Management

We are constantly reminded that in an information age economy knowledge is king. Not just the qualitative importance but the sheer quantity of data and information demands special attention today. Creating and deploying information technologies to help manage this knowledge makes a lot of sense.

In a context of what is both an information gold mine and an information glut, the way we prioritize and value different kinds of knowledge takes on considerable importance. What knowledge should we seek and manage? In his famous Nichomachean Ethics, the Greek philosopher Aristotle describes several kinds of thinking and knowledge that are essential to human excellence and community.

Aristotle first describes what he considers the highest form of human thought: “theoretical wisdom” (Greek, sophia — from which we get our word “philosophy”). This theoretical wisdom is comprised of “knowledge” (Greek, episteme — from which we get our term “epistemology”) and “understanding” (Greek, nous). When our (episteme) knowledge of particular data and facts is accompanied by deep (nous) understanding of how these individual things relate to each other and to larger wholes, the result is (sophia) theoretical wisdom. In our era of specialization and the fragmentation of fields of research and knowledge, Aristotle’s balanced, holistic view is important to consider.

A second kind of knowledge Aristotle describes is “technical knowledge” (Greek, techne) — how to make things and do things, “skill knowledge,” or “know-how.” Techne is the knowledge of how to change the world — not just how to understand or explain the world (the earlier “theoretical wisdom”). Techne relates to sophia like technology relates to science (and philosophy). Techne knowledge, however, is not just about building the products but about convincing people to buy them. It includes all “techniques” for doing things — not just for making them.

Knowledge Management today is primarily concerned with this techne sort of knowledge and interested in theoretical knowledge only insofar as it might be of use to building and making things. Most formal education these days is education in techne of one kind or another. We are not a culture that much prizes theory or “learning for its own sake” anymore. “What is it good for?” is the question that trumps all others — and that is a techne kind of question.

But there is a third kind of thinking for Aristotle: “practical wisdom” (Greek, phronesis) — “discernment” and “good judgment.” This is knowledge not about “how to make a living” (that would be techne) but about “how to live.” Practical wisdom is about ethics and values and human relationships, about meaning and happiness.

There are growing concerns that today’s research must be more multi-disciplinary and team-oriented than our universities usually promote. Some even argue for what Aristotle’s deeper and broader “understanding” and “theoretical wisdom.” But much of our business world is still pretty narrowly focused on creating and managing “technical” knowledge, i.e., on the challenges of practically changing and improving the world we live in.

My vote, however, is that the greatest need of our time (in business as well as education) is not integrating one scientific or technical discipline with another, but rather integrating such scientific and technical knowledge with sound moral knowledge. To put it another way, we need “wisdom management” at least as much as we need “knowledge management.” Wisdom and ethical discernment need to be in the driver’s seat as we move ahead.

Knowledge without wisdom is a dangerous thing — kind of like an unguided missile. Jacques Ellul described modern civilization as a civilization of “means” (more and more powerful tools, methods, machines) that has lost touch with the big questions concerning “ends.” The means have actually become ends in themselves, he argued. All it takes, then, to persuade someone to accept something is to show that it is more effective, faster, or stronger, i.e., an improved means. But, to paraphrase Thoreau, such inventions often are nothing more than “improved means to an unimproved end.”

There are larger purposes in life — and in business — than those captured in numbers. But what are those larger purposes which our business and technology might serve? It is wisdom and moral judgment that help us get our focus on the truly important things. They show us how to use our technical and business knowledge in service of people’s happiness and meaning.

Many businesses have founders and veterans with a sense of these larger values and purposes their business historically served. One task of “wisdom management” is to draw out, collect, and distribute the stories and the wisdom of such company elders. Another phase of wisdom management is to invite today’s personnel to share their own larger life values, career purposes, and dreams (i.e., not just their “tricks of the trade” or technical insights). This, too, can add “texture” and moral depth to the decisions and activities of an organization.

“Wisdom management” may be even more difficult than “knowledge management” but it may also turn out in the end to play a larger role in lifting your business from good to great. WM and KM, in the end, however, should not be seen as competing tasks but rather as complementary aspects of a larger, richer picture.

David W. Gill was co-founder of IBTE and author of Benchmark Ethics, a regular article in the first 32 issues of Ethix. After eight years of writing, speaking, teaching, and consulting in the Bay Area of California, he joined the faculty of Gordon-Conwell Theological Center (South Hampton, Mass.) in 2010, where he is also Director of the Mockler Center for Faith and Ethics in the Workplace.