Yet Another Myth: The DIKW Pyramid Scheme

Originally published on November 6, 2015

I had a wonderful time at KMWorld 2015 this week. On the last day of the conference, I presented 16 KM Myths Debunked (see the excellent notes by Mary Abraham).

When I returned, I read an article in the latest issue of KMWorld by David Weinberger, What’s greater than knowledge?, in which David states:

I’ve long been irked by the Data-Information-Knowledge-Wisdom pyramid that is so often casually embraced as if its truth were obvious. I disagree with its implication that knowledge is a filtering down of information. I disagree even more that wisdom is a filtering of knowledge. But perhaps most irksome to me is its leaving understanding out of the picture entirely.

David previously wrote about The Problem with the Data-Information-Knowledge-Wisdom Hierarchy:

But knowledge is not a result merely of filtering or algorithms. It results from a far more complex process that is social, goal-driven, contextual, and culturally-bound. We get to knowledge — especially ‘actionable’ knowledge — by having desires and curiosity, through plotting and play, by being wrong more often than right, by talking with others and forming social bonds, by applying methods and then backing away from them, by calculation and serendipity, by rationality and intuition, by institutional processes and social roles. Most important in this regard, where the decisions are tough and knowledge is hard to come by, knowledge is not determined by information, for it is the knowing process that first decides which information is relevant, and how it is to be used.
The real problem with the DIKW pyramid is that it’s a pyramid. The image that knowledge (much less wisdom) results from applying finer-grained filters at each level, paints the wrong picture. That view is natural to the Information Age which has been all about filtering noise, reducing the flow to what is clean, clear and manageable. Knowledge is more creative, messier, harder won, and far more discontinuous.

I should add a 17th myth to my list: The DIKW Pyramid. This ubiquitous diagram has even been expanded to include “measurement” and “facts” (in the image above), and inverted with a top level of “enlightenment” (in the image below):

I see no need for creating pyramids, hierarchies, or other similar, meaningless representations. I define knowledge as information in action. The article got me thinking about constructs beyond knowledge, including:

  1. Understanding: David Weinberger — To Know, but Not Understand
  2. Insights: Gary Klein — Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights (notes by Mary Abraham)
  3. Expertise: Richard McDermott — How to think like an expert
  4. Sense-making: Dave Snowden — What is Sense-making? — How we make sense of the world so we can act in it
  5. Decision and Action: Nick Milton — Data — Information — Knowledge — Understanding — Decision — Action

Others have written quite eloquently about the annoying pyramid and related topics:

To these fine articles, I would just add this. If you are thinking about using the DIKW, MFDIKW, DIKWE, or any other similar pyramid in a presentation or document, step away from the keyboard. Leave it out, and find a more relevant way to make your point.

What are your thoughts? What other constructs beyond knowledge are useful?