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Data, Information, Knowledge, and Wisdom


"Wisdom is not a product of schooling but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it."

Albert Einstein

Computers are often called data processing machines or information processing machines. People understand and accept the fact that computers are machines designed for the input, storage, processing, and output of data and information

However, some people also think of computers as knowledge processing machines and even explore what it might mean for a computer to have wisdom. For example, here is a quote from Dr. Yogesh Malhotra of the BRINT Institute:

Knowledge Management caters to the critical issues of organizational adaption, survival and competence in face of increasingly discontinuous environmental change.... Essentially, it embodies organizational processes that seek synergistic combination of data and information processing capacity of information technologies, and the creative and innovative capacity of human beings.

The following quotation is from the Atlantic Canada Conservation Data Centre, a non-profit organization established in 1999.

Individual bits or "bytes" of "raw" biological data (e.g. the number of individual plants of a given species at a given location) do not by themselves inform the human mind. However, drawing various data together within an appropriate context yields information that may be useful (e.g. the distribution and abundance of the plant species at various points in space and time). In turn, this information helps foster the quality of knowing (e.g. whether the plant species is increasing or decreasing in distribution and abundance over space and time). Knowledge and experience blend to become wisdom--the power of applying these attributes critically or practically to make decisions.

Thus, we are led to think about Data, Information, Knowledge, and Wisdom as we explore the capabilities and limitations of IT systems

Here are four definitions taken from Encarta® World English Dictionary © 1999 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved. Developed for Microsoft by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.


  1. information, often in the form of facts or figures obtained from experiments or surveys, used as a basis for making calculations or drawing conclusions
  2. information, for example, numbers, text, images, and sounds, in a form that is suitable for storage in or processing by a computer


  1. definite knowledge acquired or supplied about something or somebody
  2. the collected facts and data about a particular subject
  3. a telephone service that supplies telephone numbers to the public on request.
  4. the communication of facts and knowledge
  5. computer data that has been organized and presented in a systematic fashion to clarify the underlying meaning
  6. a formal accusation of a crime brought by a prosecutor, as opposed to an indictment brought by a grand jury


  1. general awareness or possession of information, facts, ideas, truths, or principles
  2. clear awareness or explicit information, for example, of a situation or fact
  3. all the information, facts, truths, and principles learned throughout time
  4. familiarity or understanding gained through experience or study


  1. the knowledge and experience needed to make sensible decisions and judgments, or the good sense shown by the decisions and judgments made
  2. accumulated knowledge of life or in a particular sphere of activity that has been gained through experience
  3. an opinion that almost everyone seems to share or express
  4. ancient teachings or sayings

Various people have thought carefully about varying definitions of these four terms and produced their own analysis of the four terms. The following is quoted from Jacques Steyn's Website:

Information consists of data, but data is not necessarily information. Also, wisdom is knowledge, which in turn is information, which in turn is data, but, for example, knowledge is not necessarily wisdom. So wisdom is a subset of knowledge, which is a subset of information, which is a subset of data.

Arranging the Terms Along a scale

The terms Data, Information, Knowledge, and Wisdom are sometimes presented in a form that suggests a scale.

However, in no sense do these four terms define some sort of linear equal-interval scale. They do, however, help us to discuss the design of an educational system as well as current and potential uses of computers. For example, we all accept that computers can be used for the input, storage, processing, and output of data. But, there is considerable disagreement about whether a computer can have knowledge or be knowledgeable--or have wisdom and be wise.

In the good old days, in the early history of using computers to do business data processing, computers were data processing machines. There were lots of workshops and courses on data processing. "Raw data" was processed to produce reports that were then analyzed by management to make management decisions. Hourly time sheets of workers were processed to produce payroll checks and summary reports on employee costs.

Later came the idea of computers processing data to produce information. Payroll data can be put together with other cost data, sales data, and so on to produce information about which products are most profitable. The huge collection of raw data can be processed into reports that facilitate high level management decisions.

Computer Science Departments became Computer and Information Science Departments. Terms such as Information Technology (IT) and Information and Communication Technology (ICT) arose because they better described the computer field.

In more recent years, businesses and others have worked to use computers to process information so that it becomes or is closely similar to knowledge. Knowledge in a person's head is used for posing and solving problems, posing and answering questions, defining decision making situations and making decisions, posing tasks to be accomplished and accomplishing the tasks, and so on. Nowadays, computers make lots of decisions without human intervention. That is, they receive data as input and they process it in a manner that produces decisions and actions as output. When a human does this, we talk about the level of knowledge, skill , and intelligence that the person has.

The following summary and chart are quoted from Designing Knowledge Ecosystems for Communities of Practice.

The graph below reflects the learning journey whereby we progressively transform the raw, unfiltered facts and symbols into information, knowledge, and eventually into intelligence and wisdom.

The discussion in this section leads to questions such as:

  1. Can a computer system have knowledge and be knowledgeable?
  2. Can a computer system have wisdom and be wise?
  3. How should these ideas and answers affect business and education?

From a Business Point of View

The following three definitions are quoted from Godbout (January 1999).

Data constitutes one of the primary forms of information. It essentially consists of recordings of transactions or events which will be used for exchange between humans or even with machines. As such, data does not carry meaning unless one understands the context in which the data was gathered. A word, a number or a symbol can be used do describe a business result, inserted in a marriage contract or a graffiti on the wall. It is the context which gives it meaning, and this meaning makes it informative.

Information extends the concept of data in a broader context. As such it includes data but it also includes all the information a person comes in contact with as a member of a social organization in a given physical environment. Information like data, is carried through symbols. These symbols have complex structures and rules. Information therefore comes in a variety of forms such as writings, statements, statistics, diagrams or charts. Some information theorists insist on the concept of form as the differentiating factor and the essence of information.

Where does knowledge fit in this scenario? Information becomes individual knowledge when it is accepted and retained by an individual as being a proper understanding of what is true (Lehrer, 1990) and a valid interpretation of the reality. Conversely, organizational or social knowledge exists when it is accepted by a consensus of a group of people. Common knowledge does not require necessarily to be shared by all members to exist, the fact that it is accepted amongst a group of informed persons can be considered a sufficient condition. This is also true of «public domain» knowledge. The fact that it is readily available in writing or published material does not entail that everybody should be knowledgeable about it to meet the condition of being "common knowledge".

Godbout presents these definitions in an article discussing roles of computers in the field called "knowledge management." Knowledge management is of steadily growing importance in running a business or similar types of organizations.

Educational Implications

It appears that one of the issues in defining the terms data, information, knowledge, and wisdom is the role of understanding and meaning making. One can memorize data, and parrot it back. One processes data (organizes it into meaningful chunks?) to produce information. Parroting such chunks sounds more like being educated--but this can be done with little understanding or ability to make use of the information. Knowledge is a step further on the scale. It involves understanding and ability to make use of the data and information to answer questions, solve problems, make decisions, and so on. Wisdom has to do with using one's knowledge in a responsible (wise) manner.

In recent years, Robert Sternberg has taken the position that wisdom can and should be taught in schools, even at the elementary school level. A summary of his ideas and definitions is available in the following reference. Quoting from Sternberg. (November 13, 2002)

When schools teach for wisdom, they teach students that it is important not just what you know, but how you use what you know--whether you use it for good ends or bad. They are teaching for what the Bush administration referred to recently, in a White House conference, as the "fourth R": responsibility. Smart but foolish and irresponsible people, including, apparently, some who run or have run major businesses in our country, exhibit four characteristic fallacies in their thinking.

I define wisdom as the application of intelligence and experience toward the attainment of a common good. This attainment involves a balance among (a) intrapersonal (one's own), (b) interpersonal (other people's), and (c) extrapersonal (more than personal, such as institutional) interests, over the short and long terms. Thus, wise people look out not just for themselves, but for all toward whom they have any responsibility.

The ISTE National Educational Technology Standards for students, teachers, and school administrators all stress the responsible use of computer systems. Thus, Sternberg's points of view about teaching wisdom/responsibility are consistent with the ISTE viewpoint. Or, here is a slightly different twist on the situation. We want students, teachers, and school administrators to be responsible, wise use of computer systems. As students learn to be responsible and wise, we want transfer of learning to occur among many different application areas, including IT.


Bellinger, Gene; Casstro, Durval; and Mills, Anthony. , Date, Information, Knowledge, and Wisdom. Accessed 11/15/02: http://www.outsights.com/systems/dikw/dikw.htm.

This article adds one more piece--understanding--to the data, information, knowledge, and understand list. Quoting from the Website:
According to Russell Ackoff, a systems theorist and professor of organizational change, the content of the human mind can be classified into five categories:
  1. Data: symbols
  2. Information: data that are processed to be useful; provides answers to "who", "what", "where", and "when" questions
  3. Knowledge: application of data and information; answers "how" questions
  4. Understanding: appreciation of "why"
  5. Wisdom: evaluated understanding.

Godbout, Alain J. (January 1999). Filtering Knowledge: Changing Information into Knowledge Assets. Journal of Systemic Knowledge Management,. Accessed 11/15/02: http://www.it-consultancy.com/extern/

This article provides a careful analysis of knowledge management by people and computer systems, from a business point of view.

Moursund, David (1999). Data, Information, Knowledge, Wisdom. Learning and Leading with Technology. v26. The following brief summary is quoted from: Accessed 11/15/02: http://www.iste.org/L&L/26/8/

Data, information, knowledge, and wisdom form a scale, although a rather peculiar scale. The points on the scale are not closely related even though they are often talked about at the same time. In this month's editorial, David talks about the scale and how it is being affected by information technologies.

Sternberg, Robert J. (November 13, 2002). Teaching for Wisdom in Our Schools. Education Week. Accessed 11/15/02: http://www.edweek.com/ew/ewstory.cfm?
slug=11sternberg.h22. Quoting from the Website:

I define wisdom as the application of intelligence and experience toward the attainment of a common good. This attainment involves a balance among (a) intrapersonal (one's own), (b) interpersonal (other people's), and (c) extrapersonal (more than personal, such as institutional) interests, over the short and long terms. Thus, wise people look out not just for themselves, but for all toward whom they have any responsibility.

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