The Hierarchy of Knowledge

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Following is a guest post from Mike Myatt.  He is America’s Top CEO Coach, recognized by Thinkers50 as a global authority on the topic of leadership, a Forbes leadership columnist, author of Leadership Matters,  CEO at N2growth, and is a Senior Fellow at the Gordian Institute. His new book, Hacking Leadership: The 11 Gaps Every Business Needs to Close and the Secrets to Closing Them Quickly, is available on Amazon.  Mike and I met through social media and have enjoyed a lively dialogue for the last few years.  I am very excited to share his new book with you here.

Hacking LeadershipI’m often asked, “What is the best way for me to synthesize the overwhelming amount incoming information I receive while making the best decisions possible in a timely fashion?”

While I have written often on the subject of decision making, and do so in my latest book Hacking Leadership, this specific question is a bit narrower in scope and the asker is usually looking for advice surrounding the filtering of various inputs.

So I’d like to address what I refer to as the hierarchy of knowledge, which will provide an answer to this common question.

Understanding that a hierarchy of knowledge exists is critically important when attempting to make prudent decisions.

Put simply… not all inputs should weigh equally in one’s decisioning process. By developing a qualitative and quantitative filtering mechanism for your decisioning process, you can make better decisions in a shorter period of time.

The hierarchy of knowledge is as follows:

  • Data: Raw data is comprised of disparate facts, statistics, or random pieces of information that in-and-of-themselves hold little value. Making conclusions based on data in its raw form will lead to flawed decisions based on incomplete data sets.
  • Information: Information is simply an evolved, or more complete data set. Information is therefore derived from a collection of processed data, where context and meaning have been added to disparate facts, which allow for a more thorough analysis.
  • Knowledge: Knowledge is information that has been refined by analysis such that it has been assimilated, tested and/or validated. Most importantly, knowledge is actionable with a high degree of accuracy because proof of concept exists.

Even though people often treat theory as knowledge, and opinion as fact, they are not one in the same. Making executive decisions in today’s world has never been more complex, and when under extreme pressure I have seen many a savvy executive blur the lines between fact and fiction resulting in an ill advised decision. Decisions made at the data level can be made quickly, but offer a higher level of risk. Decisioning at the information level affords a higher degree of risk management, but are still not as safe as those decisions based upon actionable knowledge.

Another aspect that needs to be factored into the decisioning process is the source of the input. I believe it was Cyrus the Great who said, “diversity in counsel, unity in command” – meaning that good leaders seek the counsel of others, but maintain command control over the final decision.

While most successful leaders subscribe to this theory, the real question is not whether you should seek counsel, but in fact where, and how much, counsel you should seek. You see, more input – or the wrong input – doesn’t necessarily add value to a decisioning process. Volume for the sake of volume will only tend to confuse matters, and seeking input from sources that can’t offer significant contributions is likely a waste of time.

Two other issues that should be considered in your decisioning process as they relate to the source of input are as follows:

  • Credibility: What is the track record of your source? Is the source reliable and credible? Are they delivering data, information or knowledge? Will the source tell you what you want to hear, what they want you to hear, or will they provide the unedited version of cold hard truth?
  • Bias: Are there any hidden and/or competing agendas that are coloring the input being received? Is the input being provided for the benefit of the source or the benefit of the enterprise?

Good luck and good decisioning…




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