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What’s the Point of Wisdom in Business Intelligence? Part 3 of a Series on Wisdom as the Next Frontier for Business Strategy

Originally published April 30, 2012

Studying wisdom is kind of depressing. Many have tried to capture the essence of wisdom in the last 2,500 years, but there is still some mystery to wisdom. We don’t get to the core of the matter, and I didn’t expect to achieve that in the process of writing this article.

To make matters worse, wisdom seems to be a road to nowhere. The more you are on your way to wisdom, the more you will start denying it. While others may call you wise, wisdom tells you there's not much  you know for sure. Socrates didn’t consider himself wise, except perhaps in the sense that he realized he didn’t possess any wisdom.

There is a story that in the 7th century B.C., there was a golden tripod to be given to the wisest of all. It was offered first to Thales, one of the seven sages of Greece, but he refused to accept. In turn, the golden tripod then was offered to each of the other six sages – Cleobulus, Solon, Chilon, Bias, Pittacus and Periander. None accepted.

Based on 2,500 years of observation, I guess the only thing we can truly say about wisdom is that when you claim you have it, you don’t. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work the other way around. The realization that you are not wise doesn’t automatically make you wise. How to make sense out of that?

Perhaps this is a very good reason to study wisdom. For any knowledge worker, business analyst or strategist, it can be a humbling experience to take on an impossible subject. At first glance, wisdom seems like a pretty straightforward concept. We can point out people we consider wise, and we have an intuitive understanding of what it means. But the more we apply analytical thinking to it, the further away we get from the core of the matter. It is good to realize that there are limits to what we can analyze and truly understand. In fact, this realization is a good start on the path to wisdom.

Thomas of Aquino (1225-1274), an Italian theologian and philosopher, considered wisdom the father of all virtues. This may appeal to professionals in any field  to grow from a practitioner who understands the “know what” to an expert with a grip on the “know how” to the wise person who masters the “know why.”

This is another good reason to build an appreciation for wisdom. Studying philosophy helps you to get to the “know why.” However, the road to wisdom is not trivial. Being a lover of wisdom – the literal meaning of philosopher – doesn’t necessarily mean you are wise. Not even the great philosophers are wise per se. Take, for instance, German philosopher Georg Wilhem Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), who described the history of philosophy through a three-step continuous process: thesis-antithesis-synthesis. The thesis is a situation in time, the antithesis represents the reaction to that situation, and the synthesis is the reconciliatory force that unites the thesis and antithesis. After that, the synthesis turns into the thesis, and the dialectic approach starts all over. Hegel argued that each dialectic step takes us closer to an optimal situation. Applied to politics, Hegel found that the Prussian government system in which he lived represented the perfect and final synthesis. Even Hegel was not able to overcome his own paradigm and create a total perspective. In fact, we are all a product of our age. The life and times of most philosophers has shaped their thinking.

Business Intelligence and Business ... Wisdom?

The megatrends in business and IT also provide a reason to explore the concept of wisdom. Big data is the mantra in data and information management. Managers are fed by business intelligence systems. Business processes are quickly becoming more knowledge intensive. Business operations need to be optimized. There is a clear relationship in these trends; they represent a hierarchy or value chain often referred to as data-information-knowledge.

Let’s explore this a little further. Sometimes we hear “the numbers speak for themselves,” but this is rarely the case. Data in the form of measurements do not mean a lot by themselves. If I ask how business is going and the CFO responds, “42,” what does that mean?1 It becomes meaningful only when the context is provided, such as 42 million in revenue, a 42% increase in profit, or 42 new product features launched. In other words, context is needed to transform data to information. But it is not useful yet. Subsequently, it requires knowledge, experience and intelligence to make information actionable.

This is where we are now in the maturity curve of IT. We use social media to share knowledge and experience; and if we collaborate to include multiple angles to solve a problem or create a new strategy, we can come up with more intelligent courses of action. The old idea of knowledge management systems from the 1980s and 1990s is re-emerging, making use of all kinds of semantic technologies in which we store this collective intelligence from multiple viewpoints so it can be reapplied and decision making can even be automated to some extent. Data mining has become both powerful and scalable so we can detect patterns and act upon them in a much smarter way.

So, if the need for information guides what data we need to track and intelligent questions guide what information we need, what guides the intelligence that we possess and that is so greatly enhanced by technology?

Wisdom.

With so many technological constraints being lifted, intelligence is not the boundary condition anymore.2  Wisdom provides the guardrails to intelligence and knowledge. Wisdom helps us distinguish right from wrong. It provides a moral compass. The central question in business and technology has moved from “How do we do things?” to “What should we do, why should we do that, and when would be a good moment?”

If you work for a pharmaceutical company and you perform advanced data mining on clinical data, there may be many answers you will find to questions that you didn’t even ask. What are the consequences of those answers? If you find a correlation between elements of lifestyle and certain medical conditions, should you inform patients? The moral consequences of saying “yes” are as unsurmountable as saying “no.”

If you work for Google, Twitter or Facebook, and you mine online behavior, how far can you go in targeted advertising and create an online profile of someone that starts to lead a life of its own (chew a while on the expression “lead a life of its own,” and imagine how literal this could be in the digital world)? We are in the middle of discovering that, through all kinds of scandals, painful lessons are learned.

If you are a regulator, and through advanced economic modeling you see realistic scenarios in which a certain bank will not survive a sudden possible turn in the market, should you warn the public of that? You can’t undo the knowledge, but it is uncertain the scenario will indeed happen. If you warn the market, you create a self-fulfilling prophecy; if you don’t, you may be held accountable for your lack of action later on.

Should threats made on Twitter by teenagers be taken seriously, given their global reach? How can a business intelligence system help you make a decision, and when to make it? Can you tell a data mining tool what you would not like to find? Is WikiLeaks a blessing or a curse to the world? How far can we go with cameras in the street and intelligent software identifying potentially disruptive behavior of people walking there? To what extent should health care providers and associated insurance companies have access to a patient’s integrated medical file? How far should we go in automated decision making regarding loans, permits, grants, benefits, fines and so forth, without a basic understanding of the social context of the applicant?

It seems we have insufficient perspective. We are in dire need of wisdom.

References
  1. This is in reference to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a book by Douglas Adams that tells a story of a huge computer that is built to answer the “question of life, the universe and everything.” However, when the computer finally responds with “42,” humanity is puzzled. This can’t be correct, what does it mean, they ask the computer. The computer recomputes the answer, confirms its correctness and suggests that if the people don’t understand the answer, maybe they didn’t really understand their question in the first place. There is a deep truth in that. The question itself is the first context to the answer. “How’s business doing?” is indeed not the best phrased of all questions.

  2. If you allow me the cynical observation, intelligence has become as borderless as stupidity.

  • Frank BuytendijkFrank Buytendijk

    Frank's professional background in strategy, performance management and organizational behavior gives him a strong perspective across many domains in business and IT. He is an entertaining speaker at conferences all over the world, and was recently called an “intellectual provocateur” and described as “having an unusual warm tone of voice.” His work is frequently labeled as provocative, deep, truly original, and out of the box. More down to earth, his daughter once described it as “My daddy sits in airplanes, stands on stages, and tells jokes.” Frank is a former Gartner Research VP, and a seasoned IT executive. Frank is also a visiting fellow at Cranfield University School of Management, and author of various books, including Performance Leadership (McGraw-Hill, September 2008), and Dealing with Dilemmas (Wiley & Sons, August 2010). Frank's newest book, Socrates Reloaded, is now available and is highly recommended. Click here for more information on how to get your copy today.

    Editor's Note: More articles and a link to his popular blog are available in Frank's BeyeNETWORK Expert Channel. Be sure to visit today!

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