The Data-Information Hierarchy, Part 1

(originally posted on blogspot January 29, 2010)

I see much internet attention given to the data –> information –> knowledge –> understanding –> wisdom tree. Most will omit the step of understanding. Many will overlook data or wisdom. But all five stages are required to move from total oblivion to becoming the true productive member of society that pushes us forward. To paraphrase, “it is a process”.

“The first sign of wisdom is to get wisdom; go, give all you have to get true knowledge.” ( This central and key verse in proverbs rings true today. Wisdom is the objective, but the progression to wisdom must begin with assimilating the data and information into knowledge. And from knowledge comes understanding, from understanding comes wisdom.

In keeping with the phylosophical / religious examination of knowledge and wisdom, explains it as:

Wisdom is the principal thing – the most important matter in life. Wisdom is the power of right judgment – the ability to choose the correct solution for any situation. It is knowing how to think, speak, and act to please both God and men. It is the basis for victorious living. Without wisdom, men make choices that bring them pain, poverty, trouble, and even death. With it, men make choices that bring them health, peace, prosperity, and life.

Understanding is connected to wisdom, and it is also an important goal. Understanding is the power of discernment – to see beyond what meets the eye and recognize the inherent faults or merits of a thing. Without understanding, men are easily deceived and led astray. Without it, men are confused and perplexed. With it, men can see what others miss, and they can avoid the snares and traps of seducing sins. With it, life’s difficulties are simple.

As great as this biblical basis is, for the effort of business and scientific endeavours require all five steps. But, as Cliff Stoll said, “Data is not information, Information is not knowledge, Knowledge is not understanding, Understanding is not wisdom.” Data is sought, information is desired, but wisdom is the objective.

“We collect and organize data to achive information; we process information to absorbe knowledge; we untilize the knowledge to gain understanding; and we apply understanding to achieve wisdom.” (Mark Reynolds)

Russell Ackoff provides a definition of the five stages

  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.

Data itself is not able to be absorbed by the human. It is individual quantums of substance, neither understandable nor desirable.

Information is the recognizable and cognitive presentation of the data. The reason that the Excel chart is so popular is that it allows the manipulation of data but the perception of information. Information is processable by the human, but is only a historical concept.

Knowledge is the appropriate collection of information, such that it’s intent is to be useful. Knowledge is a deterministic process. To correctly answer such a question requires a true cognitive and analytical ability that is only encompassed in the next level… understanding. In computer parlance, most of the applications we use (modeling, simulation, etc.) exercise some type of stored knowledge. (

Understanding an interpolative and probabilistic process. It is cognitive and analytical. It is the process by which I can take knowledge and synthesize new knowledge from the previously held knowledge. The difference between understanding and knowledge is the difference between “learning” and “memorizing”. (

Wisdom is the only part of the five stages that is future based, forward looking. Systems Engineering courses have wisdom as the basis for hteir existance, whether they regognize it or not. An alternate definition of Systems Engineering could be the effort to put knowledge and understanding to use. And as such, a large part of the Systems Engineering course work is to teach the acquisition of knowledge and understanding while pressing for the student’s mind to explore its meaning and function.

Neil Fleming observes: (

  • A collection of data is not information.
  • A collection of information is not knowledge.
  • A collection of knowledge is not wisdom.
  • A collection of wisdom is not truth.

Where have we come from, what are we doing here, where are we going? These questions look like philosophical questions. But they form the basis for the data, information, knowledge, understanding, wisdom tree. And once the level of wisdom is achieved in any study, the question of where are we going is effectively answered.

Related Posts:

The Data-Information Hierarchy, Part 2

The Data-Information Hierarchy, Part 3

About Mark Reynolds 45 Articles
Master of Engineering professional experienced as engineer, architect, manager, mentor and evangelist. Accomplished Architect demonstrating proactive application of digital technologies and agile methodologies balanced between engineering, development, automation, adaptive processing, and distributed systems. Solution Evangelist with recognized command of processes, distributed systems, analytics, machine learning, and multiple digital technologies. Mentor, Professor and Lifelong Learner teaching internal educational projects, university computer science, industry conferences.