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Where has all the wisdom gone?

Something I have learnt along the way after interacting with quite a few organisations is this: data is not insightinsight is not wisdom and wisdom is scarce.

As I look around me and feel the weight of the data available in this life and in turn work hard to find insight from the inputs, I rarely experience or see real impact from wisdom applied as a result of excellent research, innovative insight generation and a ‘washing’ of those insights over a tried and tested standard to come up with a wise solution.

More pointedly as I read and view the national and international news it is obvious that what the reporters and commentators refer to as a lack of leadership in the steady global destabilisation is actually a lack of wisdom.

Where has all the wisdom gone?

Some of the questions I ask myself when I can't sleep at night:

1. How does one develop this venerated wisdom skill which defined, is an amalgamation of experience, good judgement and right knowledge applied when there is no time, no standard for right knowledge and good judgement is subjective? 

2. In the rapid changing landscape that marks hyper competition, ambiguity and accelerated change how does one develop the wisdom skills that traditionally distil over time and through experience if the situation and circumstances faced today are remarkably different tomorrow - the constant here being change?

3. Has traditional wisdom a place in the new economy?

4. Is it time we redefined wisdom?

Two issues - too much data no skill/time - no data no skill/time.

In a recent past life I had the opportunity to work within a large financial services provider. I was astonished to see the amount of information banks keep on people. The depth and breadth of the data is amazing. Yet there seemed to be a definitive disconnect between the data that sits on massive cloud driven storage devices and any insight let alone wisdom applied when looking for angles to address new customer solutions. I asked myself often ‘why don’t we use more of this data to drive our decisions?’ – ‘would it not be wise to do so?’

I felt there were wasted opportunities in a business sense that could have been gleaned from the data. I think at times organisations have a false sense of security in data but forget that data is dead without analysis and insightful application in the right way. Traditionally this task was done by the experienced people who would then make the decisions after applying their minds. Research shows that workers in the new economy want to move from project to project and don't expect to clock up 20 years of experience with one organisation - this is a significant challenge for organisations that cannot develop enough internal 'wisdom'.

It is possible that as the economy transitions away from the boomer’s led wisdom into a new way of decision making we are facing a crisis and at times a disconnect between what we have, our false comfort as a result of what we think we have and a menacing distortion as a result.

By this I mean that the traditional idea of wisdom is retiring with the people that had the careers and time to develop the traditional skill and a new understanding of wisdom has not yet fully emerged - and never before has the world needed wisdom like it needs it now.

How do we rapidly devise a new way of reaching wise decisions and favourable outcomes with the new tools and limited time we have if we do not have a central government's budget to do so? 

While sitting in a lecture some months ago an eminent global talent researcher said something profound about the work of tomorrow. And by tomorrow I do not mean the far distant tomorrow, by tomorrow I am referring to the next 60 to 120 months! The next great skills shortage will be for people who know how and have the ability to decode or analyse the rich data sets we have at our disposal to understand trends, look for insight and lay the foundation for new solutions.

 After seeing the copious data in the banks, the flip side of the coin also exists when dealing with a complex situation and there is no data available - what then? As a precursor to this reality and echoing the need for reliable data for right decisions, David Snowden who is a foremost researcher and speaker on adaptive complexity systems has devised a way to extract valuable data from extremely complex environments in order to make decision extrapolation easier and outcomes more favorable and predictable.

Think of a war zone where a relief agency is trying to address people’s needs in a certain way. In such a zone it is difficult to get reliable data let alone copious volumes of it to make a case and deal with the statistics of a population. Often the relief agencies do what they think is right without correct insight, this normally turns out to be unwise.

David Snowden has found ways through social interaction and ethno-graphic research methods such as tasking school children with a school project to interview parents and neighbours on a question of importance. Not only do the children collect the data but they also eradicate common research based biases from the input in order to arrive at better decisions after analysis. An example of a  new solution to an ever increasing phenomenon around the world- complexity with no data.

The problem we face as an articulation is clear – there is a shift away from classic seats of wisdom as a culture, data unanalysed is just data, insight although valuable is not wisdom - so how do we progress in this ever morphing environment?

If this scenario had to touch your life what would it look like? – complex environment -> no past experience in the situation -> no time to garner traditional wisdom = crisis or worse -> no action.

Sound familiar?

Here are a few ideas on making your work life easier the next time you are called to make a big decision but do not have the wisdom skills yet - while we debate the macro wisdom questions you need to make decisions:

Call on collaborative wisdom – If wisdom is a collection of experiences and time leading to a right decision applied, then a collaboration of people with varying experiences and differing times under their respective belts can be a great place to start. Tapping into a collective can seriously change a terrible situation into a fantastic team building experience and deliver a great decision with a brilliant outcome.

Work constantly on the culture that embeds exploration – The whole idea of one answer being right is a misnomer, more and more novel solutions become available as people challenge the status quo of doing things but this can only effectively happen in an environment that allows it. Do your part before the crisis hits, build a more human work culture in every possible interaction and lay the foundation for your get out of jail card before you need it.

Think Generatively – Management 101 that has its roots in pre industrialisation seeks to over emphasize the role of governance and management by coercion. See the possibilities of generative processes and look outside of your immediate problem to find insight to the questions. 

Use technology to expand your analysis skills - While you are at it make sure your talent strategy addresses the very real issue of a shortage of people who will know how to drive the machines that will do the analysis and deliver the insight. Be aggressive with your talent strategy make sure your organisation is a talent magnet.

Use data, but don't let it be your only guide – Keep that subscription to your alumni library – or develop excellent sources of excellent data. Chances are someone somewhere has actually faced the question you are facing and more than likely you can access the insight of the situation with a bit of research, but once you have gathered your data set make sure you test it over a few variables including your intuition.

Look to your network – A case for keeping your network alive and vibrant, tap into your professors and lecturers. Drop a line to the CEO who retired and is sailing around the world. Make use of the web of people that surround us but that we rarely contact. Research shows that the most valuable network is normally 2-3 degrees away from ourselves so reach out every now and then in case of emergencies if not for anything else.

Develop a mindful reflection – Be true to yourself in circumstances of doubt. Be sure that you understand why you are hesitating to make a decision. Is the reason valid or because you lack the requisite self-confidence or self-belief. You may actually have the right answer but not believe yourself, be sure to have a system that allows you to check in often and self evaluate your own internal decision making system. This means having a coach or mentor within the business who can give you unbiased and authentic feedback about your thinking and motives – this is invaluable.

As the world and its systems speed up and complexity increases the hybridization of the traditional wisdom concept and the possibilities of the new will continue to show us opportunity. The key is not to forget where we have come from but also to never stop searching for better ways to move forward - I think they call that innovation.


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