Data, Information, Knowledge: a sensemaking perspective

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —March 30, 2006
Filed in Insight

The relationship among data, information and knowledge is often depicted as a pyramid. With data at the base, it’s converted to information and information converted to knowledge. This metaphor of a pyramid or ladder to explain these concepts is unhelpful because you start to believe one is better than the other and there is a tendency to extrapolate to the next level believing that knowledge is simply extrapolated to form wisdom—I have even heard people talk about wisdom management. My two days at the meaning making symposium has helped me see this relationship differently, that is, viewing data, information and knowledge as a system.

Thanks to John Barton at the symposium reminding me of a view of data, information and knowledge first brought to my attention by Dave Snowden which I will extend to include the role of sensemaking and context.


Knowledge acts as an interpretant to turn data into information. The information we notice (we don’t notice all information channelled toward us), might create some level of dissonance (its surprises us or we ask ourselves, “What’s the story here?”) and if we care about resolving this dissonance we create knowledge. Knowledge is created through a sensemaking process.

But data to one person is someone else’s information. A commodities trader might stare at a computer screen of numbers which would look to most people as raw data. To the commodity trader, however, slight changes in the numbers conveys messages which act as information they might convert to knowledge (via sensemaking) and take action. Consequently, context is a key ingredient acting as an underlay to all three concepts of data, information and knowledge.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. Thanks Shawn. I’ve never been comportable with the data/info/knowledge[/Wisdom] pyramid or scale. The view you’ve provided is going to be much more useful.

  2. Dave Snowden says:

    Your addition of the sense making arrow is interesting. Can you elaborate? The dissonance of the strucutres of infromation with data would incrase sense making capability ….

  3. Thanks for the comments Andrew and Dave.
    In my mind information is flying past us all the time. Now and then we will notice and name an aspect of it and if it creates either surprise or an unsettling feeling, and we care about resolving the dissonance, we will try and work it out. This process is sensemaking and it also creates knowledge.
    The transformation between data and information is possible due to the application of knowledge. There might be sensemaking occuring at this point as well but my gut tells me it relies more on a deductive approach.
    I would love to hear what you think.

  4. ken says:

    Your description of the bubbling up of unexpected events from a fast flowing stream of information sounds to me a lot like the Hawkin’s model of predictive intelligence (and clearly RPD too), though, as a i reflect on that thought, it may just be what i expected to see 🙂 Thanks for the picture, that one arrow stimulated so many connections in my poor head, a neat feeling, though. It resonates through everything from using Bateson’s levels, Alexander’s sequences, patterns and wholeness, Maturana’s cognition, buddhist awareness and attention etc. More so, than abstract terminology (or did those ideas have to be there first to make sense of the arrow, hmmm?) More cartoons please 🙂

  5. ken says:

    Peter Drucker coined the term knowledge worker, but was wise enough to know that all models are wrong, in that spirit can I ramble a little?
    That little arrow is a thing of wonder, for me. As I look at it, though, pointing back, something still seems off, there’s a little dissonance. If we point at the moon, does a dog see what we’re pointing at, or just stare at the finger? If we study the ox herding pictures (cool cartoons 🙂 we see active verbs: seeking, finding, glimpsing, catching, taming, riding, forgetting, forgotten, returning and entering
    Weick says, with wicked provocation, “stamp out nouns”. Now, looking in the box of the picture, we see three famous nouns “data, information and knowledge”: could it be that we’re failing to see the larger picture that those words are trying to point at, or seeing the first tracks of an ox that went down another path? Could it be that the simple diagram is trying to integrate two similar but different schools of thought, two ways of approaching the same thing…
    – could DIK be a contextual legacy from cybernetics (first order), the bits of Shannon’s Information Theory and the technological bytes flowing through the tiny pipes of a computer
    – and sensemaking be an approach from a cognitive school, a more organic model, with more evidence behind it
    Data and information flow down increasingly fatter pipes, coming at us so fast we drown in a sea of information (or spam :). But Maturana offers glimpses that the pipe/transmission metaphor for human communication is, like the old idea of a little man operating our brain, just flat wrong; and Feldman finds that comparing the brain to a CPU is deeply flawed; and Hawkins describes the neural circuitry folding back so that the brain is not only seeking out patterns but actively predicting what it expects to sense (see/hear/feel) next, recalling sequences triggered by cues in activated frames, so the hand knows how to point the finger without our conscious self having to tell it, and we pay attention to unexpected surprises.
    Maybe instead of nouns (data, information, knowledge) we could think of more active words, so that knowledge does not become an end (to be tested in an exam, or managed with expensive software), but a means, a way to make sense of our world (tested every living second), to not only find and tame the ox for ourself but to act wisely for others in the market. Instead of a matrix diagram or the linear chain classically rational progression, perhaps the model is more of a network, a pattern language, built around concepts like collecting and connecting, pattern seeking, predicting, recognising, matching and mismatching, or variations on the acting,sensing,probing loops. One which uses not just a single loop but a double loop to accomodate the desire for adaptive and constructive learning (better models, the investment in the loop appreciaties) but also allows for irrational beliefs (cognitive distortions). We may choose listening to stories, exploring a complex space and reading anecdote(s).au, leaving the management of data, information and knowledge to those who’ve not moved to Mr. Pink’s conceptual age.
    So much for trying to write a short comment, perhaps that why’s the koans avoid simple appeals to logic, sorry for rambling, and probably making no sense at all :^)

  6. Ken, your comment is inspiring and with each line I was nodding in agreement. It’s seems you are so close to another conception of these relationships and I encourage you to get it down and share it with us. Yes, let’s move away from nouns and show the loops, but let’s be careful not to fool ourselves into thinking we know how this works? I would bemoan a systems-like diagram which gives people the impression that we know all the cause and effect relationships. I’d be happier if we had a way to show more uncertainty. I wonder what that would look like?

  7. ken says:

    Amen to the tempting lure of diagrams. If you like quotes, there’s a recent one which may capture the unpredictable nature of systems “One complex system that most people have dealt with is a child — Michael Crichton” 🙂

  8. Brendan says:

    I came here from the creating passionate users page. And I agree more with your diagram. There is no hierarchy onlu constant flow in my opinion of data back to or onwards to wisdom. I myself have tried to create a more 3D diagram where data > information > knowledge > wisdom grow out along three axis. Maybe I will publish it on my blog someday.

  9. I also remember a quote from Dave Snowden saying that defining knowledge management is rather useless at best and academic at worst — it was more important to realise knowledge management is about helping people share information.

  10. Agreed, as I said many times
    Knowledge = People + Information
    Information alone is not knowledge, aka you cannot take people (reasoning and context) out of the equation.

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