December 25, 2006
The Intelligence Pyramid
I think of knowledge as a pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid is data; the next layer of the pyramid is information; the next layer of the pyramid is intelligence; and the top of the pyramid is wisdom. I like to tell my clients that we’re in the business of giving them intelligence and wisdom, and if they want to collect data, or if they want to collect information and process it themselves, that’s their business.Of course, this pyramid is hardly Underhill’s invention, but I like that he specializes. I’d swap “knowledge” with “intelligence,” as I have. Totally an aesthetic thing, I just think “intelligence” is a word more suited to apply to the whole structure. Pure data can be characterized, in the CIA sense, as “intelligence,” while “knowledge” is a trickier fit. I like this explanation of the four concepts.
I’d say journalism suffers from not articulating these concepts as decisively as Underhill does. When asked what we’re “in the business of” giving to folks, most journalists would probably shrug and say, “Journalism.” Which is absolutely not a separate plank on the intelligence pyramid, our overinflated egos notwithstanding. (Some would answer “stories,” which I think is a less-than-artful way of dodging the question.) If you squint your eyes a little bit, you could might imagine journalism’s version of this pyramid as Underhill’s version, split into two halves — the “objective” half (data and information), and the “subjective” half (knowledge and wisdom). Squint a little bit more, and you might even see how these concepts form your average newspaper — data and information being the substance of the reporting and presenting process, and knowledge and wisdom being fodder for news analyses, commentaries and editorials.
But I’ve seen reporters recoil at the notion that the foundation for all their work is gathering data. And while most journalists seem to be content with providing mere “information” for a time, 90% of them seem to harbor secret ambitions to impart “wisdom.” It would be worth saying, I think, that actually gathering data is a noble end in itself, as is providing information. It would also be worth giving more journalists access throughout their careers to the fields of knowledge- and wisdom-dispensing. (I.e. Rather more clear subjectivity added to the “objectivity” soup.)