Knowledge, data, meaning and stuff.

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I’m currently working on a web strategy project for an organization that is looking to up it’s game in data, meaning and services within an important industry: neonatal intensive care units. Some of our conversation is relevant to any company or industry where “knowledge” is an important factor of success. This is especially true for organizations going through continuous improvement processes or OODA loops.

In the course of a recent meeting I pulled out this little gem of epistemology, a list of types of knowledge.

  1. Data
  2. Information
  3. Insight
  4. Meaning

We were discussing ways in which their organization adds values to their customers. The way this list works is like so:

Data is just a collection of numbers

If you’re going to work with knowledge, data is where it starts. You observe something and what you observe is that data. It’s sort of the smallest unit of knowledge.

Examples of data:

  • The temperature is 60 degrees.
  • The bounce rate is 20%.
  • Our sales are $400 per customer check-out.
  • 200 people saw our home page.

Notice how all of these things had some sort of number and some sort of concept related to that number: temperature, bounce rate, sales per customer check-out, people that saw a home page.

For OODA loop junkies, gathering data is an important part of the “observation” cycle.

On their own, bits of data might not be especially useful. So you start comparing pieces of data.

Information puts data in context

Data starts to be more useful when you put it in context with other bits of data. Or when you put it in context over time. When you do that, you end up with information. Information is something that is a little easier to react to. With a good pile of information you can be good at reacting to your environment.

Some examples of information:

  • The temperature has been getting colder.
  • The bounce rate on the neighborhood landing page is 4% while the bounce rate on the home page is 50%.
  • Customer checkouts that include a blue ray DVD player typically include 4 more items than other checkouts.
  • Of the 200 people that saw our home page, 120 came to our site by typing in the web address directly.

Notice how it’s easier to think of potential things to do based on information than on the list of data above. Buy a winter coat. Investigate how to model the home page on the neighborhood landing page. Promote the sales of blue ray DVD players. Investigate home page visit behavior based on channel (direct visits vs referred or paid visits).

You also notice that some of this information opens up further cans of worms. Some information isn’t very useful without getting even more information.

Does your organization business model work better with visits to the neighborhood landing page or the home page? Does your organization business model work better with customers who know to type your web address into their browser or not? Usually, if you think there’s an obvious answer to these things is when you need to do the investigation the most.

For OODA loop junkies, generating information is part of the “orientation” cycle.

Sometimes, getting from data to information is enough (buy a winter coat). Sometimes it isn’t. Learning when you need more information is something you get through experience.

Insight allows you to identify which information is useful

By putting information in context with your organization, the audience your organization serves, the specific challenges you face and so on, you generate insights. In many ways insight is like creativity: who knows where it comes from and some people seem to be better at being insightful than others.

I would argue that, like creativity, insight is something which can be developed and encouraged. A lot of it is being in the right place at the right time. The best way to be in the right place at the right time is to be some place as much as possible; try new things and learn through experience.

By generating information as often as possible ideas will occur to you naturally. By testing those ideas and observing the results your ideas will become insightful.

I suppose that all sounds a little hocus pocus or flighty. Another way to put it is to say that hard experience will increase your ability to be insightful. Your character (and that of your team and organization) will determine if you are resilient enough to withstand the challenges of becoming insightful. Oh yeah, and a little luck is nice too.

Some examples of insights might be:

  • It always gets cold this time of year.
  • If we sent every visitor to the neighborhood page instead of the home page, the bounce rate of the neighborhood page would rise much higher than 50%.
  • Customer checkouts that include a media playing device tend to include several pieces of media, it isn’t just blue ray players.
  • Direct visits to our website are always highest after a traditional media campaign, but die down shortly after the campaign concludes.

Insights allow you to shift from a reactive posture to a neutral and in-the-moment posture. With insight you move from reacting effectively to your environment/situation to dealing with your environment/situation in the moment.

For OODA loop junkies, generating insights is dependent on having a useful decision cycle and a productive action cycle. The whole system needs to be operating effectively through several loops to enable you to start generating insights.

For most situations, insight is going to be plenty to have a great business.


But why stop there, right? Sooner or later we start to ask why. Usually when we’re two or three. Some people are trained to stop asking why, others aren’t. Some are trained to stop asking why and then pick it up again later.

At first, it might seem that generating meaning is a little bit of overkill for a business. And really, everyone has to find their own meaning in things. But let’s complete this anyway.

Some examples of meaning might include:

  • There are unique and invigorating challenges available only in cold weather.
  • People have different interests on different parts of our website, they do different things depending on those interests.
  • People purchasing media players are eager to consume content in the format of those players.
  • Memory and attention are limited.

Being in possession of meaning allows you to shift from dealing-with-the-moment to creating the future. Once you have meaning, you’re able to work in a forward-thinking capacity with confidence.

While I suppose this could seem a little bit mystical or something, it’s what we all do every day whether conscious of it or not. Approaching this process from a conscious perspective might increase the chance of developing meaning.

One way to increase your skill in generating or identifying meaning is to hang out with or read the ideas of people who are inspiring or otherwise good at generating meaning.

For OODA loop junkies, this is about getting inside the loop of your opposition or challenging factor.

Knowledge and context

Moving through each of these phases of generating knowledge is a matter of applying context.

  • Data in context with other data yields information.
  • Information in context with your organization, your challenges, your experience and other information yields insight.
  • Insight in context with your own curiosity and drive yields meaning.

It’s also important to note that not all of these types of knowledge are necessary all of the time, and none are necessarily better than others. There’s just bits of knowledge for you to act on or not act on.


  1. Posted November 12, 2010 at 11:06 pm | Permalink

    I like where you’re taking this conversation about types of knowledge. However, I’d argue that some types of knowledge are better than others – given context of course. Especially in regards to an organization, wouldn’t it be better to deliver Insight and Meaning than just Data and Information?

    Isn’t it more likely that engagement and enjoyment come from the deeper levels of knowledge. I mean anyone can tell me the temperature and I can figure out it’s been getting colder by myself. But Insight and Meaning around the weather could certainly persuade me to think you are a trusted source much faster than just the data and info.

    I’m just thinking out loud here. Thanks for making me think.

  2. Posted November 13, 2010 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    Brad: Thanks for your thoughts on this. Always helpful.

    As far as relative value of insight and meaning vs data and information it really does depend, in my opinion. There are a couple of reasons for this.

    The natural tendency, when first starting to deal with knowledge work, is to skip from data and information directly to insight. This can lead to many mistakes.

    I’d much rather have data and information that I know is solid, than insights and meaning that is based on who-knows-what.

    A classic example of this is a search marketing agency (SEO and paid advertising consultant) that doesn’t share the raw data with their client. The agency can present information or insights, but the client organization never gains the opportunity to learn for themselves.

    That’s from the perspective of the organization. There are definitely times when just data and information are all that’s needed from an audience perspective as well. A real estate example might include a savvy real estate investor who will make decisions primarily via how a spreadsheet of financials on the property work out. This sort of customer may not find much value in exploring the meaning of a particular property. The real estate agent who provides insight and meaning contexts on the property may be wasting their effort.

    Someone who is good at generating meaning will find data and information very valuable. Someone who is good at generating data may have no use for meaning.

    Ultimately, I think it’s very important to consider each of the types of knowledge (data, information, insight and meaning) valuable in their own right. Even though learning to generate each type of knowledge is perhaps linear (first mastering an understanding of data, then of information, then of insight, then of meaning).

    In regards to your example, my strategic intent in sharing weather-related knowledge with you will determine what level is appropriate. If I’m trying to get you to wear a coat, then information should be enough. If I’m trying to get you to change your lifestyle to reduce heat-trapping gases and so on, it will likely require meaning.

    Thanks for thinking out loud. Takes courage.

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