By Dawn

It may seem curious to start a blog on cultural policy by considering wisdom but it is for me a concept that is often neglected in current discussions about organisational change, sustainability, agility, resilience, call it what you will. So much of the focus has now shifted to knowledge that you could be forgiven for thinking that wisdom had gone out of favour, confined perhaps to religion and folklore, something a little ‘cranky’ even. As has been so eloquently said elsewhere, ‘wisdom has lost credibility and prestige relative to science, rationalism and method in modern times.’ (Wisdom in Organisations: Whence and Wither?)

Where wisdom is raised, it is often in the knowledge management sector in relation to theDIKW (data, information, knowledge, wisdom) hierarchy.

There has, however, been increasing criticism of this model based on the view that it is an oversimplification ( Knowledge Jolt) but it is useful reminder of the possibility of there being a spotlight on something other than knowledge. Accepting that all models are in some ways wanting, for me DIKW has been useful because it has encouraged me to consider anew the concept of wisdom and what it might mean in relation to organisations in the arts and culture sector.

The concept of wisdom has a long history in philosophy, psychology, religion and literature and more recently it has been considered in terms of organisations and knowledge management. Definitions of wisdom vary but tend to focus on core characteristics related to exceptional understanding (based on common sense; learning from experience; awareness of context) and/or judgement (able to consider all points of view and offer sound advice).

Drawing on the Aristotelian philosophical tradition and empirical psychological research it has been proposed that wisdom comprises a number of elements (McKenna, 2008):

  • It is a spiritual and metaphysical quality that takes it beyond pure reason
  • Wisdom includes the non-rational and subjective elements of human experience in relation to decision making
  • Its purpose is virtuous action
  • It is prudent and practical and provides the capacity to see the world as others see it
  • Wisdom understands the circumstance and constructedness of phenomena in and is therefore not reducible to method
  • It is articulate, aesthetic and intrinsically rewarding
  • It is tolerant, born of natural affection for humanity

Wisdom is therefore a combination of both knowledge and judgement but is also firmly rooted in the pragmatics of life it does not exist in rarefied isolation but is contextually based. To my mind these elements point to wisdom being particularly important in contexts of uncertainty. Wise people are aware that there may be multiple aspects to a given problem and accept that while they make reasonable judgements based on available information at the time this view might change as events unfold.

In considering issues of organisational survival, something that is occupying many of us at the moment, the ability to act wisely becomes paramount. However, in the arts and the wider nonprofit sector the capacity of organisations to have the freedom to act on such wisdom is generally governed by the power structures in which they operate. In order to achieve wise outcomes wisdom is therefore required by both the organisation concerned and the other actors in their system. We now have policies that encourage entrepreneurialism but inhibit risk taking based on accountability, promote quality (high cost) and access (low price), encourage innovation but are still intolerant of failure, it is a context rife with paradox.

The experience of many of the arts organisations I have worked with shows that the extent to which they can access the wisdom of their members and act upon it is linked closely to their embedded nature as they are heavily resource dependent on external bodies and any action has to be negotiated both internally and externally. The double bind of accountability and freedom to act needs a wise leadership and management to be able to respond.

This is what takes wisdom beyond being a purely cognitive attribute and why I think it is important to consider; it requires social, ethical and discursive abilities. Managing multiple stakeholders and keeping abreast of current policies takes nimbleness, flexibility, and political awareness, what I would now describe as wisdom. Capabilities that can ebb and flow throughout an arts organisation’s lifecycle and are increasingly difficult to maintain when an organisation is on the edge of non-routine change or financial crisis.

No amount of data, information, knowledge, good judgement, intuition, planning, or decision making is sufficient if it is done without acknowledgment of context and the value of wisdom. This is particularly pertinent in relation to many of the discussions that are being had around change and learning much of which does not seem to take account of such wisdom and is based in a technocratic rationality which privileges cognitive knowledge.

I will close with two lines that are frequently quoted in the knowledge management sector for they provide food for thought…

“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

T.S.Eliot, The Rock, 1934