Knowledge is Power. Data isn’t.

culture decision

Whenever we hear “knowledge is power,” we readily nod our heads. In organizations that thrive on a culture of learning, the theorem and its corollary are seemingly undeniable.

Knowledge Theorem:  Information + Knowledge = Better Decision-Making

Power Corollary:  Better Decision-making = Power

The Allure of Information
The “knowledge is power” idiom was originally attributed to Francis Bacon in the late 16th century. But like many time-honored theories and beliefs, the premise isn’t as simple as it appears; too much of something that is deemed “good” often ends up turning “bad.” We see this too often with excessive wealth and stardom. The concept also applies to limitless appetites for information. Take note: information is the first rung on the ladder to power.

Thanks to technology, we have access to an endless source of data at our fingertips, at any place and at any time we choose.

Be Careful What You Wish For
There comes a point where the insatiable thirst for information does not bring power. Pass this point and data overload starts to work against you, reducing the power that you were working so hard to achieve in the first place.

Four reasons why an ascending power curve flattens, and then turns downward:

  1. Overwhelming amounts of information breed complexity. Technology gives us more and more data, but analyzing and understanding ‘more and more’ is arduous and time consuming. In today’s busy world of biz, time is also power. Entrepreneurially-minded leaders who move quickly and decisively enjoy an edge. Then, they build on that advantage by keeping things simple to maintain clarity. These are the trailblazers that drive their entrepreneurial spirit to every nook and cranny of the organization.
  1. Information overload obstructs prudent decision-making. When leaders rely on excessive research data to reduce the risk of critical decisions, vibrant environments concede to morose cultures of risk-aversion. Sadly, in their race to learn more before taking that difficult choice, that other race, (the strategic race to the future), slows because stagnation sets in.
  1. Information doesn’t necessarily mean understanding. Understanding comes in many shapes and forms. One of the best sources of understanding is experience. This includes marketplace know-how, familiarity with competitors and customers, and expertise in leading during turbulent times. Excessive information gets in the way of understanding. Less is better, strategically, managerially, and culturally.
  1. Too much information ruins instincts. It is experience that improves a person’s ability to take action. Moving on your instincts is not seat-of-the-pants leadership. Rather, it is using judgment at the right time and in the right place to seize the competitive edge. Competitive advantage, and not information is power.

Tough & Timely Decision-Making
Now, I don’t want anyone to think that I don’t value information technology of big data. I do. But, I’m a disciple of point #4. When I was a CMO and CEO, I operated with an entrepreneurial mindset that required taking decisions as early as possible. That meant making the call without all of the information, and not fretting about it, but being glad of it. To be fair, the ‘act early’ ethic prevails in corporate cultures that worship entrepreneurial thinking.

Not everyone or every organization can, or should work this way. The crossing of every “t” and the dotting of every “i” is critically important to thousands of companies. None of us want to see pipelines, oil rigs, or airlines compromising safety for speed. These industries need all of the information. But, there is nothing stopping decision-makers from making early calls to improve ways to efficiently source information and enhance analytical acumen.

At Apple, Steve Jobs never wanted research from focus groups or quantitative usage and attitude studies. He knew what to do, and he did it with conviction. Can you point to a better example in which experience, intuition, and instinct created power?

Have you experienced an unusual level of information burden? If so, what coping strategy have you adopted? Share your comments below. 

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John Bell is the author of Do Less Better: The Power of Strategic Sacrifice in a Complex World. He is the retired CEO of coffee & chocolate maker Jacobs Suchard North America, best known for Toblerone, the triangular Swiss Chocolate bar. A prolific blogger, his musings on strategy, leadership, and branding appear in several online journals including Fortune and Forbes.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Mike Freedman

    We see this often John,

    You get to the 67th slide in a brand health presentation where you score 7,2 on yet one more essential aspect versus 7,3 a year ago & the tenacious presenter tells you why this matters & an assistant brand manager makes copious notes as you slide into oblivion.

    In a world where everything can be measured, everything is. We know too much, take note of too little. Numbers, however rigorously achieved, are only an indication of perceptions & beliefs. & too many numbers, like cooks, blur into hell’s kitchen on a bad day.

    We asked partners of a leading law firm, ‘What makes a good lawyer?’ A blend of curiosity & logic, they replied, ‘Knowing the “What if…” questions to ask’.

    ‘And what makes a great lawyer?’ Their conclusion was:
    ‘Inspired intuition. Knowing when to stop asking “What if”.

    Thanks for the post.

  • JohnRichardBell

    Thanks for weighing in, Mike Freedman. Your examples certainly strengthened the premise of the post.