where every sprinter drops baton

Taken from the pages of “The Death of Wisdom”, this is an extract ….



“Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness.

When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no

direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not

retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual.”

— George Santayana, US philosopher and poet


When the London Olympics was staged in July/August, 2012, bosses all over the world will have had the opportunity to see an aspect of management they themselves neglect in the way they make, and are taught to make, their decisions. Over much of the 64-year period since the event was first staged in Great Britain’s capital, athletes were using a technique that enabled them to achieve performances way beyond administrators in industry and commerce. While athletes’ attainments have consistently improved since the late 1940s – in fact the progression in their scores has never been faster in all history – managers in OECD countries have presided over declining rates of both productivity and productivity growth over most of the same period.


The discomforting paradox of the timeframe is that the athletes’ measure is only slightly longer than the availability of widespread business education.


Alongside superior diets and full-time training schedules, the athletes were using a technique called Experiential Learning, self evidently learning from experience, in their case via the medium of movie film and video of their own and others’ performances. Through the recorded evidence of prior practice, they had been applying their own and others’ knowledge and experience, out of which has been extracted the so-called ’wisdom’ needed to create new knowledge that addresses new circumstances. In contrast, managers in industry and commerce have been largely short changing the wider concept when it comes to how they make their employer’s determinations; in fact, organizations have been consciously and energetically pursuing a workplace practice that is actually discarding their own acquired wisdom. The institutions aside, the culpable party is the much-vaunted flexible labor market, otherwise known by its outcome – short jobs tenure.


It is around this phenomenon, its consequential effect of imposing widespread workplace discontinuity, corporate amnesia and the process by which wisdom is classically acquired that there is much misunderstanding, even of the difference between knowledge and wisdom.


Wisdom is an obscure quality, often equated with intelligence, being smart, gifted, being intellectual and/or scholarly. Yet its manifestation is not necessarily dependent on any of these attributes. It has a special property – good judgment, a feature that probably explains the business success of so many of the unschooled. And because judgement of any sort cannot be arrived at in isolation, a necessary component of the journey is knowledge and actual experience, both one’s own and others’. In the world of business, and because it is the most relevant, this includes – crucially – the employer’s knowledge and experience. It is the soundness of an action or decision that defines this rare quality and on which depends most progress.


To fully understand wisdom’s nature, it is necessary to comprehend the precise character of all the components of this terminological marathon. By way of illustration, the announcement of a company’s annual results, on its own, is data while a comparative relationship with, say, a previous performance figure becomes information.


In contrast knowledge is interpretative and predictive, its deductive character allowing its owner to understand the implications of data and information and act accordingly, the action becoming experience. Knowledge is variously described by Alvin Goldman as justified true belief, by Bruce Aune as information in context, by Verna Alee as experience or information that can be communicated or shared and by Karl Wiig as a body of understanding and insights for interpreting and managing the world around us.


A separate and transformative task, the component that adds value to knowledge and experience is wisdom. Without it, the action – i.e. the ensuing decision – becomes no more than repetition in a new time frame. In fresh contexts, where circumstances are always different, triumphs can easily be forfeit. What is evident, then, is that the continuing ability to acquire wisdom is a required element for survival in a competitive world and an equally obvious component in the way managers are taught how to learn to make good and better decisions.


The confusions that often arise around these clarifications are various, one of the biggest being the muddle between the nature of the acquired wisdom of individual employees and the organizations for which they work. In truth, the wisdoms are separate, interconnected and reliant on each other’s unique physiognomies. Without each other – for example when the employee moves on – both become disassociated. And while employees can theoretically passage their ‘memory’, however remembered, to a new employer, the source organisation is typically left in oblivion. Where understandings fall down is when employers mistakenly believe that the imported experiences of replaced individuals – even high achievers – substitute for an organisation’s already tried-and-tested experience. To be effective, imported experiences still have to be adapted to …….


For employers with high staff turnover and low productivity