The Origin of the

Data Information Knowledge Wisdom Hierarchy


Nikhil Sharma

[Updated: 11/01/2004]


Source: "Information as a Resource", Harlan Cleveland

The Hierarchy

The Data Information Knowledge and Wisdom Hierarchy (DIKW) is commonly referred to by many names. In most of the "Knowledge Management" literature the hierarchy is referred to as the "Knowledge Hierarchy", while the information science domain refers to the same hierarchy as "Information Hierarchy" for obvious reasons. Sometimes it is also referred to as the "Knowledge Pyramid".

There is a lot of literature on the hierarchy, but this page is devoted to the origin of that hierarchy. To read more about the hierarchy please refer to some of the References.

The Domains

While the domains of Information Science and Knowledge Management (KM) both refer to DIKW, they usually do not cross-reference. Thus there are two separate threads that lead to the origin of the hierarchy.

In the domain of KM, Prof. Russell Ackoff is often cited as the initiator of the DIKW hierarchy. His 1988 Presidential Address to ISGSR is widely considered to be the earliest to mention the hierarchy in the KM literature. This address was printed in a 1989 article "From Data to Wisdom" [2]. It does not cite any earlier sources of the hierarchy.

However in response to this webpage I was made aware of an article by Milan Zeleny [7] which details out the DIKW hierarchy in 1987. Zeleny builds the DIKW hierarchy by equating Data, Information, Knowledge and Wisdom to “know-nothing”, “know-what”, “know-how” and “know-why” respectively. Zeleny’s 1987 mention of the hierarchy is earlier than Ackoff’s 1989 address, and he does not cite any earlier sources of the hierarchy. It can thus be argued that Zeleny was the first to mention the hierarchy in the field of KM.

But the “Information Science” domain mentions the hierarchy as early as 1982, when Harlan Cleveland [2] wrote about it in a Futurist article. The article mentions the Information-Knowledge-Wisdom hierarchy in detail giving an example (see figure above). This article itself is not the origin of the hierarchy, but points to the origin.

The Origin

Interestingly the first ever mention of the hierarchy came from neither the KM field, nor the Information Science domain, but in poetry. In his Futurist article, Cleveland cites T.S. Eliot as the person who suggested the hierarchy in the first place- calling it "the T.S. Eliot hierarchy". The poet T.S. Eliot was the first to mention the "information hierarchy" without even calling it by that name. In 1934 Eliot wrote in "The Rock"[3]:

Where is the Life we have lost in living?

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

This is the first vague mention of the hierarchy that was expanded by Cleveland, and later by others to add a layer of "Data".

Beyond DIKW- Building on the Hierarchy

In his futurist article [2], Harlan Cleveland concedes that information scientists are “still struggling with the definitions of basic terms”. He uses Elliot’s hierarchy as a starting point to explain the basic terms. He also agrees that there are many ways in which the elements of the hierarchy may be defined, but there is no need for universal agreement on them.

While Cleveland himself doesn’t add ‘Data’ to Eliot’s hierarchy he mentions Yi-Fu Tuan’s and Daniel Bell’s version of the hierarchy in the article which includes data. Regarding ‘data’, Tuan says that data to become useful “they have to be linked to another rung or category of data” [2].

In the information field others like Lucky [5] have detailed out their own versions of the hierarchy.

Russell Ackoff’s version of the hierarchy has another category of “Understanding” built in. Thus Ackoff’s hierarchy is Data-Information-Knowledge-Understanding & Wisdom. According to him, understanding “requires diagnosis and prescription”. The DIKW hierarchy can also have many dimensions. One dimension of Ackoff’s hierarchy is temporal. He says that while information “ages rapidly”, knowledge “has a longer life-span” and only understanding “has an aura of permanence”. It is wisdom that he considers to be “permanent”.

Zeleny himself proposes to add “enlightenment” on top of the familiar DIKW framework [7]. Enlightenment, according to Zeleny (personal communication, October 29, 2004) “is not only answering or understanding why (wisdom), but attaining the sense of truth, the sense of right and wrong, and having it socially accepted, respected and sanctioned.”


1. Ackoff, R.L. "From Data to Wisdom", Journal of Applied Systems Analysis, Volume 16, 1989 p 3-9.

2. Cleveland H. "Information as Resource", The Futurist, December 1982 p 34-39.

3. Eliot, T.S. "The Rock", Faber & Faber 1934.

4. Cleveland Harland, “The Knowledge Executive: Leadership in an Information Society” (New York: Truman Talley Books, 1985) 21-23;

5. Robert W. Lucky, Silicon Dreams: Information, Man and Machine (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989) 19-20.

6. Gene Bellinger, Durval Castro, Anthony Mills: Data, Information, Knowledge, & Wisdom,

7. Zeleny, M. "Management Support Systems: Towards Integrated Knowledge Management," Human Systems Management, 7(1987)1, pp. 59-70.


Contact me for comments & suggestions, Nikhil Sharma, Doctoral Student, School Of Information, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.