Curiosity – do you use data; or does data use you?

Perhaps Rudyard Kipling summed up the notion of curiosity most succinctly when he wrote:

“I had six honest serving men. They taught me all I knew. Their names were: Where, What, When, Why, How and Who.”

Human beings have a drive – there’s some debate as to whether it’s an emotion or an  instinct, so I’ll stick with drive – to be ‘curious’ about our world; to wonder what it’s all about; to have a thirst for knowledge and understanding which goes beyond what we need to survive today, but is undoubtedly required to enable us to survive tomorrow.

In this article I want to try to understand what we mean by curiosity; explore the elements of curiosity; and finally attempt to understand the role of ‘intelligent leadership’ in supporting and enabling a ‘data-curious’ organisation.

Going back to medieval times curious people were regarded with great suspicion. Augustine, the early medieval theologian and philosopher, viewed curiosity as “vain inquisitiveness, dignified by the title that knowledge is science” and suggested that curious people “crave spectacle and a desire to be seen”.  People were supposed to know their place before god, and show humility rather than commit “the sin of pride that seeks to know things that are best left unknown”.

It’s a sad indictment on some schools that there seems exists a similar suspicion about those who show any curiosity or desire to better understand their world. Not as a consequence of any religious conviction but a suspicion that there must be some ulterior motive at work for anyone to seek to do anymore than is required to get the job done.

Yet curiosity has been the main impetus behind scientific discovery for centuries and millennia. A fact recognised by no less a person than Albert Einstein, who avowed, “Curiosity is more important than knowledge”.  Certainly the academic literature in this area would appear to confirm that there is a fundamental connection between curiosity, knowledge and discovery. With Lowenstein suggesting that, “Knowledge appears to prime the pump of curiosity”.

It is this fascinating connection between knowledge and curiosity that is at the heart of human development where – the more we know, the more we realise what we don’t know.

So how does curiosity manifest itself in modern organisations?

Does the phrase “data driven” mean anything to you? It’s this notion that an organisation must take account of the data when making decisions – particularly about the performance of the organisation or individuals.  However, the very phrase ‘data-driven’ gives the allusion of data being in the ‘driving seat’, where there exists a metrics powered approach to decision making, with the human element removed.

There is a real danger that a blind commitment to becoming  ‘data-led’ organisations leads us to make decisions that lack any reference to values, ethics, or reference to our acquired experience – or what we might better call human wisdom.

In this regard, there are two striking questions posed by T.S.Elliot, in his play The Rock, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? Unknown to Elliot he presaged the identification of what is alternatively known as the ‘wisdom hierarchy’ or ‘knowledge pyramid’. This purports to represent the relationship between Data (raw facts) at the bottom of the pyramid; to Information (meaningful data); to Knowledge (understanding of information); to Wisdom (judgement using reference to values and experience) at the top of the pyramid.

Rather than seeing organisations as being ‘data-driven’ we should, then, instead, see them as being “values driven’ where we ‘use data’, as opposed to ‘data using us’.

Yet at the other end of the spectrum there are those who have neither the inclination to look at data – nor the curiosity to better understand their practice or the world around them.

As ever, there is a balance to be struck, but the key ingredient in making an organisation effective lies with the behaviour of the leaders.

For it is the role of leaders to model ‘curiosity’ and to ‘carry’ the value system against which data is generated, interpreted and understood.

Perhaps Charles Handy captured this most eloquently when he identified curiosity as being one of the key ingredients of ‘intelligent leadership’.

For ‘intelligent leadership’ appears to be a key element in successful organisations, where the leader promotes and exemplifies a ‘curiosity-driven’ culture, whereby the seeking of answers is part of a longer term process of generating knowledge to become a school  that is continually learning, adapting and improving.

Accordingly, regardless of the amount of ‘data’ generated, the masses of ‘information’ accumulated, and the associated ‘knowledge’ that is gained – it is the application of wisdom that will differentiate between the long-term success and failure of ‘curiosity-driven’ schools.