On Friday June 10, 1994 I woke up around 3am with a sudden thought, “We should be teaching students about wisdom, not just about computers.” This point in my life would be the start of a long journey to explore the concept of wisdom.
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?
–T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Rock” (1934) 
Disclaimer: I don’t profess to have a claim on wisdom. Like most people I’ve made some wise choices and many unwise choices. What I do have, though, is an interest in the subject of wisdom. This is my story of how this interest came about.
On the previous day I had been asked by a colleague, Denis Hitchens, for ideas on developing a training course on computers. As I had been working with computers for years, I gave Denis my ideas for what to include in such a course.
During the early hours of the following morning I asked myself, “What is it we would want as an outcome from a computer course?” I began to think it had to be more on the usage of computers. I thought of a value-added sequence of data to information to knowledge to understanding to wisdom.
I’ve no idea what made me think of wisdom; wisdom was not a word you would normally hear mentioned in the business world. I may have seen reference to a presidential address given by Professor Russell Ackoff to the International Society for the Systems Sciences in 1987. His talk was published in 1989 but I haven’t been able to locate a copy.
And yet I felt wisdom was important and so I spent the rest of the day looking up all the reference books I had on hand to find out more about wisdom.
Even though I had a dial-up internet connection, on-line searching was still evolving. It would be another four years before Google arrived.
In the months and years that followed I sought out everything I could find about wisdom by visiting libraries and building up a collection of books. One gem I found was Robert Sternberg’s book, Wisdom: Its nature, origins, and development, the first book to summarise the work of modern-day wisdom researchers.
Another text was Copthorne Macdonald’s very readable book, Toward Wisdom. Macdonald was an engineer like myself and his writing about his own life journey sounded all too familiar:
I was, in those days, a corporate design engineer and engineering manager with a very narrow outlook on life. I cringe as I recall my self-assured smugness, the absolute confidence I had that technology was the center of all that mattered. I saw everything else as some kind of frill, as some variety of missing the mark. Kenneth Rexroth recognized me and my kind; he called us the “technical intelligentsia.” He also called us “Neanderthals with slide rules.”
I would write a somewhat surprising story about an incident in Macdonald’s life in a 2017 blog post.
Of the many articles I read, one that interested me was by Gene Bellinger. This included a diagram and a description of Russell Ackoff’s ‘From Data to Wisdom’ article:
According to Ackoff, a systems theorist and professor of organizational change, the content of the human mind can be classified into five categories:
- Data: symbols
- Information: data that are processed to be useful; provides answers to “who”, “what”, “where”, and “when” questions
- Knowledge: application of data and information; answers “how” questions
- Understanding: appreciation of “why”
- Wisdom: evaluated understanding.
I found it fascinating that wisdom was in the process of being rediscovered since it was set aside in starting with the Age of Reason in the 17th Century followed by the Enlightenment in the 18th Century. There is now a realisation there is a dark side of the rational, mechanistic, reductionist thinking we’ve adopted, as Garrard points out:
. . . . a potentially catastrophic degradation of the natural environment, the depletion of vital and irreplaceable natural resources, the advent of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, and the dystopic possibilities of genetic engineering. The destructive potential at the disposal of the human appetite for power, cruelty, stupidity and hatred is now enormous and growing.
I found there was a consistent message that there is a great need for wisdom today.
So what had brought me to this point when I had no interest in the topic before? To explain this, I need to go back to the start of my interest in technology.
My life-long interest in electronics
I can thank Mr Campbell for sparking my interest in electronics. Mr Campbell was our next-door neighbor when I was growing up in the Melbourne suburb of Camberwell. One day he showed me how to build a crystal set radio; I guess I was around nine years old at the time.
This simple device of just a few components was self-powered with no need for batteries. All that was needed was an aerial—a long wire stretched across my bedroom—and headphones to hear the faint radio stations. The tricky part was maneuvering the tiny wire, called a ‘cat’s whisker’, to make contact with the crystal detector. To me, hearing these distant radio stations was magic. I was hooked and I would be an enthusiast of electronic technology from that time on.
What Mr Campbell had done was to give me the information to allow me to gain the knowledge to build further radios and electronic devices, an example of information to knowledge to action.
As a teenager my interest and knowledge of radio and electronics continued to develop. At one stage I built a battery-powered single-valve radio the size of a cigarette packet. I got myself into trouble when I was found listening to it in class at school and in church. This was years before transistor radios appeared.
As soon as I was old enough, I obtained an amateur radio operator license (VK3ZON) to operate a VHF transmitter and receiver at home. Some years later I installed a mobile radio telephone in my car, again years before the mobile telephone network became available.
Each month I would be looking forward to Radio & Hobbies magazine and by the time TV broadcasts had started in Australia at the end of 1956, I was ready to tackle my most ambitious project in building a TV set. My first version was a small TV based on an ex-military radar five-inch cathode ray tube. Even though the image was tiny and had a green display, it was exciting to see moving pictures.
My next model was a 17-inch TV which I had in my bedroom. It was when I turned on this TV on the Saturday November 23, 1963, that I learned of the assassination of President John Kennedy only hours before.
Studies and work
It’s no real surprise then that after high school at De La Salle College I went on to RMIT to study Radio Engineering, commencing in 1957.
My first job after RMIT was as a cadet engineer with the Replex Division of Repco Limited, a major automotive parts and equipment manufacturer. I worked under Chief Engineer Don Sheridan in designing test equipment for the manufacturing line. He had enough confidence in appointing me as his 2IC overseeing the much more experienced staff in the team, Charlie Taylor and Henry Prinz. I wasn’t expecting this and felt somewhat uncomfortable at first.
After a year or so I was invited to move to the new Repco Research laboratory in Dandenong. The general manager and engineer Charlie Dean had been a legend in Australian motor sport circles for decades. He is probably most famous for building and racing the Maybach Special which, driven by Stan Jones, won the 1954 New Zealand Grand Prix. It was only years later that I realised that the people I had worked with at Repco Research, such as Paul England, were such talented and world-renowned automotive engineers.
In the electronics lab I worked under another brilliant engineer, Gerry Harant. He had been forced to flee from Vienna and arrived in Australia as a 16 year-old just prior to the outbreak of WWII. He would go on the make contributions in all manner of things in the years to come. He was presented with the Prince Philip Award for Australian Design in 1973, not bad for a self-taught engineer.
Out-of-balance rotating machinery can be very destructive. Wheel balancers are tools to indicate where to put lead weights to balance out the tyre deformities on cars and trucks. Wheel balancing is especially important for racing cars. Gerry Harrant had designed a new type of wheel balancer and it was my job to design and build the electronic circuit protypes for testing.
My main project was designing the electronics for the Repco 409 Electronic Wheel Balancer. These were sold around the world and are still advertised for sale on GumTree. I’m convinced George Lucas got the inspiration for his R2-D2 droid of Star Wars fame from this wheel balancer.
In 1964, after I had finished developing the wheel balancer, I saw an an employment ad in the January 25 edition of The Age newspaper:
The US-based company, Tektronix Inc. was in the process of setting up offices in Sydney and Melbourne. Tektronix was famous for making precision electronic test equipment, especially their cathode ray oscilloscopes. It was every electronic engineer’s dream to have access to a ‘Tek scope’ to be able to view on a screen electronic signals in real time as a voltage-time plot. I applied for the job and after a lengthy selection process I joined the Melbourne operation.
After spending some six months in Sydney on an in-depth training course I returned to Melbourne as one of the service engineers. Lew Kasch was the sales manager who had been sent out from the US to open the Melbourne office. An ex-marine from WWII, he would go on to become Tektronix Group Vice-President and US Marketing Manager. Other Tektronix managers and engineers I would learn a lot from, and at the same time have a lot of fun together, were Paul Williams and Bob Young.
At that time Tek only hired engineers or those with experience in electronics. Sales people had the title, Field Engineer, not Sales Engineer. I had no interest in sales as I was quite happy doing the service work. However, each time I went down to Tasmania on service calls I would come back with orders so it was suggested I should be in sales. In 1965 I was sent to Tektronix Headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon for three months of product training before continuing around the world visiting sales offices in the US and Europe on the way home. It was an unbelievable experience to be hosted in the various cities and to visit sights I had only seen photos of previously.
Back in Australia my sales territory included South Australia and Western Australia. By the middle of 1966 the business had expanded in these two states to the point where it was worthwhile opening an Adelaide office. Adelaide would be my base for the next six years.
Up to this stage my focus was on helping people with electronic measurement capability – the Data and Information levels of Ackoff’s data to wisdom model. I would leave to the individuals involved to use their accumulated Knowledge to act according to their goals.
The world of computers opens up
The first computers I became familiar with were mainframe computers. These large and expensive systems were housed in airconditioned rooms with raised floors for the interconnecting cable runs. There were usually technical staff on hand using oscilloscopes to troubleshoot circuit boards. The photo below shows two Tektronix scopes used to test an IBM 1401 computer.
Seeing these systems up close and watching the support engineers troubleshooting these incredibly complex systems left me in awe.
The systems were very expensive and only very large organisations could afford to rent or buy them. By 1970 there were only 117 installations of large mainframe systems in Australia and the demand for computer skills was limited.
This situation changed dramatically with the development of mini-computers in the mid-1960s. The founder of Digital Equipment in the USA, Ken Olsen, had noticed that MIT students preferred to access an experimental computer with limited performance and shunned a high-performance IBM machine. The reason, he discovered, was that the former was an interactive system allowing inputs while their program ran. The IBM system was a batch system where there was no interaction after the program started. Olsen and his computer designers decided to take advantage of this and develop interactive computer systems.
The idea was revolutionary. Holcombe claims that entrepreneurs such as Ken Olsen, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates happen to notice what nobody has noticed before:
Many individuals might observe the same information revealing an entrepreneurial opportunity, yet only a few may have the wisdom to actually act on it.
The Digital Equipment PDP-8 mini-computer was released in 1965 and the first one to come to Australia was installed at the University of Melbourne Physiology Department in May 1966. The numbers grew rapidly with 29 machines installed in Australia by the end of 1967. Some 50,000 of them would be sold world-wide over the next few years.
Other competitors soon followed with even more advanced technology. One of these companies was Hewlett-Packard with the announcement in November 1966 of the HP-2116 computer as an instrument controller. The 2116 was unlike any other computer at the time. It was designed to withstand temperatures from 0 to 55 degrees Centigrade and 95% relative humidity. They would find use in the harshest environments, such as operating on research ships.
The time was now ripe for many medium-sized companies to buy computers, still mostly for engineering usage as there was little software available for commercial applications.
Working with computers
Being an engineer, my main interest was in the scientific applications of computers. By the early 1970’s I was fortunate in being able to borrow desktop computers from my workplace to develop my programming skills. These programmable scientific calculators were the forerunners of the incredibly powerful workstations that would find use in a wide variety of engineering and scientific applications as well as in the 3D graphics animation developments in the late 1990s.
By this stage I saw that computers were the future and Tektronix had no plans to take a major role in the industry. When Hewlett-Packard offered me a job combining instruments and computers, I jumped at the chance. Starting in September 1972, I was one of only two computer sales representatives at HP’s Melbourne office with my role as a specialist in computer-based measurement systems.
John Warmington, HP Australia’s first managing director, had interviewed me in Adelaide and after my wife and three children moved to Melbourne it was customary for a new staff member and family to come to John’s house for a Sunday afternoon tea.
John was an interesting character. He had served in the Australian Army as an intelligence officer in WWII and after the war joined Sample Electronics which would later become as agent for Hewlett-Packard. John had grown up in the conservative British tradition whereby a manager was always addressed as Mr. ‘so and so’, never by their first name. He had to adapt to a completely different culture when HP bought the Sample business. John nevertheless adhered resolutely to the HP Way of valuing employees’ contributions.
A few months before I joined HP the HP-35 scientific calculator had been introduced and my slide rule would soon end up in a drawer, never to be used again. I was lucky enough to have a one-on-one meeting with Bill Hewlett in HP’s headquarters in February 1973.
Bill talked about his ‘hobby’ farms—the ranches he owned with David Packard. The first one they bought together was the San Felipe ranch in Santa Clara, California back in 1954. This was 44-square-miles of undulating hills and woodlands was about the size of the city of San Francisco. They had just bought another ranch in Idaho to raise cattle and he wanted to hear about ranching in Australia, but I wasn’t much help. Finally, back in work mode again, he said, “Come with me to the TV studio while I introduce our next calculator—the HP-80 financial calculator.” Here he was, the busy billionaire boss of the company taking time out to chat with a ‘blow-in’ from Australia.
Although HP designed the computers with engineering and scientific applications in mind, the demand was moving toward business applications. Software developers were key to this move and there were many small organisations in Australia who could provide this service.
I soon found myself involved in sales of business systems, first as a sales representative, and then as a district sales manager, as the number of sales staff grew rapidly.
Meanwhile a new development in computing was taking place–the introduction of the personal computer. I had to have one and the first one I purchased was a Tandy TRS-80 as soon as they became available in Australia in 1979. I’ve now lost count of the number of PCs, tablets and microcontrollers I’ve bought since.
As the HP computer business grew so did the opportunities. In the 18 years period from 1972 to 1990, I held positions of sales representative, district sales manager, national major accounts manager, and market development manager for new business.
For a period of seven years I was National Major Accounts Manager responsible for leading a sales team in the development of sales to large organisations, such as Telecom Australia (now Telstra) and Shell Australia. Other assignments included the training of sales teams and induction of new hires into the computer sales organisation, planning and staging of new product launches and establishing direct marketing customer databases. I held the position of Market Development Manager, New Business immediately prior to leaving HP at the end of 1990. This position involved strategic business and marketing planning, organisation of conferences, industry briefings, software catalogue production, and included building relationships with leading systems integrators and consulting organisations.
Out on my own
The experience of working at HP with a great team of people equipped me to start a consulting business, Woodlawn Marketing Services—named after the estate in Ireland where my great-grandmother came from. This wasn’t an easy transition as I’d been used being supported by corporate functions such as accounts, HR and legal. Now I was responsible for all these activities. I had a lot to learn.
I initially worked with clients on developing business and marketing plans and found there was often a lack of knowledge by clients of their market and competition. I was now taking a much greater interest in data, information and knowledge as part of market research assignments.
I took this further in 1999 when I went to Boston for training in competitive intelligence at the Academy of Competitive Intelligence. From that time on I specialized in competitive intelligence work by conducting CI research assignments for clients and by running CI training courses.
In 2003 I was contracted by the Australian Institute of Management to redevelop a post-graduate unit, Managing with Information, for their Professional Management qualification. This was a great opportunity to explore data and information collection, its analysis leading to knowledge generation and the resulting action. I became a faculty member of the College and coordinated this unit and derivations on and off until 2012.
In 2006 I was had another change of career when I went teaching full time at the Business TAFE School at RMIT University. I left there in 2010 and, after part-time work teaching business subjects at Kangan Institute, I retired a couple of years later. I use my time today as a researcher, blogger and writer.
Can Wisdom be taught?
Ever since June 10, 1994, hardly a day has gone by that I’m haven’t been learning, living and leading some facet of the data-information-knowledge-wisdom path. Starting out back in the 1990s as a rational problem-solving model has now evolved into the Can-Do Wisdom Framework—a three-dimensional relational domain and rational domain framework.
In 1994, I thought we should be teaching wisdom. Can wisdom be taught? What do the experts say?
Naturally, I have researched the answer to these questions and have followed up over one hundred opinions on the subject. Narrowing it down to managerial education, the consensus seems to be, no, wisdom cannot be taught.
For example, Cynthia Fukami concludes that while wisdom cannot fundamentally be taught, she argues that it can be fostered through effective teaching. She makes the point that wisdom in management education “is achieved through teachers who are willing to act as role models so that students are better able to link theory and practice.”
This is the reason I write blog posts to tell stories of ordinary people who learn, live and lead change for a better world. They are role models who can inspire us.
Rooney and Mckenna come to similar conclusions to Fulami:
Can wisdom be taught? Essentially it cannot: however, people can be inculcated into processes that are likely to promote wisdom [and] while it may not be possible to teach people to be wise, it is possible to construct management education curricula aimed at “teaching for wisdom” at undergraduate and postgraduate business education levels.
When I started out on this journey in 1994 the interest in wisdom in the business world was minimal. I’ve observed a change over the years in attitudes that recognizes the need for wisdom in our work today.
My journey exploring wisdom is far from over, but for now I’ll end this post with this quote from Rooney and McKenna:
Wisdom requires knowledge, but not necessarily a great accumulation of it. Wisdom is critically dependent on ethics, judgement, insight, intuition, creativity and other transcendent forms of human intellection. Wisdom is concerned less with how much we know and more with what we do and how we act. Wisdom is a fundamentally practical way of being in a complex and uncertain world.
It seems many of our business and political leaders are seriously lacking in these qualities.
- “Choruses from ‘The Rock’,” Poetry Nook,
- Ackoff, R. L., “From Data to Wisdom,” Journal of Applied Systems Analysis, 16, (1989): 3-9.
- Robert J. Sternberg, Wisdom: Its nature, origins, and development (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
- Copthorne Macdonald, Toward Wisdom: Finding your way to inner peace, love, and happiness (Willowdale, Ontario: Hounslow Press, 1996), xiii.
- Gene Bellinger, Durval Castro and Anthony Mills, “Data, Information, Knowledge, and Wisdom,” Mental Model Musings, http://www.systems-thinking.org/dikw/dikw.htm.
- Graeme Garrard, Counter-Enlightenments: From the Eighteenth Century to the Present (London: Routledge, 2005), 1.
- Randall G. Holcombe, “Firms as knowledge repositories,” in Austrian Economics and Entrepreneurial Studies, Advances in Austrian Economics, Volume 6, ed. Roger Koppl (Bingley, UK: Emerald Group Publishing, 2003), 174.
- Graeme Philipson, A Vision Splendid: The History of Australian Computing (Sydney: Australian Computer Society, 2017), 123.
- “Ten years of innovations from HP,” ComputerWorld, 2 May 2, 1977.
- Cinthia V. Fukami, “Strategic Metaphysic—Can Wisdom Be Taught,” in Handbook of Organizational and Managerial Wisdom, ed. Eric J. Kessler (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2007), 459.
- David Rooney & Bernard McKenna, “Wisdom in Organizations: Whence and Whither,” Social Epistemology: A Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Policy, 21, no. 2 (2007) 113-138, DOI:
- Rooney, “Wisdom in Organizations”.
Really enjoyed your article on wisdom. Your personal story woven through out was interesting. I too made a crystal set when young and studied at RMIT. I still recall you and Mike Woodhams interviewing me for a job as a Systems Engineer at HP in 1980. What an experience those 26 years at HP were. Hopefully I gained some wisdom along the way. Being retired now it’s interesting to reflect back on the changes it the computer industry we saw.
Hi Chris – good to hear from you. HP certainly was a great place to work. We were very lucky to have that experience. Must have been one of my wise decisions in recommending you be hired!
Hello Mr Farrell
I was interested to see that when you first worked at Tektronix it was with Bob Young. I am Bob’s daughter, Ellen, and I imagine that we ‘met’ at some stage in the 1960s We still have photos of you (with dad and others) at work as a young man. Its been lovely to read this article and to be transported back to the world of Lew Kasch, Don Alvey, Jim Castles and others who has such an impact on my father’s professional life. I trust you are enjoying good health. Drop me a line if you feel like it.
Ellen Young (Melbourne)