The primary trait required for governance: Wisdom

Wisdom: Solomon recognised its value in the Bible. Ascetes recognised its value in the Bible. Lao-tzu describes its importance in the Te-tao Ching. But let’s face it: That was then. Wisdom is something for old people who can no-longer keep up with the pace of modern day live. It has no place in the everyday business of our fast moving society. Or does it?


Wisdom: Solomon recognised its value in the Bible. Ascetes recognised its value in the Bible. Lao-tzu describes its importance in the Te-tao Ching. But let’s face it: That was then. Wisdom is something for old people who can no-longer keep up with the pace of modern day live. It has no place in the everyday business of our fast moving society. Or does it?

Let’s start with Wikipedia: “Wisdom is a deep understanding and realising of people, things, events or situations, resulting in the ability to choose...." Boring, boring, more boring. No not what I was looking for, even I fall asleep on that one.

Further down the page that’s it: “A standard philosophical definition says that wisdom consists of making the best use of knowledge.” Yes, that is what I was looking for. Have you ever noticed that in modern day life we got very good at acquiring knowledge? Understanding how to use that knowledge is a completely different ball-game.

People I talk to from my field of expertise who look at my LinkedIn profile tend to be impressed with my extensive knowledge of the different GRC models. Having said that, everything is relative:

Those not impressed with my level of knowledge (because they know even more) are mostly civil enough not to say so when we meet. Or, even worse, they find me such a dilettante that they do not want to speak with me to begin with. But that’s a different subject. I think I can claim a fair level of knowledge about the GRSC field of expertise.

So how about the application of that knowledge? Very often I meet colleagues who just want to apply all they know: Let’s implement ITIL, CobiT or any of the models and/ or standards end-to-end. Without any consideration for the special circumstances of the individual organisation their credo is: If the knowledge was important enough for me to acquire, it is important to use AKA implement.

In other articles I have used the analogy with a builder: A builder has a tool-box containing all the tools he might need to complete the individual tasks. But no self respecting builder will expect to use all his tools for each task. Knowledge of models and frameworks are just the tools for consultants.

If the goal of the task is only the implementation of the tool there is no way to measure if the knowledge was used wisely!

So much about wisdom on an individual level now let us look at wisdom on an organisational level. In the definition it says wisdom is about understanding how to apply knowledge (my slightly adjusted personal definition). It is not exclusively about applying your own knowledge. So for a manager wisdom is about understanding how to apply the knowledge of the entity he manages.

The primary task of a manager is to manage: Acquire, combine and facilitate the scarce resources in the entity he manages so they meet the objectives of the entity in the most efficient way. To understand these statements consider the following: A manager who always has a lot of technical (content) ideas is a bad manager. To be able to get these ideas one of two things has to be happening:

Either the manager spends his time thinking about content were he should be focussed on creating an environment that ensures maximum performance of his resources (people). Or even worse, he does facilitate his people so they come up with great ideas but then he “steals” them and presents them as his own. Everyday live is not this straight forward but still....

The best managers I know will tell their bosses about the great deliverables (and ideas) of their employees, ensuring the employee receives the credit for the idea. A great boss will give the credit for departmental performance and idea generation to the resources (aka people) it contains.

The credit for the wisdom to make maximum use of the knowledge goes to the manager. This might even include the manager’s wisdom to use knowledge from outside his department.

We talked about knowledge and for now associated it with content: In this case knowledge of (expert) models but there is also the knowledge of form. We all know the “teckie” who knows everything there is to know about his field of expertise but there is no way to have a conversation with him because after three words you have no idea what he is talking about.

On the other hand there is the “fast talking sales-rep”: Hear him speak and you “get” him. It is utterly clear that his solution is the only possible way forward until... You actually try to follow his suggestion and find he really did not have a clue of what he was talking about. Both had knowledge: The “teckie” knowledge of content the “sales rep” knowledge of form.

On this scale each individual has its own place. Some are better in transferring the message, making others understand even if they might not know the content of the message for a fact. Some people know the answer but are less able to convince others. Knowing where you stand and accepting your limitations is the first step.

The next step is the decision to enhance on your weak spots or to accept them and seek a partner that will compensate, like the manager deciding to bring in outside knowledge to assist his department in achieving its objectives.

It is human nature to prefer the company of like minded people. However this might not actually be in your own best interest. A content oriented person might not like to cooperate with a form oriented person however it is here that we see most often that the sum is more than the total of its parts (the 1+1=3 rule).

With organisations it is just the same: People seek to work for organisations were the corporate culture fits their personality. A “black-box” IT department left on its own to do the “really smart stuff these guys do, though I have no idea what it is” attracts “teckie's”.

That same “teckie” would most likely not feel at home on a fast-passed, yuppie populated, trading floor were a sharp tongue is a basic necessity to survive. The result is that the company or entity culture (and the kind of knowledge that goes with it) tends to re-enforce itself with the risk of creating serious blind-spots that get worse over time. If you look at the causes of the financial crisis this tendency has certainly played its part.

The governance function should keep oversight over the organisation, knowing in which knowledge areas the organisation is strong but more importantly were it is left wanting. Understanding the culture and how it is most like to develop over time. Including the consequences this developing culture has on the availability of knowledge and the way it is used by the organisation.

Finding the blind spots and correcting for them is a primary task of the governance function. Directors do not need the content knowledge to create ideas and generate deliverables. They do need the wisdom to understand how to acquire, combine and apply knowledge (balancing both form and content) so the organisation can obtain its goals in an efficient manner.

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