Hierarchy of Information Work

Part One: Managing a Remote Team

?Part Two: Hierarchy of Information Work

Part Three: Our Remote Collaboration Toolset

As the nature of work changes from manual labor to more knowledge-based work in the twenty-first century, there needs to be a model by which we can optimize success.

Knowledge work, as coined by famed business thinker Peter Drucker in 1959, is work where the output isn’t physical but takes the form of information. While every industry will have industry-standard processes, I think there is a higher-level framework that can offer some insight.

I call it the “Hierarchy of Information Work.”

Wisdom, Knowledge, Information, Data

Before I dive in, it’s helpful to take a look at the DIKW Pyramid.

By Longlivetheux – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikipedia

At the risk of oversimplifying, we can think of the layers of the pyramid like this:

  • Data: Raw data are collected
  • Information: The data are organized and processed into actionable information
  • Knowledge: The information is analyzed, with conclusions and inferences
  • Wisdom: And finally knowledge becomes shared understanding to help with future decision-making

A New Pyramid for the Information Work Era

The “Hierarchy of Information Work,” as I am proposing, takes over where the DIKW Pyramid leaves off.


Pyramid showing the layers of the Hierarchy of Information Work
Hierarchy of Information Work


Let’s take a look at each layer, starting from the base of the pyramid.

Knowledge Base

The Knowledge Base is the Wisdom layer from the DIKW Pyramid. But institutional wisdom (aka institutional knowledge) must be accessible to everyone in the organization, hopefully in the form of a knowledge base. What have we learned over the years? What are our best practices? What are our standard operating procedures that ensure the best results?

Knowledge bases can come in the form of SOP manuals, mission statements, intranets, wikis, and document repositories. The most crucial factor is that it is accessible to everyone in the company and successfully documents institutional knowledge.

When I worked at Pixar Animation Studios, there was a department called Pixar University that taught classes to employees on all phases of the animation process. Anyone could take a class on figure drawing, color theory, or even beginning computer animation. But the most important aspect was teaching incoming animators how to do things the Pixar way.

Project Management

Project management should be more than deadlines and milestones. It should also encompass how work should be done, by using the company’s best practices and standard operating procedures.

In some companies, this could be called workflow. In film and video post-production, this is called a pipeline. This process involves many departments, individuals, and deliverables, all on a tight schedule. Being able to run this process smoothly and repeatedly is the key to getting shows out on time.


Flowchart of VFX pipeline
VFX pipeline flowchart by Andrew Whitehurst


Obviously, communication is core to how businesses and teams operate. The Communication layer can be seen as the bridge between how work should be done, and the status of what is getting done.

Organizations need to provide tools for workers to share and discuss ideas. Apps like Slack have come about in recent years to modernize how businesses communicate internally.


Information workers perform all kinds of tasks and create many different types of deliverables. Ultimately their work must be informed by the preceding layers in our Hierarchy of Information Work.


Left to right flowchart of the Hierarchy of Information Work
Workflow view of the Hierarchy of Information Work


How Understanding the Hierarchy Enables Successful Outcomes

When we understand this framework, we can start to break down what needs to be done in each layer to ensure successful collaboration within the organization.

While your business might have the first couple layers of the hierarchy (Work and Communication), you might not have effective project management procedures in place. And if you do, are they based on the wisdom your company has attained over the years?

In any high-performing organization, getting everyone on the same page and sharing the same mission is critical. That shared understanding is the intrinsic motivation author Daniel Pink talks about in his book, Drive. Pink writes, “Human beings have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another. And when that drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives.”

A solid base of knowledge put into practice with effective project management, and enabled by clear communication, will empower your team to reach new heights.

In my next post, I will detail out cloud-based collaboration tools—important for remote work—that map to each layer of the Hierarchy of Information Work.

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