The Knowing-Doing Gap

Knowing-DoingGapWhy don’t more people do what they know they ought to do?

This is not meant as a moral question, as asked by the Apostle Paul, but a business question that challenges every manager and leader. It’s one thing to give people knowledge, and quite another to get them to turn that into action.

That question was a particular challenge to Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton, prominent professors at Stanford Business School. Together they recently completed The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge Into Action (Harvard Business School Press, 2000).

They found through extensive research that there are several main reasons why the gap persists:

*People talk about the problem but never take action. In fact they talk so much they sometimes don’t even realize that they’re not taking action.

*Memories of “the way we do things” and other traditions rooted in the past keep people from thinking of new and better ways.

*Fear — of the unknown, of consequences, of failure — prevents a lot of action.

*Measurement sometimes obstructs good judgment; the old adage “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” is not always true, and even highly-touted systems such as The Balanced Scorecard which stress measurement of key success factors can get in the way of smart thinking and acting.

*Internal competition sometimes turns friends into enemies, making full cooperation impossible.

The authors give a number of ways to overcome all these gaps. They summarize with eight key guidelines for turning knowledge into action:

1. Put “why” before “how.” The reasons behind things are very important. Many companies studied the phenomenal success of Saturn as a “how” to do things without understanding the underlying philosophy that led to Saturn’s quick success. Sadly General Motors “GM’ed” Saturn into a less-than-stellar division instead of their ideal of “Saturning” GM. The “why” got lost. Be sure people understand the purpose of applying new knowledge and aren’t just following orders or learning techniques.

2. “Knowing comes from doing and teaching others how.” Knowledge must be turned into action immediately, hands-on, with people not just hearing information but learning how to do things in new ways. In some highly successful Japanese companies learning and doing are synonymous. They assume that is how to learn, and indeed it is the best way by far. Lectures don’t cut it.

3. “Action counts more than elegant plans and concepts.” Too many companies spend so much time planning or developing brilliant ideas that they lose the timely edge that quick action can bring. Planning can certainly be valuable, but studying a problem to death is a major reason why action never gets taken, or when it does, it is too late.

4. “There is no doing without mistakes.” And the company must act that way. In other words all action involves risk and error. That is often the best way to learn. Smart companies reward risk and expect error. Dumb companies punish mistakes and therefore make people afraid to take risks.

5. “Drive out fear.” That famous principle of quality guru W.Edwards Deming is especially true where turning knowledge into action is important. Fear, whether expressed or repressed, is a major cause of inaction and smart companies create a climate of enthusiasm and trust, minimizing fear.

6. “Fight the competition, not each other.” In many companies, especially larger ones, competition is so intense that people invest a great deal of energy with internal struggles instead of fighting competitors in the marketplace. Systems which reward divisions or teams for performing better than other divisions or teams undermine cooperation and make people reluctant to cross boundaries to help others in the organization.

7. “Measure what matters and what can help turn knowledge into action.” It is vital to track a few key measures of performance related to core strategy, but many companies measure to much. Some managers have to wade through over 100 pages of measurement data a week. Too many numbers make it very difficult to focus on the ones that matter most, the key indicators that a strategy is working or not working, that the company is on course or off. It is especially valuable to measure work-in-process instead of past results.

8. How leaders spend their time and allocate resources matters a great deal. Leaders must not just talk about desired behaviors but model it in their daily actions, their “walk.” Smart leaders understand that one of their main jobs is to build a system of practices that will turn knowledge into action. Leaders and managers are primarily responsible for shaping the corporate culture through their actions and what they reinforce. Turning knowledge into action must be a deeply seated shared value that guides daily action company-wide.

If you’d like to learn more about how to turn knowledge into action at your firm, click on this link:

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