The Knowing-Doing Gap

One definition of insanity is “doing the same things and expecting different results.” In  The Knowing-Doing Gap,  Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton  say  “…so many managers know so much about organisational performance, and work so hard, yet are trapped in firms that do so many things that they know will undermine performance.” They found that “…there [are] more and more books and articles, more and more training programs and seminars, and more and more knowledge that, although valid, often had little or no impact on what managers actually did.” When it comes to implementing effective, value-driven governance this has certainly been my experience over the last couple of decades. To paraphrase Pfeffer and Sutton, “After all is said and done, there is more said than done.”

In  A Short History of Progress, Ronald Wright refers to the work of Joseph Tainter who identified three common elements of the collapse of civilizations: the Runaway Train, the Dinosaur; and the House of Cards. Whilst the collapse of civilizations is clearly much more heady stuff, we can certainly draw parallels to the failure of investments in IT-enabled change, sometimes resulting in business failures and even industry-wide failures. Our adoption of technology is in many ways a runaway train, executive management’s failure to change to tackle the challenge qualifies them as dinosaurs, and major investments, business or industry failures show many investments to be a house of cards.

In the context of realizing value from investments in IT-enabled change, the primary element that we have to deal with here is that of the dinosaur. Going back to the “Knowing-Doing Gap”, a major contributor to this gap is substituting memory for thinking, i.e. falling back on old habits. Traditional governance and management approaches will not tackle the challenges presented by the runaway train that is IT. As Albert Einstein once said “You cannot solve a problem by applying the same thinking that got you into the problem in the first place.”  Unless this problem is recognized and addressed, we will continue to build houses of cards, and suffer the consequences when they fall.

Another contributor to the “Knowing-Doing gap” is that talk is easier than action, and indeed many good talkers are rewarded in enterprises while the doers slog on under the radar. Often, the good talkers become managers. This may be one of the factors that lead the late Peter Drucker to remark “Most of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to get their work done.” I would add to this that in all too many cases our current implementation of governance formalizes this. In a conversation with Tom Peters a number of years ago I once, somewhat tongue in cheek, suggested that in most organisations, 10% of the people get the work done despite the other 90% – his response was “Try 5%!”

In another book around this topic, The Wisdom of CrowdsJames Surowiecki identifies another challenge in that we put too much faith in individual leaders or experts, either because of their position or track record and that these individuals also become over-confident in their abilities. I don’t want to question the ability and competence of all leaders or experts – while I certainly have seen my share of bad ones, most are good people doing the best they can. However, in today’s increasingly complex and fast-paced knowledge economy, much of which is both enabled by and driven by technology, it is unrealistic to expect individuals, however good they are, to have all the answers, all the time. The reality is that neither position nor past success is any guarantee of future success.

If organisations are to succeed in today’s knowledge economy, they cannot constrain themselves to the knowledge of a few individuals – to put it a more brutal way, they cannot be constrained by the habits or ego(s) of their leader(s)! Organisations must tap into the collective knowledge of all their people. We need effective governance that reaches out to and involves key stakeholders – retaining appropriate accountability, based on the principle of subsidiarity – an organizing principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. This means locating accountability and decision-making at the most appropriate level, while supporting decisions with broader and more knowledgeable input.

Over the last few decades, much has been said and written about empowering the people within an enterprise – unfortunately little of that talk and writing has translated into reality. As James Surowiecki says “Although many companies play a good game when it comes to pushing authority away from the top, the truth is that genuine employee involvement remains an unusual phenomenon.” As a result of this, information flows – up, down and across organisations – are poor, non-existent or “filtered” in all directions, decisions are made by a very few with inadequate knowledge and information, and there is limited buy-in to whatever decisions are made. As Peter Senge says in The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, “…under our old system of governance, one can lead by mandate. If you had the ability to climb the ladder, gain power and then control that power, then you could enforce…changes…Most of our leaders don’t think in terms of getting voluntary followers, they think in terms of control.”

If we are indeed to move beyond words, we must place an emphasis on action—on engagement and involvement at every level of the enterprise. One of the key findings presented in The Knowing-Doing Gap is that knowledge is much more likely to be acquired from ‘learning by doing’ than from ‘learning by reading’ or ‘learning by listening’. This strongly suggests that an iterative step journey toward value management will yield, for each individual, a discrete set of opportunities for learning that, taken together across an organisation of people, form the stepping stones toward cultural transformation and the achievement of real and sustainable change. As Sun Tzu says in The Art of War, “Every journey starts with the first step.” We need to move beyond words and take that first step – I can’t promise that the journey will be easy, but without it, value from investments in IT-enabled change will remain elusive.

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  1. […] Thorp, J. (2009). The knowing-doing gap. Retrieved from […]

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