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The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action

by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton

Why do organizations often fail to do what they know they should? Authors Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton address this question in this business classic.

Essential knowledge – the knowledge about how to get things done in the real world – is often transferred through stories, gossip or observation. Information systems designed to “collect, distribute, re-use, measure and codify” knowledge often fail to capture essential knowledge. In contrast, social media communities can facilitate the exchange of stories, helping turn knowledge into action.

Pfeffer and Sutton provide us with 8 guidelines for closing the knowing-doing gap:

  1. Put the Why before the How. Simply trying to copy a successful organization’s practices does not work. First understand why the organization is successful—what philosophy, values, and principles have led to its success.
  2. Knowing comes from doing and teaching. “Teaching is a way of knowing, and so is doing the work…” Mentoring or coaching programs that get people involved in teaching others are an excellent way to put knowledge into action.
  3. Actions count more than plans. “Failure to act is the only true failure.” Action creates opportunities for learning by doing. Without action, learning is not grounded in real experience.
  4. Tolerate mistakes and learn from them. “Punish inaction, not unsuccessful actions.” When someone makes a mistake, practice a culture of “forgive and remember.” Embrace the mistake as an opportunity for learning and avoid making the same mistake again.
  5. Eliminate fear. Pressure and fear often make people do irrational things. “No one is going to try something new if the reward is likely to be a career disaster.” Strong hierarchies and status symbols reinforce power distance and fear in the organization.
  6. Fight the competition not each other. Most innovations are made in cultures of collaboration, not dog-eat-dog infighting. Be hard on the competitors, but go easy on your colleagues.
  7. Measure what matters. The old saying goes, “you get what you measure.” If you measure individual performance, you will end up with a small group of star performers in a mediocre organization. “Focus attention on factors critical to organizational success.”
  8. Leadership matters. “Leaders create environments, reinforce norms, and help set expectations through what they do, through their actions and not just their words.” Smart leaders act to encourage learning by doing—and their organizations are better for it.


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