Thursday, 14 June 2007

The Knowing-Doing Gap

I forced myself to finish a book recently. It's for work, to help my boss prepare for next semester's syllabus.

The book is Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action. The authors, Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton, observed how the high numbers of courses, MBAs, trainings and other knowledge pursuits still fail to develop remarkable, successful companies. Most of them are stuck on doing things 'the old way' while other fail utilise their knowledge due to action substitutes (things that takes place instead of action).

The ideas contained in the book are based on a breadth of research done on numerous industries and companies, both successful and unsuccessful at closing the knowing-doing gap. Some of the success stories highlighted here include GM"s Saturn Motors, design firm IDEO and clothing chain Men's Wearhouse.

Action substitutes include talk. It's amazing how in companies people are often rewarded or promoted for 'talking.' They pitch all sort of things and impress the top people into buying into them. Yet on the implementation side, it's another story. Very few people are rewarded or promoted for actually implementing something. The authors point they this is how we run our business schools today, by teaching students more on how to talk instead of how to do. As a management graduate myself, I can't agree more while feeling embarrassed at the same time. (Sometimes the truth can really sting.)

Other actions action substitutes mentioned are memory ('the old way'), measurements (that complicates instead of helping), fear and internal competition.

Most of the things covered in the book are common sense. But the most interesting point in the book for me is the argument that competition is harmful to a company. 'Old school' management thought have always praised the virtues of competitions within the company, such as between teams or departments. This could another one of those management thoughts that are drawn-out from sport analogies. Of course sports are mostly about competition. In business however, it's a different story. Dean Tjosvold, competition and cooperation expert, says, "Competition stimulates, excites, and is useful in some circumstances, but those situations do not occur frequently in organisations.” I'm no management expert or anything, but I always believe that an organisation as an interdependent system in need of cooperation, similar to the human body. Internal competition is like the subunits of the system cannibalising each other, where one wins and the rest loses (win or nothing). Anyway, it's good to see a researcher like Tjosvold putting the idea into context instead of just something what people think they ought to belief.

So what do the author recommend we do to close the knowing-doing gap? Do, and learn by doing. It's a deceptively simple advice that most people miss. Again it's common sense, but people don't always act or think sensibly.

Despite being academicians, the authors (both from Stanford) adopts a straightforward style in delivering their points. This is my second reading a book by Robert Sutton, his The No Asshole Rule being the first. I'm grouping Sutton together with Donald Norman (The Psychology of Everyday) in the category of writers-I-like-who-are-also-academicians-but-do-not-sound-like-one. Not that I hate academic writing, I just seriously wish it would be livelier in style. Thank God for academicians who write books and blogs.


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