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The Knowing-Doing Gap - Book Review

1 October 2007
Dr. Moria Levy

Do you know those things that seem trivial but only become apparent in hindsight? "The Knowing-Doing Gap" is one such book. It delves into a problem closely linked to knowledge management but serves as its complement:

  • How is it that numerous organizations possess all the correct answers yet still commit numerous mistakes, occasionally bordering on nonsense?

  • Why do many managers, having attended advanced management workshops and enlisted consultants who provided sound ideas, persist in managing the company as they did before acquiring the knowledge?

It's not merely about knowing; it's about implementing. While this seems obvious to all of us, if we reflect honestly, most of us who have completed a course, workshop, or read a book have experienced instances where we failed to implement. Not the next day, not even after a week or a year.

It's universally clear that knowledge lacks significance without application. Hence, reducing the gap in the organizations we work in is necessary and urgent for managers and knowledge custodians alike.

At times, one might assume that organizations involved in knowledge management don't grapple with this phenomenon. After all, these organizations recognize that knowledge is pivotal to their success. While this holds to some extent—organizations effectively managing tacit knowledge and fostering its utilization enhance their implementation capabilities—this isn't always the case. In certain instances, knowledge management becomes an obstacle to implementation, thanks to misdirected emphases (e.g., prioritizing technology over rationale).

What are the causes, and how do we ensure our organization doesn't fall into the non-implementing category? The book explores these questions, dissecting the main reasons, factors hindering change, and pathways to a brighter future. Although this article reviews the fundamental principles, it lacks detailed elaboration and numerous examples that validate its assertions. Noteworthy examples mentioned in the book include Men's Wearhouse, SAS, and HP—organizations often cited as worthy models.

Recommended reading? Absolutely. More so, it's highly encouraged to put the insights into practice.

The primary causes for the knowledge-practice gap are:

  • Talking instead of taking action

  • Clinging to the past, even in the present

  • Fear hindering decisive action

  • Measurements impeding sound judgment

  • Intra-organizational competition transforming friends into adversaries

  • Summary

Establishing a new organization is easy; transitioning from an existing state is challenging. Towards the book's conclusion, the authors present three stories of organizations successfully evolving into execution-oriented entities: British Petroleum[1], Barclays Global Investors, and the New Zealand Post Office. The objective is to instill confidence that change is achievable in any organization. The careful selection of case studies featuring companies from different continents, sizes, and sectors underscores this sensitivity.

The book concludes with a summary. While it may reiterate rather than introduce new content, this aligns with the nature of a summary. It also offers a slightly different perspective, adding value to the overall understanding.

Talking instead of taking action

There are several variations of this issue, different forms of "speech" that act as substitutes for actual practice. These encompass:

  1. Decisions: In some organizations, there's a misconception that making a decision suffices, assuming the decision will execute itself. The belief prevails that merely deciding and documenting it in meeting summaries will ensure task completion. In certain instances, managers invest more effort in decision-making than in implementing the subsequent steps.

  2. Presentations: Presentations have a visual appeal. They are showcased to senior executives, often creating a mistaken impression of intelligence and thoughtful consideration. It's easy to get absorbed in preparing presentations and crafting strategies and analyses, sometimes forgetting that these are only preliminary stages to action, not actions themselves.

  3. Documents: Similar to presentations but in a slightly different format, documents become a focal point. This encompasses extensive engagement with procedural documents or control reports, characterizing projects where the primary or sole outcome is excessive paperwork. The book provides an example of a well-known company that turned a purported quality improvement project into a mere project for writing procedures without any improvement.

  4. Vision and Values Statements: Many organizations display large plaques containing the organization's vision and values. However, these beautifully articulated statements remain confined to the walls in too many cases and fail to permeate the organizational culture. Some organizations neglect that merely defining and publicizing vision and values within the company isn't sufficient to instill them as an organizational ethos.

  5. Planning: While we are taught the importance of planning before executing, it's easy to become overly captivated by the planning process. We tend to convince ourselves that having a plan and the invested planning effort resolves the issue. Unfortunately, substantial time, resources, and organizational attention are disproportionately allocated to planning, leaving inadequate budget, time, or energy for actual implementation. Consider the numerous organizations investing in comprehensive knowledge needs mapping, only to be left with an extensive plan but no effective knowledge management.

Note: For insights into knowledge management in this context, refer to Collison and Purcell's book, "Learning to Fly."

Why does this phenomenon of excessive talking persist within organizations? What drives individuals to prioritize speech over action? Several reasons can be identified:

  • Brilliant speech is instantaneous; wise actions are expressed only after some time.

  • People who criticize appear or sound smarter.

  • Individuals who talk extensively are often perceived to possess stature and organizational influence.

  • Management schools predominantly emphasize verbal communication.

  • Organizations often select individuals for roles and vendors based on everyday interactions (interviews/tenders), lacking a comprehensive understanding of their actions for self-assessment.

How can we shift the focus towards action rather than mere talk? Numerous techniques can foster a culture of action and diminish excessive speech:

  • Internally promoting individuals will spotlight actions over words.

  • Senior managers actively engaged in hands-on work, setting an example for employees.

  • Appreciating simplicity and steering clear of unnecessary complexity in speech and expressed ideas.

  • Implementing decision-tracking and favoring action-oriented speech.

  • When confronted with challenges, emphasize viable alternatives rather than dwelling on why the problem cannot be solved.

Clinging to the past, even in the present

Organizations failing to implement their knowledge often behave as if the present accurately reflects the past. Despite changing conditions and experiencing bottom-line failures, many managers, despite survey denials, cling to outdated methods, resisting adaptation to a new reality. As knowledge managers, we recognize the significance of organizational memory and the importance of not reinventing the wheel. However, it should be equally clear to organizations and us that problems and challenges evolve, being only similar, not identical, to past ones. Knowledge management, especially organizational memory, should aid new decision-making, not a substitute.

Undoubtedly, it's easier to continue current practices today and tomorrow. Automatic adherence to established routines is necessary for productivity. Imagine we would accomplish far less if we had to relearn basic tasks like using a fork or hiring new personnel daily. Change, both on an individual and organizational level, is inherently tricky, prompting a natural inclination to cling to the familiar. Social proof often reinforces this tendency, using the past to justify previous actions.

However, clinging to the past becomes a trap when it impedes progress. It can be challenging to discern when social proof and attachment to the past are justified for present activity and when they demand reevaluation or even a revolution. The dilemma arises: when is it appropriate to ensure present activity, and when does it require reconsideration?

Another trap reinforcing attachment to the past is external threats. Faced with difficulties, individuals and groups often resort to familiar coping mechanisms, even when objectively observed behaviors are unsuitable for the current situation. This tendency intensifies during stress, hindering the ability to make necessary changes.

Additional human weaknesses contributing to the tendency to cling to the past include:

  • Commitment to the past strengthens organizational identity: A robust organizational identity and culture to which individuals connect make behavioral change challenging, driven by the fear of jeopardizing this identity.

  • The need for cognitive closure (cognitive dissonance): The inclination to freeze the past and rationalize it, even when unjustified, makes recognizing the need for change more difficult.

  • Differing perceptions from the past about possibilities and limitations: Individuals hold varying views on what can and cannot be achieved in the future based on their past experiences.

How can we address the challenge of clinging to the past? Three primary methods can be employed:

  1. Building a new organization: While building a new organization is expensive and time-consuming, it is the most reliable way to foster a new organizational identity, reducing the inclination to cling to the past. This method applies in specific cases but is not universal for every problem. Examples exist of companies either reconstructing the entire organization or establishing dedicated divisions that develop a fresh identity, avoiding past mistakes of the overarching organization.

  2. Breaking conventions within an existing organization: Significant or minor crises can serve as catalysts for breaking away from the past. Success in this approach requires:

    a. Interference in individuals' actions, thoughts, and feelings induces a shake-up.

    b. External factors or initiatives within the organization make it challenging to adhere to past behavior. Symbolic actions by managers and leaders can significantly aid in this process, necessitating a shift to the future due to eliminating alternatives.

    c. Clearly defined, applicable, and communicated new ways of acting within the organization. Effective leadership is critical in guiding managers through such transformative situations.

  3. Avoidance: Establishing an organizational climate that inherently discourages clinging to the past can be achieved by regularly researching, exploring new behavioral possibilities, and cultivating a culture of learning within the organization. This proactive approach becomes a way of life for the organization.

Fear hindering decisive action

The authors, who dedicated several years to studying the gap between knowledge and practice, based their examination on numerous organizations. They identified a common thread in all organizations experiencing this gap: fear and mistrust. This aligns with Deming's quality philosophy encapsulated in "Drive out fear."

Initially, I entertained the notion that this chapter might reflect the book's authorship in 2000, seven years before my reading. In today's context, with greater empowerment for workers, it seemed plausible that fear and mistrust would have diminished. Yet, page by page, it became evident that while the cover may differ, fear and mistrust persist in various organizations, even seven years later (a relatively short span in the grand scheme of world and organizational evolution). Surveys referenced in the book indicate a substantial confidence gap among employees regarding alternative job opportunities, trust in managerial promises, faith in the company's integrity, and confidence in expressing disagreement with management.

Fear and mistrust find their roots at the top, emanating from management, and they exacerbate or even create the gap between knowledge and actions in several ways:

  1. Fear inhibits expression: People fear for their jobs if they don't conform, stifling opinions and inhibiting changes, even when recognizing organizational shortcomings.

  2. Avoidance of bad news: Managers discourage those delivering unfavorable news, resulting in underreporting and a distorted perception of the organization's actual state.

  3. Self-censorship: Employees, fearing repercussions, tend to provide inaccurate representations of situations to present themselves favorably.

  4. Short-term focus: Fearful organizations prioritize short-term gains, often neglecting long-term considerations for self-preservation.

Overcoming fear and mistrust in an organization is possible. Successful organizations in this endeavor primarily emphasize knowledge-sharing and development, a challenging feat in fear-dominated environments. Tools for overcoming fear include:

  • Promotion of truth-tellers: Recognizing and promoting individuals who honestly communicate challenges.

  • Punishing inaction, not mistakes: Encouraging action and learning from mistakes, rather than penalizing errors.

  • Leaders sharing failures: Encouraging leaders to discuss their failures and lessons learned openly.

  • Fostering open discourse: Creating an environment that encourages open communication.

  • Second chances for failure: Offering individuals the opportunity for redemption after making mistakes.

  • Impeachment for humiliation: Addressing and acting against managers and leaders who belittle others.

  • Learning from mistakes: Celebrating mistakes as valuable learning opportunities.

  • Encouraging innovation: Not penalizing individuals attempting new approaches.

Overcoming fear is challenging, especially when layoffs may be necessary. In such circumstances, transparency, clear communication, empathy, and providing a degree of control to employees within the process can mitigate emotional distress. Evaluating the broader implications for those remaining during layoffs is also essential, as actions undermining employees' emotional security jeopardize the organization's overall stability.

Measurements are impeding sound judgment

Measurement stands as a crucial and esteemed management tool in the 21st century. However, it can swiftly become a hindrance, impeding knowledge conversion into action. The question arises: How and why do measurements create problems?

  • Measurements lead an organization to concentrate on what is measured rather than what is not. Areas needing more measurement are deemed less critical, resulting in neglect and the emergence of knowledge and practice gaps.

  • Measurements focus on the short term, often neglecting the long term, especially when measured frequently (monthly and quarterly).

  • Complex and numerous metrics, such as those in Balanced Scorecards, make it challenging for employees and the organization to concentrate on what is being measured. Human limitations in simultaneous attention to multiple dimensions exacerbate this challenge.

The pivotal realization is that metrics should act as guides, steering employees toward correct behavior without being overly prescriptive. This would allow them to use their crucial judgment in translating knowledge into practice.

Why is it so challenging to formulate a "correct" and effective set of metrics?

  • Organizations struggle to define metrics that are both simple and representative enough for proper human behavior.

  • Shareholders often press for measurements aligned with their interests, which may not always coincide with what should concern employees and the organization.

  • Adding metrics is easy; complicating measurement is even easier.

  • A significant gap exists between what is easy to measure and what should be measured correctly.

Characteristics of good measurement:

  1. Measures a group rather than an individual, recognizing that good performance is built on mutual dependence and commitment.

  2. Measures compliance with the organization's philosophy and values guides employees toward appropriate behavior and ensures progress toward organizational goals.

  3. Focuses on processes (correct behavior) rather than solely on results.

  4. Remains simple, avoiding an overload of dimensions and metrics.

  5. Evolves with the organization over time.

Intra-organizational competition transforms friends into adversaries

Many of us thrive on competition, a trait reinforced by the competitive nature of the business world. For years, we've perceived competition as the antithesis of laziness, an impetus for action and performance. However, the authors of the examined book delved into the dynamics of intra-organizational competition and arrived at a resolute conclusion: it impedes the flow of existing information within the organization, hindering its translation into organizational practice.

  1. Impact on Collaboration: Intra-organizational competition diminishes an employee's inclination to assist colleagues, as performance is constantly measured against theirs. An example is drawn from a software company's business unit, where internal competition leads to an influx of bugs despite existing quality checks.

  2. Learning Dynamics: Competition within an organization makes it easier for individuals to learn from external sources like suppliers and non-organizational colleagues than to acknowledge learning from internal peers.

  3. Adverse Organizational Climate: Intra-organizational competition invariably disappoints losers, fostering an adverse organizational climate.

While organizations are aware of the issues stemming from competition, the perpetuation of non-constructive intra-organizational competitiveness persists. This is attributed to the deeply ingrained nature of competition, affecting managerial choices and employee promotions, reinforcing competitiveness.

Corporate competition becomes detrimental when:

  • Individuals are incentivized to disregard helping others to enhance personal success.

  • Leaders perceive an organization's success as a mere sum of individual successes rather than teamwork.

  • Managers endorse zero-sum competition, where numerous losers accompany winners.

  • Comparative measurements prevail over absolute measurements.

  • Managers and leaders chosen exhibit competitiveness and encourage a competitive culture (negative role modeling).

  • Little attention is given to employees' empowerment and self-fulfillment, leading to the labeling of many as losers.

The authors emphasize the Pygmalion effect to overcome the competitiveness instinct and mitigate potential damage. Expectations significantly impact people's performance, with higher expectations increasing the likelihood of success. Strategies to avoid potential damage include:

  • Hiring, rewarding, and retaining individuals based on teamwork abilities and inclination while dismissing those who act intercessively.

  • Directing focus toward external competition, such as competitors outside the organization, rather than fostering internal competition.

  • Avoiding measurement systems that reinforce intra-organizational competition.

  • Strengthening measurements that assess collaboration.

  • Leadership sets a personal example, promoting individuals with a track record of building collaborative groups.

  • Utilizing power and authority to foster knowledge-sharing, learning, and collaborative efforts for organizational improvement.


Ostensibly, providing a summary for this book may seem unnecessary, as the entire content serves as a vital guide for doing what is right, and any attempt to summarize risks overshadowing one important idea with another. Nevertheless, to complement the proposed model, the authors introduce eight values that foster proactive behavior:

  1. Philosophical Consideration: Prioritize "Why before what?" Recognize the significance of philosophy, focusing on processes over bottom lines, as they can be learned and imitated, ultimately advancing the organization.

  2. Knowledge Acquisition: Emphasize learning through practical experience in the field rather than relying solely on closed classrooms. Ensure managers are connected to the field and capable of understanding and making decisions based on current experiences and practical knowledge.

  3. Action over Elegance: Prioritize actions over elegant designs and models to drive practical outcomes.

  4. Tolerance for Errors: Acknowledge that errors are inherent to action. Be tolerant and avoid punishment, reserving consequences for inaction rather than actions leading to mistakes.

  5. Fear Elimination: Strive to eliminate fear within the organization, fostering an environment conducive to open communication and experimentation.

  6. Avoiding Wrong Analogies: Resist competition against each other. Be cautious of drawing inappropriate analogies that undermine collaboration.

  7. Meaningful Measurement: Focus on measuring what is critical and supportive of transforming knowledge into practice.

  8. Managerial Example: Acknowledge the irreplaceable role of managers' examples. Observe how they allocate time, the reasons for their attention, and their investment in the organization's resources.

As a reader, the ultimate takeaway revolves once again around the centrality of the individual to the organization and the paramount need for maximum sensitivity to individuals. This sensitivity catalyzes the transformation of knowledge into practice, ultimately enhancing organizational performance. It all boils down to people – that's the essence of the narrative.

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