January 18, 2006

News & Opinion: The Difference Between Knowing and Doing

By: 800-CEO-READ @ 1:14 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

I had seen references from some really smart people to The Knowing-Doing Gap by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton. This duo has another book coming out this spring, so I thought I would check out the old one.

The book was published back in 2000 and it is pretty hard to categorize what they are talking about. At first, you think it is about Execution and Getting Things Done, but that misses alot of what the authors are saying.

They start by talking about how much is spent on training and consulting (they put the number at $60 billion annually). They then ask the question, "With all this money being spent, why aren't companies doing what they are being taught?" They make a great case for why well-established practices like modular manufacturing are talked about but never implement.

The authors move onto to the idea that people really learn by doing. They state most jobs that are dangerous are taught with on the job training, not with textbooks. Would you teach a surgeon or a airline pilot using manuals?

This is where is got interesting for me. Pfeffer and Sutton say that talk is the substitute for action in most companies. One kind of talk is complex and full of jargon. People think the complex solution is always the answer ('lots of hard work went into it, so it must be good' and 'no one will be able to duplicate this'). The simple solution is thrown out because it has been around forever and if it was so great someone would have already done it.

I think they get at the paradox of why successful companies often have such simple philosophies. People always point to Southwest Airlines and ask how can they be so successful by just hiring people who tell good jokes and just fly one type of plane. The reason they do that is because it makes the doing easy. It means flight crews that can diffuse difficult situations with customers. Everyone knows that 737s are the most fuel efficient plane in the sky. Yet, Southwest is the only one with a dedicated fleet.

One last thought--information and knowledge are ubiquitous. The only difference between you and your competitor is who is doing.