The Knowing-Doing Gap: A book review by Bob Morris

The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action
Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton
Harvard Business School Press (2000)
How wide is yours?

With few exceptions, the most valuable business books are those in which their authors share the results of efforts to answer especially important questions. That is certainly true of this book. As Pfeffer and Sutton explain, “We wrote this book because we wanted to understand why so many managers know so much about organizational performance, say so many smart things about how to achieve performance, and work so hard, yet are trapped in firms that do so many things they know will undermine performance.” Obviously, knowing what to do is not enough. Inorder to identify the causes of what they refer to as the “knowing-doing gap,” Pfeffer and Sutton embarked on a four-year research project.

What they learned is shared in this exceptionally informative and thus invaluable book. They organize their material within eight chapters, followed by an appendix in which they provide “The Knowing-Doing Survey.” This survey of restaurant managers all by itself is worth far more than the cost of the book. The items to which participants respond can easily be modified to accommodate any other kind of business. Moreover, even in small privately-owned companies, it will enable decision-makers to measure the nature and extent of their own “knowing-doing gap.”

Pfeffer and Sutton correctly point out that knowing about that gap is different from doing something about it. “Understanding causes is helpful because such understanding can guide action. But by itself, this knowing is insufficient — action must occur.” Most executives may not be able to eliminate the gap entirely but, guided and informed by what Prefer and Sutton reveal in this book, they can at least reduce the gap. Moreover, those with supervisory responsibilities will also be able to help reduce the gap for each of those for whom they are responsible.

After reading and then re-reading the book, I arrived at these conclusions:

1. Causes of the Knowing-Doing Gap can be both voluntary (i.e. being unwilling) and involuntary (i.e. being unable).

2. Knowledge is seldom complete and often wrong.

3. Fear of failure, humiliation, scorn, etc. must never be underestimated.

4. The fact that someone knows how to do something does not necessarily mean that she or he can do it.

This book is so important, I will re-read it again.


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