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August 2nd, 2016

The Knowing-Doing Gap: What is it and Why is it Still a Thing?

Did you know that it took the medical profession 47 years to act upon Humphrey Davy’s discovery of the anesthetic properties of nitrous oxide. This is a perfect example of the delay that is often experienced when executing knowledge into practice. Unfortunately, such delays are all too common in the business world as well, and the Advanced Leadership team at Viewpoint is continually trying to learn more about this divide. Questions such as "Why does this gap exist?" and "How do we bridge it?" have already been studied quite extensively, yet the problem still persists.

This blog will explore this phenomenon, conceptually labelled as the “knowing-doing gap”, in more detail and will discuss the practice of “evidence-based management”  that is, utilizing the most current and best evidence in management and decision-making as a potential solution.

What is it?

Typically, the gap between knowing and doing is attributed to a specific leader's behaviour. However, Jeffery Pfeffer and Robert Sutton, professors at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and experts in this field, suggest that the gap is instead a product of organizational practices and group dynamics in general.

In their research, Pfeffer and Sutton note that an organization’s culture plays a large role in sustaining, or even exacerbating, this gap. The status quo is easy to maintain, and knowing something must be done, is not the same as knowing how to get it done. Talk becomes a substitute for action, memory is then a substitute for thinking and fear prevents employees at all levels of the organization from acting on their knowledge.

In their book, The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies are Turning Knowledge into Action Pfeffer and Sutton posit that:

"Fear creates knowing-doing gaps because acting on one’s knowledge requires that a person believes he or she will not be punished for doing so – that taking risks based on new information and insight will be rewarded, not punished. When people fear for their jobs, their futures, or even for their self-esteem, it is unlikely that they will feel secure enough to do anything but what they have done in the past."

Why does it exist?

One of the main reasons the gap is a consistent problem is that there is a lack of accessibility to academic journals and articles that discuss the latest in leadership and business practice research. Additionally, even when practitioners do have access to the research, the articles are written using abstract technical jargon, including sophisticated mathematics and statistics, and the information gets lost in translation.

Another reason is that while practitioners may see the value in the ideas, they are unable or unwilling to implement them because they see the value as being theoretical rather than applicable in the real world. This is compounded by the fact that academia often reduces what is being studied to the lowest common denominator, but businesses are classically the opposite – or rather want to be. Leaders and business owners want to be extreme in their success, and avoid the extreme of failure at all costs.

How do we fix it?

1. Evidence-Based Management: In their research, Pfeffer and Sutton note that when a suggestion regarding a change to organizational procedure is proposed, evidence-based management should come into play every time. Evidence of the change's efficacy, and clarity of the logic behind it, must be fully explored before the suggestion can be turned into practice.

While not in the business sector, a lesson can be learned from the recent success of the United States government. It has begun employing the idea of evidence-based management to their policy making through funding programs designed specifically to assess and close the knowing-doing gap in certain sectors. President Obama signed an executive order directing federal agencies to work together with a team of behavioral scientists when designing policies. Often the changes that are made are small but have a large impact in making social, education, and health care programs more efficient for both the administrators and the user.

In a New York Times article regarding the behavioral scientist team, it was noted that:

"When government programs aren’t working, those on the left tend to support more funding, while those on the right want to scrap them altogether. It is better to ask whether the problem is complexity and poor design. We can solve these problems - sometimes without spending a penny."

With the creation of this team, the science of how and why people act the way they do is incorporated into the programs and policies. And instead of being abandoned or continuing to be inefficient, they are now being utilized to their full (or at least fuller) potential.

The results of this undertaking are encouraging and similar methods can be applied to the business community. Because each company has its own unique set of factors that drive its success, their evidence-based management practices must be tailored to suit them specifically (another reason why making/following generalizations is a risky route to take in business). This includes being aware of new developments and trends in the field as well as discussing and analyzing problem areas openly and regularly between managers and staff. This leads to decisions being made that are informed by both the best available research and information based on experience from the front lines of the organization.

2. Knowledge Transition: In their study, Evidence-Based Management and Academic Research Relevance, Booker, Bontis, and Serenko take the interesting perspective that the knowing-doing gap is not the fault of the researchers, or the practitioners, but rather that there is a missing link in the chain of knowledge transfer:

“Business valuation academics should not change the manner in which they publish scholarly articles. Instead, a solution to the academic relevance-problem resides in having efficient market intermediaries in the form of knowledge translation mechanisms.” 

To combat this missing link, management and leadership teams should provide continuing education and professional development opportunities to all levels of their organizations. For example, conferences and webinars are great ways of distributing knowledge, as long as the otherwise unapproachable technical language used in the article or research being discussed is translated into practical terms and examples.

3. Cultural Evolution: By creating a culture of inclusion and respect, even when faced with failure, an organization can minimize their knowing-doing gap. In this environment, employees are more comfortable to discuss new ideas and collaborate with each other, thereby turning thoughts into action. Booker et al. determined that: 

"The integration and application of specialist knowledge is a social process that is achieved through social interactions and is facilitated by social capital.”

Additionally, in order for any gap-minimizing method to be successful, there must be critical thinking involved, and assumptions must be questioned. In organizations that foster cooperation and decrease judgment, employees can openly question and discuss policies and prodedures, allowing for evaluation and change when necessary.

There is little point to the continuation of research if no one is listening.

Sources used in this article:

1. Booker, L., D., Bontis, N., & Serenko, A. (2012). Evidence-Based Management and Academic Research Relevance. Knowledge and Process Management, 19(3), 121-130. 

2. McKelvey, B. (2006). Van De Ven and Johnson’s “Engaged Scholarship”: Nice Try, but…. Academy of Management, 31(4), 822-829. 

3. Pfeffer, J., &Sutton, R., (2000). The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Business are Turning Knowledge into Action. Harvard Business Press.

4. Pfeffer, J., & Sutton, R. I. (2006). Hard facts, dangerous half-truths, and total nonsense: Profiting from evidence- based management. Harvard Business Press.

5. Pfeffer, J., & Sutton, R. I. (2006). Evidence-based management. Harvard business review, 84(1), 62.

6. Social and Behavioral Science Team, (2015). Annual Report. Executive Office of the President National Science and Technology Council.

7.,. (2015). Retrieved 14 December 2015, from