RACY CASES-32 Knowing Doing Gap


A V Vedpuriswar and V Pattabhi Ram

It was Friday night.  And so it was hungamma time. The gang was at the Chennai Coffee pub chatting.  Wafers, the young CA intern looked chic despite a hard day at office.  The scribe, Rinku, was wearing his trademark dirty jeans and said he was working on a breaking story.  China had told his hostel warden at IIT that he would have a night out.

Wafers was upset.  The Big Boss hadn’t sacked an executive despite knowing that he was hopelessly inefficient. China wasn’t surprised.  “Today, the trouble is not lack of knowledge. The trouble is not about ‘not knowing’. It is about ‘not doing’ inspite of knowing,” he said recalling the book that two Stanford professors Jeffrey Pfeiffer and Robert Sutton had written. The duo had called this phenomenon the knowing-doing gap.

“Isn’t it the same theme that the late Sumantra Ghoshal had covered in his book, A bias for action” asked Rinku.  The illustrious professor, who had gone on to become the founding dean of the International School of Business, Hyderabad, had tried to explain how executives often found it difficult to get down to purposeful action and kept postponing important initiatives.

China said, “Managers often have a fair idea of what to do when faced with a problem. They have their own rich experience plus the insights of their colleagues. They read lots of books published every year.  They seek the advice of management consultants armed with the latest tools and listen to gurus who constantly lecture on new concepts. But often, even with all that knowledge, nothing happens. There is little action”.

Rinku remarked, “The knowing-doing gap can be traced to a basic human propensity: the willingness to let talk substitute for action”. He recalled how his editor had once famously named such people as being members of NATO.  Not the North Atlantic Treaty Organization; but No Action, Talk Only.” In Rinku’s office if someone stepped out of line, you just had to say, “Hey, NATO.”

Wafers remembered what she had read in Class X. And was sure that it had relevance here.  The famous poet T S Eliot had in his outstanding poem, “The Hollow Men,” written about human inertia. “Between the conception and the creation, falls the shadow,” he had mentioned. China pointed out that in business that shadow was composed of words. “When dealing with a problem, people act as if discussing it and preparing plans for action are the same as actually fixing it.” Wafers agreed.  Smart talk, as opposed to action, was prevalent in most of the companies that she audited.

The floor captain decided to chip in. He pointed out that management education was quite different from other kinds of training. Soldiers, pilots and surgeons all received classroom training, but it quickly turned into learning by doing. The military required soldiers to perform the very maneuvers that would be necessary during wartime. Pilots got into the cockpit and flew. In surgery, there was an old saying that described how residents learnt a procedure: “Hear one, see one, do one.” In business education, the saying appeared to be, “Hear one, talk about one, talk about one some more.”

The captain added: “You may not like what I say. But the fact is that most B school graduates remain talkers rather than doers, even after joining their employer”. All eyes turned towards Rinku.  He had graduated from one of India’s pristine B-schools.  The captain continued. “The daily life of an executive revolves around meetings, teams, and consensus building. So the more a person talks, the more valuable he appears. People who talk confidently and freely are likely to be judged by others as influential and important. So they are more likely to be hired, promoted and assigned to coveted jobs.”

Wafers thought, “This guy must have tanked his CAT exam.  Sour grapes.”  But Rinku had seen the point.  So had China.  China said, “It is hard enough to explain how to put a complex idea into practice when we understand the idea. It is impossible when we don’t”. Rinku added, “Many managers do not know what they are talking about. When they are asked to define fancy terms such as “learning organization,” “BPR” and “paradigm shift,” they are unable to offer any definition. If at all, they give one, it is pretty vague.”

Wafers wasn’t willing to toe the lien in full. She realized that she had audited some outstanding companies that had effectively tackled the knowing-doing gap. Such companies were usually led by people who had an intimate knowledge of the organization’s people, products and processes. These leaders had come up the hierarchy. They had made it a priority to learn from lower level employees, interact with customers and be involved in day-to-day operations. Working on the front line kept them in touch with the organization’s real capabilities and challenges. That experience allowed them to turn knowledge into action.

In companies that avoided the knowing-doing gap executives focused on a few straightforward priorities that had clear implications for action. Leaders in these organizations preferred plain language and simple concepts. They valued common sense.  China said, “Plain talk and simple concepts are valuable because they are more likely to lead to action. You can disagree with a simple plan, but you can’t claim confusion as an excuse to ignore it.”

Wafers recalled what a CFO had once told her,  “In a disabled company, criticism rules the roost. Few people are willing to offer ideas, leave alone get into action mode. I feel companies must insist that when people raise objections to new ideas or initiatives, they must also suggest how it would be possible to surmount the obstacles they foresee. In other words, conversations must be constructive and promote positive thinking. They must focus not on faults but on overcoming them.”

Rinku, the sole voice with corporate experience, said: “The best companies do not necessarily have any new strategy or any brilliant ideas. They are simply good at implementation. Great companies believe that experience is the best teacher. They convert the process of doing into an opportunity to learn. Sometimes they even start a project before they are completely sure it will work, just to learn from the experience. They launch new initiatives without waiting for every last detail to be ironed out.”

Wafers told herself that she would love to work in such outstanding companies and would one day become an outstanding leader herself.


About Pattabhi Ram

A chartered accountant by profession, a writer by passion and a teacher by accidental choice.
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