Knowledge into Action

Each year over $60 billion is spent on training in the United States, particularly management training. Regardless of the quality of the content, the delivery or the frequency of repetition, management training is often ineffective in changing organizational practices.

Although knowledge management may be important, transforming knowledge into organizational action is at least as important to organizational success. Competitive advantage comes from being able to do something others can’t do. Anyone can read a book or attend a seminar. The trick is in turning the knowledge into organizational action.

What keeps companies from turning what they know about enhancing performance into action? Here are four different barriers to turning knowledge into action.

1. When Talk Replaces Action

The first barrier is when talk is substituted for action. Making decisions, making presentations, producing documents and writing mission statements can facilitate developing knowledge, but these are not a substitute for action.

Managers often act as if merely hearing and talking about methods for doing innovative work eliminates the need to actually use the methods.

Avoid substituting talk for action by developing a culture that values simplicity and common sense. Use language that is action oriented, and utilize follow up meetings to ensure what has been agreed to will actually be done.

2. Fear in the Workplace

The second barrier is when fear of management prevents people from acting on their knowledge. There is far more talk than action about using enlightened management techniques. In many organizations, taking care of people and putting them first is considered soft-headed and not business like.

In today’s environment of corporate downsizing, many workers consider themselves lucky just to have a job. Only a minority (38%) are very confident of their ability to quickly find new employment.

Fear of job loss is the number one reason for the failure of re-engineering efforts. Fear prevents people from delivering the bad news necessary to create change. Fear causes a  focus on the short term, often creating problems in the long run.

The key to driving out fear from your organization is to encourage open and free communication, decentralize decision making, give people second chances, and learn from and even celebrate mistakes.

3. When Measurement Replaces Judgment

Flawed measurement systems can be a large barrier to turning knowledge into action. Everyone knows that measurement focuses attention and “what gets measured gets done”.

Some measurement systems focus on short term financial performance and can neglect other aspects of the company.

Other measurement systems are overly complex with separate measures for financial performance, control systems, customer satisfaction, employee satisfaction, etc. Often precise measurement systems can miss the more subtle, important elements of performance.

Measurements should be guides, helping to direct behavior, but not so powerful in their implementation that they substitute for judgment and wisdom. Measurement systems that help organizations develop are relatively simple and use comparatively few metrics.

4. Internal Competition

Flawed measurement systems can often create internal competition; as do other management practices such as some recognition programs, contests between departments, and published ranking of unit or individual performance.

Each of these practices creates a zero-sum game, in which the success of one group or person comes at the expense of another. Internal competition undermines organizational loyalty, teamwork and knowledge sharing. Internal competition makes it even more difficult for people to put knowledge into action and to learn from each other.

Instead, focus people’s attention on external competitive threats. Avoid compensation and measurement systems that create internal competition. Managers need to model the right behavior by acting collaboratively, sharing information and helping others.

Knowledge and information are crucial to performance. But organizational performance depends more on turning knowledge into action, than on simply knowing the right thing. In fact, often management has knowledge of what needs to be done, but fails to act consistently with that knowledge.

Here are guidelines for turning knowledge into action:

  1. Focus on Process – The process needs to be founded on respect for the individual and their need to understand before they can do. Process starts with philosophy–not specific techniques or practices–but some basic guidelines or principles about how the process will operate.
  2. Knowing Comes From Doing and Teaching Others – People learn by observation and from doing together with someone who’s done it before. Teaching others is another way of knowing.
  3. Focus on Action – Action counts more than elegant plans and concepts. The principle of “ready, fire, aim” creates opportunities to learn by doing. Doing first and then planning establishes a culture where action is valued.
  4. Become Risk Tolerant – There is no doing without mistakes. What will be your company’s response? Will you celebrate good tries? Or will you treat failure harshly, so people are encouraged to engage in perpetual analysis, discussion and meetings?
  5. Leaders Lead – What leaders do, how they spend their time and how they allocate resources matters. Leaders create environments, reinforce norms, and help set expectations through what they do, through their action and not just their words.

Now we know more about why organizations fail to turn knowledge into action, but these insights are insufficient to solve the problem. Now it is up to you to turn this knowledge into action.

If you take some action now, you will learn more about how to turn knowledge into action. And please share with me whatever insights you gain from that experience.