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Just Do It!

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FTdynamo.com Managers can be too concerned with collecting knowledge whilst forgetting the need to use it says FTdynamo in the fifth of a series of columns written for HR Zone from the new management education portal.


How many times have you met managers who have just returned from some challenging (and expensive) training programme filled with enthusiasm and bright ideas? Briefly, they possess the optimistic belief that they can – and surely will – change things for the better. But as many thousands of executives can testify, the feel good factor is usually short-lived.

No matter how motivational the classroom fireworks, they rarely illuminate action in the workplace. All that lingers is the smell of inspirational sulphur in the air. Energy and bright ideas dissipate as surely as smoke. This failure to convert theory into practice is an expensive one. American companies spend over $60 billion on training per annum. A hefty percentage of this is invested in executive education and management training. In recent years, large sums of money have also been thrown in the general direction of knowledge management.

Stanford University’s Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton have examined why great ideas fail to be translated into best practice. In their book, The Knowing Doing Gap, Pfeffer and Sutton are critical of the managerial fashion for knowledge management. It is one thing having a company’s store of knowledge carefully tabulated, quite another to actually do something with it. The corollary of this is that talking about doing something is now more venerated than actually doing something. This, in turn, relates back to the training issue.

As Pfeffer and Sutton point out, the problem with doing is that it can make you look bad. Doing requires a willingness to take risks. Things do go wrong. Corporations are notoriously loathe to accept mistakes. They discourage people from having a go. Pfeffer and Sutton cite the difference between American Airlines and Southwest Airlines. If a plane is delayed, American pins the blame right down to an individual. Southwest is less concerned about accountability, and more concerned about putting planes in the air full of happy customers.

Many of Pfeffer and Sutton’s criticisms of managers and their organisations are old chestnuts. Managers like launching new programmes and initiatives: who cares if they eventually die a death? Corporations also remain prone to competing pointlessly internally and measuring the wrong things.

These observations remain both dispiriting and depressingly accurate. But they are not the whole story. The blame for inactivity should not be linked with the corporate thirst for knowledge or simply be laid at the door of executive educators. Knowledge is not a bad thing. The important thing is that knowledge and education connect with working life. Here, at least, there appear to be grounds for optimism.

Look, for instance, at the increasing use of action learning in executive education. Action learning is the antithesis of the traditional approach to developing managers. Fans of the technique include Jack Welch, General Electric’s celebrated CEO, whose Workout programme is a form of action learning, and Herb Kelleher, head of Southwest Airlines.

The concept was first championed by the indomitable British academic (and one time Olympic athlete) Reg Revans. He created a simple equation: L = P + Q. According to Revans, Learning (L), occurs through a combination of programmed knowledge (P) and the ability to ask insightful questions (Q). In essence, action learning is based around releasing and re-interpreting the accumulated experiences of the people in a group. Managers work on key issues in real-time. The emphasis is on asking questions rather than making statements.

Asking questions and listening to answers is an increasingly important managerial skill. Action learning encourages both. “If you want to change behavior, you have to work with the experiential side,” explains Ethan Hanabury, associate dean for exec ed at Columbia Business School.

Adults learn best by doing; executives learn best with, and from, others in similar situations. That’s progress.


FTdynamo features writing and research from leading business schools and management consultancies with expert insight and analysis from FTdynamo. A free trial of its services is available at http://www.ftdynamo.com

One Response

  1. An alternative angle…
    I v. much question the straw man style of creating a polarity between ‘knowledge’ and ‘action’. It too easily distracts attention from the difficulties of action-oriented and knowledge-oriented folk of relating to each other.

    Am I mistaken in the perception that organisations are more inclined to engage in polemics about action (A) and knowledge (K) rather than grapple with bothersome relationships (R), because the presence or absence of A and K are much easier to measure than R. In the cryptology of inequalities, A + K < R where R = f (E x C x W), and E is Emotion, C is Cognition, W is Will.

    With a smile

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