How to close the gap between knowledge and action


How do you know what you know?

You’ve probably been working for a while, and by now have a number of views on how things should be done.

You know the right order, the correct approach or the most effective way to do things.

You might feel that what you learn and figure out on the job – the practical stuff you do there – is where real work is done, and academics in their ivory towers have nothing much to add to how you do things.

Or, you might be an academic, engrossed in research and evidence. You might know the ways that work across organizations from your research and know the precise way in which to articulate an idea so that it expresses a contingent truth.

Except, you lose most listeners at the word “contingent”.

This creates a barrier between the people who create new knowledge and the people that do work. It’s probably no exaggeration to say that most work done in organizations is based on ten to twenty year old research and methods and very few organizations are really at the cutting edge of what they do.

As John Maynard Keynes said, “Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”

Except today he would probably say practical people.

Writing in the Oxford Review blog, David Wilkinson outlines three main reasons for the gulf between knowers and doers.

1. Most people can’t get to the research or understand it when they do

Academics write for each other in peer-reviewed journals locked away behind paywalls in precise, terse and technical language.

Most people don’t get this language and what it means for them.

The Nobel prize winning physicist Richard Feynman gave a beautiful example of this. Look at the sentence “The radioactive phosphorus content of the cerebrum of the rat decreases to one-half in a period of two weeks.”

What does this mean?

What this sentence means is that the atoms in the rat’s brain, and your brain disappear and are replaced all the time – the very fabric of your body, the atoms that make you up are no longer the same as they were before.

The mind you have now is no longer the one you had a year ago – all its bits have been replaced. But you’re still here, thinking and feeling and with memories.

Your consciousness and feelings and emotions come out from arrangements of atoms – a dancing pattern of atoms if you will – and are not the unchanging fixed entity that you think you are. Instead the “you” that you are emerges from this pattern of atoms.

It takes time and reflection and discussion to take apart and understand these concepts – time that people outside of academic rarely have.

2. People who do are busy and need to get things done now

People who do things need to worry about clients, deadlines, office politics and the need to ship and invoice now.

What they need are solutions that are practical, tested and effective. They haven’t got the time to discuss elaborate theories or ideas that apply only in very specific cases.

They also expect a healthy dose of “common sense”.

They way in which academic knowledge comes across doesn’t easily fit these requirements – it needs to be translated and explained and there often just isn’t the time, resource or appetite to do this properly.

This also means that many decisions and actions taken by organisations are based on gut-instinct, hunches and methods that have worked in the past rather than based on evidence and data, which is how academics would prefer that they did things.

3. Knowers and Doers simply have different objectives

An academic needs to do research and get published. That is their main objective and they get funding and support to create new knowledge, not to make it easier to access or more practical to apply.

A manager or worker in an organisation needs to get things done. Their main objective is to satisfy a customer.

The two are looking in completely different directions, and when they do come together the work they do needs to meet these dual aims of being applicable and practical while at the same time being novel and publishable.

These are not easy aims to reconcile.

Are consultants the answer?

Perhaps this is why consultants that are able to bridge the gap between research and action are so useful in organisations.

Well trained workers that have done a research based degree or have continuing links with academia can bring new ideas, approaches and methods into organisations that are tested and evidence-based.

Much of the ways in which organizations work – from operations to risk management to sales and marketing has been exhaustively researched and are well understood.

The challenge is to get and use this knowledge more effectively on a day-to-day basis.

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