print article



Read more of Sutton’s work.

Sutton’s homepage at Stanford University

The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge Into Action, J. Pfeffer, R. Sutton, Harvard Business School Press, (2000).

Building an Innovation Factory, A. Hardagon, R. Sutton, Harvard Business Review, May 2000.

The Perils of Internal Competition, Pfeffer, J. & Sutton R.I., Stanford Business, November 1999.

The Smart Talk Trap, J. Pfeffer, R. Sutton, Harvard Business Review, May 1999.

Creativity Doesn't Require Isolation: Why Product Designers Bring Visitors "Backstage", R. Sutton, T. Kelley, Harvard Business Review, October 1997.

Research in Organizational Behavior 1999: An Annual Series of Analytical Essays and Critical Reviews (Vol 21), R. Sutton (Ed.), JAI Press (1999).

Brainstorming groups in context: Effectiveness in a product design firm, Sutton, R.I. & Hargadon, A., Administrative Science Quarterly, December 1996. 

Consequences of public scrutiny for leaders and their organizations, Sutton, R.I. & Galunic, D.C. in Research in Organizational Behavior, JAI Press, Vol. 18, (1996).

Meetings as status contests: Negotiating order in on-going workgroups, Owens, D. A. & Sutton, R.I., in M. Turner (Ed.) Groups at work: Advances in theory and research. Lawrence Erlbaum, in press (2000).

Major Causes of the Knowing-Doing Gap

When talk substitutes for action

When memory substitutes for thinking

When fear prevents acting on knowledge

When measurement prevents good judgement

When internal competition turns friends into enemies

When the company doesn't know what it knows




Today in the business world, we know more than we’ve ever known. We have scores of business consultants at our disposal, numerous business books published each year, a burgeoning training industry gobbling up more than $60 billion per year in the U.S. alone, and a record numbers of MBA graduates hitting the market each spring. Yet, with all this knowledge at our fingertips, it’s safe to assume that each of us could list multiple examples where our companies, and we, have had a hard time getting anything done. It can be very difficult to turn what we know into action.

LiNE Zine was privileged to sit down with Stanford professor Robert (Bob) Sutton, and discuss the problem. How can we be well trained and well informed, yet ineffective? Sutton and coauthor Jeffrey Pfeffer ask just those questions in their highly successful book, The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge Into Action (Harvard Business School Press, 2000). In his fast moving and witty manner, Sutton took us on a lively tour through the landscape of organizational behavior, focusing on the links (and gaps) between managerial knowledge and organizational action, and innovation. He offered his perspective on why, despite all this knowing, there’s very little doing, and how elearning might help filland in some cases widenthe knowing-doing gap.

Lessons from the
Knowing-Doing Gap

There is no knowledge advantage unless your company also has an action advantage!

Big Lesson #1
Philosophy Matters

Big Lesson #2
If you know by doing, there is no gap between what you know and what you do.

Big Lesson #3
Failure is essentialthere is no doing without mistakes, setbacks, and dead ends.

LiNE Zine: We have spoken with many people about elearning, people with wide and varied levels of experience and insight. Many of them repeatedly return to the topics of experience, action, and doingthe major themes of your new book. If you would, please give us your perspective on learning and doing.

Sutton: From my perspective, the hazard elearning presents has been around for a long time: when talking—or listening—becomes a substitute for action. This is like the old transfer-training problem, where talking about it is different than when the knowledge is actually going to be used. Talk is not enough, so sitting in the classroom or learning something just by looking at it on the computer is not enough either.

To the extent that you need to learn something in the box, elearning might actually make a lot of sense. But, to the extent that you’re trying to learn something in the box from elearning and then apply it in a different or a more complex way, such as anything from biochemistry to learning how to lead a group of people face to face, or give speeches, it doesn’t work very well. Again, just like the old transfer-training problem.  

LiNE Zine: You mentioned learning things in the box, and we will call that the known. Would elearning work only when things are in the box, when things are known, or would a problem occur when things are both known and unknown?

Sutton: I think the problem occurs in both cases. A lot of it has to do with context. On the one hand, you have formal, structured learning delivered on-line, typically presentation slides with a little window in the corner of the screen where somebody talks. For the more formal elearning, the computer can sometimes be a problem because you lose the interactivity.

On the informal side, Ted Anton has written a very interesting book, Bold Science. He interviewed seven famous scientists about their breakthroughs, and shows that because of the Internet and the new ability to exchange a lot of information and collaborate with people over the world, discoveries happen much more rapidly and dramatically than before. For example, the discovery of new planets and the Human Genome project, among others, are much facilitated by powerful computers and the Internet. The Information Age is enhancing innovation, especially innovation that comes from new combinations of disparate fields. This is the more informal side of elearning. In some ways, it’s a structured versus an unstructured problem.

LiNE Zine: To take a slightly different track, we would like to touch on known problems and solutions versus unknown problems and solutions. It’s probably not the same as structured versus unstructured because the question is, is this a problem that someone has solved before or is this a problem that no one has solved before? We may not see new inventions happening all the time, but we do frequently see people tackling things that haven’t been tackled before.

Sutton: Although the telephone and mail have been around for a long time, I believe information technology makes a lot of things happen faster. But, the question is how differently does it make them happen? I don’t think it makes them happen that differently. It’s certainly not an automatic fix to have information technology come and replace everything.

A theory in the organizational arena called institutional theory argues that companies do things, especially training, to help satisfy external constituencies, and not necessarily to make things better. For example, Stanford requires that I take a class on sexual harassment over the computer next year. This is required for legal reasons; then Stanford can say they’ve provided it to everyone. To be blunt, I think the course has very little effect on people’s behavior. Another example is some research I did several years ago at a large local fire department that had terrible racial problems. The judge mandated a lot of training, and this was training where they sat and listened to people talk about the importance of increasing racial harmony—then they would go back to the fire house and there would be no change in their behavior at all. In those cases, it was just perfunctory training that the institution had to do in order to satisfy some external evaluation.

Nobody likes to say this about training, but there are certain kinds of training that actually help people do their jobs better, and there’s another kind that does not affect what people actually do, but only affects the company’s legitimacy. (This is, of course, not in the perfect world, but in the world, as it exists today). In the latter case, if a course is as badly taught over the computer as it is face-to-face, why not do the one that’s cheaper? I think there is both an empirical and a theoretical justification for cheaper in the case of the latter.

LiNE Zine: eLearning, as you describe it, is still a very passive exercise today. Could you speak about your personal experience with distance learning at Stanford, and how it has compared with the traditional learning experience?

Sutton: Stanford, and many other institutions, has a lot of pressure to do what they call elearning or distance education. There are all sorts of offers for technology alleging it will help people learn better, or at least to increase the profit margins of these institutions. Those two goals get confounded sometimes.

For some sorts of activities, like just delivering a lecture where the audience is completely passive, not much changes with the on-line delivery tools of slides and a talking head. Of course, it might be slightly better to work live with people around you, and have a sense of the room, but not much is lost.

The more difficult arena is that middle ground where you’re trying to get people to interact when some of them are physically with you and some are on the network. People tell me that in some programs, they entertain on-line questions and use phone calls, but in my experience it has always failed, or been a less than robust experience with lag problems and the like.

For example, in a typical class I teach 60 people live in class, and 50 or so people via the web. Inevitably, tensions arise between the in-class people and the out-of-class people, because communication lags occur for the online participants and they usually miss subtleties of the class. Of course, that’s only one way that distance education is done.

Another method is that in a number of classes I teach now, I am videotaped, and then the class is shown on-line here at Stanford. Personally, that method is easier because I don’t have to worry about a live external audience as I am being taped.

LiNE Zine: Have you seen elearning effectively applied, uniting the knowing and the doing?

Sutton: Everybody talks about all the fancy software applications for elearning, but the most effective I have seen is straight email. For example, I teach a class (with Tom Meyers) to a special group called the Mayfield Fellows, 12 students with an entrepreneurship focus. This course truly does a great job of marrying the knowing and the doing, and it is much better because of technology.

LiNE Zine:    Could you give us some real-life examples of how the blending of the knowing and the doing occurs?

Sutton:   To illustrate, for the Mayfield Fellows, we teach live classes, and then follow the students over the summer while they work in a start-up. They keep in constant touch with each other and with us by sending email and writing in diaries once a week about what they’re doing. Reading the diaries and the emails during the summer gives all of us a much richer feel for their experiences, and we’re active participants by offering feedback, advice, and our own experiences. So, in this case, people are actually doing something, but in twelve disparate physical environments.

LiNE Zine: So the most effective application you’ve seen is really quite simple?

Sutton: I guess my bottom line on elearning, and related products, is that it shouldn’t be a substitute for actually thinking and doing something. However, when interwoven with what people actually do, it can make the learning experience richer. It is not a replacement, but rather a supplement, and it can make learning more efficient and sometimes richer.

As I think about it, maybe that’s the distinction. It will not work as a substitute for actually doing anything else—the

old problems persist. You can’t learn heart surgery or how to fly an airplane on the computer screen, nor learn by watching somebody do it. It will work if it somehow increases the flow of communication and understanding among people actually doing something, just like our twelve students struggling to be members of start-ups this summer. They can read each other’s diaries, and they can send emails to one another and ask for help.

LiNE Zine: If you were going to help educate the world on some of the messages of the Knowing-Doing gap, and help people and companies get started turning knowledge into action, could you offer some of the first action steps, or things they can do to get started?

Sutton: I can point to two of the most serious problems that make it difficult for organizations to actually turn knowledge into action. One is called the smart talk trap, or when talk becomes a substitute for action. It seems to me that the hazard of on-line education is that we will simply continue that problem. I don’t think on-line education will make it worse. But when you believe that you’ve trained somebody to do something just by talking about it rather than learning by doing it, you’ve made a mistake. As I mentioned before, that’s the same mistake that training programs have always made.

The second cause of the knowing-doing gap is precedent, which is when people do things in organizations because they’ve always been done that way. One thing I worry about with some of the on-line education is that it makes the company’s dogma even clearer and more explicit. There’s some risk that people in companies will become more efficiently frozen in a path and won’t be able to try new things very easily. That is, of course, a problem in organizations anyway. I worry that by codifying everything, writing everything down, and delivering it on-line that it’s harder to have people make the same mistake again and actually discover that while it didn’t apply in 1997, it applies now. So, we’re ironically talking about increased efficiency getting people stuck in a certain path.

LINE Zine: We could have a whole conversation about un-learning, un-doing, and learning from our errors...

Sutton: Some of these advances in technology might make it harder for people to un-learn, and to do random things. In many cases, random things are actually quite important to innovation. So again, one of the things I worry about is how elearning will more efficiently present uniformities to people.

With that said, people are inquisitive and very curious. I think they can overcome virtually any machine and figure out a new way.

LINE Zine: Well it’s been a pleasure talking with you. We are anxious to begin doing!

Bob Sutton is a Professor of Management Science and Engineering in the Stanford Engineering School, where he is Co-Director of the Center for Work, Technology, and Organization and an active researcher in the Stanford Technology Ventures Program. He is also a Fellow at IDEO Product Development. He has served as an editor and on the editorial board member of numerous scholarly publications, and currently serves as Co-Editor of Research in Organizational Behavior.

Beth Garlington Scofield is managing editor of LiNE Zine. She welcomes comments, challenges, and questions about anything she's said. Write her at





Copyright (c) 2000-2004 LiNE Zine (

LiNE Zine retains the copyright in all of the material on these web pages as a collective work under copyright laws. You may not republish, redistribute or exploit in any manner any material from these pages without the express consent of LiNE Zine and the author. Contact for reprints and permissions. You may, however, download or print copyrighted material for your individual and non-commercial use.