Knowledge Management's 'Theory-Doing Gap'

FRAMINGHAM (04/10/2000) - Shell Oil Co.'s Scott Beaty is the kind of conference speaker who makes attendees feel they've gotten their thousand bucks' worth: the experienced, successful, seen-and-read-it-all manager that other managers admire. So when this knowledge manager told a Conference Board audience, "I've seen absolutely nothing new in theory for three years," something is wrong.

What's wrong is the "theory-doing gap." I've borrowed the phrase from Stanford Business School professor Robert Sutton, whose book The Knowing-Doing Gap (Harvard Business School Press, 1999) discusses why managers don't do the things they know they should do. The theory-doing gap is the gap between academics who create theories, technologists who build systems and practitioners who try to make them work. It's a doozy.

Gap: Knowledge-management managers say researchers are wasting their energies trying to measure something as intangible as the value of knowledge. On the contrary, say researchers like University of California at Berkeley marketing professor Rashi Glazer - bottom-line-conscious CEOs and chief financial officers won't take knowledge management seriously unless someone finds a way to do so.

Gap: Practitioners say the most successful knowledge-management projects have narrow, precise goals, yet IT consulting firms that compete to be "thought leaders" keep building enormous systems for gathering and storing knowledge.

Gap: IT people think of computers as the core of knowledge management, while thinkers like Xerox Parc's chief John Seely Brown and Boston University professor Tom Davenport say we really need to focus on how people behave with information.

Meanwhile, knowledge management gets more lip service than results. A just-published Conference Board survey of 158 Fortune 1,000 companies found that 80 percent of them have knowledge-management programs under way, but only half of them have a knowledge-management staff or budget. And just 13 percent of respondents said their CEOs "get it." And most practitioners feel there still isn't a good definition for knowledge management, despite all that's been published.

What's a movement to do? Measuring bottom-line benefits is one way to gain respect for knowledge management. But there's more.

In science, the biggest advances in theory usually come when researchers tie together phenomena that don't fit the current scientific paradigm. The theories of relativity, evolution and continental drift changed the way we see the world because they explained phenomena that earlier theories could not.

Knowledge-management researchers - and IT strategists - should take a tip from Einstein, Darwin and Alfred Wegener and start looking for surprises and unsolved mysteries. Find the unexpected successes when a knowledge-management undertaking becomes accepted, despite initial opposition. Look for the unexpected failures when a project that enjoyed every advantage goes down the tubes. Search long and hard for patterns that don't make sense and happenings that shouldn't happen. Then develop a theory that ties the surprises together.

That's the way to get people like Beaty to say, "You're on to something new," and close knowledge management's theory-doing gap.

Allan E. Alter is the editor-in-chief of MIT Sloan Management Review and a former Computerworld editor. Contact him at