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What is the knowing-doing gap?

Knowing something is one thing. Unfortunately, actually doing it is often an entirely different story. Most of us probably know how to boil a pot of spaghetti. However, putting that knowledge into action and cooking the perfect plate of spaghetti every time is not as easy as it sounds. Enter, the ‘knowing-doing gap’. 
Marit Parten
2020-08-06

Knowing something is one thing. Unfortunately, actually doing it is often an entirely different story. Most of us probably know how to boil a pot of spaghetti. However, putting that knowledge into action and cooking the perfect plate of spaghetti every time is not as easy as it sounds. Enter, the ‘knowing-doing gap’. 

Knowing the knowing-doing gap

As the name suggests, ‘knowing’ is the first step in the knowing-doing gap. With that in mind, we’ll start off with a simple question: what is the knowing-doing gap? 

The knowing-doing gap has been studied for decades as a concern both within the workplace and our personal lives. In 2000, the term gained further attention when Pfeffer and Sutton published The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action, which highlights the importance of turning knowledge into performance. Put simply, the knowing-doing gap is the disconnect between knowledge and action. Bottom line, knowing is not always enough

The gap between what we know and what we actually apply in our daily lives is increasing rapidly. As technology and cultural norms continue to advance at a whirlwind pace, the amount of information we are expected to retain is also increasing - often faster than we can keep up with. Sometimes, this can feel overwhelming. How do you stay up to date in areas such as programming security cameras to unmet diversity and inclusion needs within an organisation, while still remembering how to tie your shoelaces and brush your hair in the morning? 

The Learning and Development (L&D) industry is certainly no stranger to the knowing-doing gap (or the speed at which this gap is growing!). This brings us to the nudge theory, popularised by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their 2008 book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. The nudge theory is the concept that positive reinforcement or recommendations affect positive outcomes. Yet, while leaders commonly apply the nudge theory  within their teams, the idea of suggestion can only do so much to decrease the knowing-doing gap. This leaves us with a pressing question: how do we close the gap?

Closing the skills gap

Everyone is different. Whether it’s different backgrounds, different interests, or different senses of humour, these differences are what make working in a team so rewarding. One natural consequence of these differences is skill gaps. Skill gaps occur in all areas of performance. They can range from bridging generational acumen gaps to proficiency in IT skills.

Unfortunately, this means workplace misalignment is almost unavoidable. Whether you’re administering Slack rules or laying out spreadsheet best practices, it’s almost impossible to create a set of procedures that align perfectly with everyone’s skills, knowledge, and background. Still, misalignment is most evident in the application of ‘doing.’ L&D trainers tend to focus on the delivery of material without having plans to assess how people absorb this knowledge and apply it to their daily workflow. Thus, the gap between knowledge-gain and employee effectiveness increases.

In striving for growth, or simply to maintain the status quo, companies frequently focus on leadership development. The desire to train middle managers similarly and effectively, or to increase upper management growth, can be burdensome and misaligned. In fact, Go1’s recent 2020 State of Learning Report identified developing leaders as the biggest challenge faced in delivering organisational learning. 

Given this, a question asked by many is how to identify these gaps and failures. Before we answer that, first, let’s take a moment to reflect on all the formulas and definitions you had to memorise at school. If you’re like most people, you probably retained just enough information for that quiz, essay, or standardised test, only to discard most of this knowledge at the first chance you got. As a former educator, I found that by supporting failure (for learners of any age) I could achieve eventual success. By providing multiple attempts to master a topic, the fear of failure also declined and the knowledge of the material was less likely to be forgotten. 

Similarly, online learning can allow employees to self-pace and filter in areas they feel need extra attention. Our 2020 State of Learning Report even found that 8 of the top 10 topics on Go1 were non-compliance related, showing that employees are more than willing to undertake self-guided online learning beyond the mandatory requirements set by an organisation. 

Basically, this all means the key to narrowing gaps, for both personal and professional growth, is to clearly identify them. Busy managers can struggle to find enough time to conduct regular one on one meetings with their team members. As a result, time is not allocated for deep dives into what is and isn’t working for any given role.

Instead, gaps in applying learned techniques should be evaluated and measured in any role, while L&D managers must be well equipped to achieve their organisation’s goals, and to equitably educate team members before assessing knowledge and application gaps. By practicing skill sets, we narrow the knowing-doing gap. The goal is simple: train well to do well!

Mind the gap! 

In L&D, the ‘knowing’ portion of the knowing-doing gap can be assessed in many ways. For instance, Go1 provides online course content, the ability to curate playlists specific to learning goals, learning pathways, online quizzes, artificial intelligence/machine learning, and company assessments, just to name a few. With this in mind, one of the best ways to master new concepts is by incorporating VARK modalities, which focus on teaching all types of learners (visual, auditory/aural, reading/writing, or kinesthetic). Content production styles can vary from interactive animated videos to presentations by industry thought-leaders. In other words, eLearning has something for everyone.

The ‘doing’ portion of the knowing-doing gap is usually more subjective to measure, as most trainers and managers will attest. To help you establish whether the ‘doing’ portion of the gap is being met, some common ‘doing’ metrics include increased revenue, or an analysis of whether how-to playbook standards are being met. It may also be helpful to ask yourself: what is available to guide your learners’ workflows? Does your learning management system offer reports to help narrow the gap between knowing and doing?

For example, Go1 customers like Domain Logistics have experienced knowledge gaps in the workplace, and have asked for assistance in assuring training is applied and executed correctly. Go1 partners with hundreds of content providers, like Josh Bersin, Interaction Training, MindTools, and Sarder Learning to offer courses that help HR leaders monitor implementation, in turn narrowing the knowing-doing gap. Thankfully, more resources are available almost daily in our ever-changing online world of eLearning, so you can check back in regularly to continue narrowing that gap.

We know it’s never fun to be a jack of all trades and master of none, which is why bridging the knowing-doing gap is beneficial for everyone. Learners of any subject prefer to prove (the do) their knowledge (the know), both personally and professionally. That’s why in our mostly virtual world, eLearning is helping to narrow the knowing-doing gap by creating a workplace grounded in knowledge and propelled by achievements.

Keen to learn more about the key challenges limiting the impact of L&D in organisations? Download the Go1 State of Learning Report.

Go1 helps millions of people in thousands of organizations engage in learning that is relevant, effective and inspiring.
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