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HUMAN RESOURCES

Bridging the Gap Between Knowledge, Action

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There is no knowledge advantage unless your company also has an action advantage. But many managers -HR managers included - fail to take action out of inertia or fear of failure.

These procrastinators need to understand that action counts more than elaborate plans and concepts, saysRobert I. Sutton, coauthor with Jeffrey Pfeffer of The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies TurnKnowledge into Action. In a world where sounding smart has too often come to take the place of doingsomething smart, there is a tendency to let planning, meetings, and talk substitute for implementation.

"People like to say all of this smart stuff, to give the right answer, like in school," Sutton tells Human Resource Management News.

Action Can Be Dangerous

That's often because the company culture makes it dangerous to take action.

"If, in the organization, everybody points fingers when something goes wrong rather than help fix the problem,you feel you're probably better off just saying the smart stuff," he says. "The basic human response is not to try to improve the company, just try to avoid losing you job and being attacked."

But if the company allows employees to learn from mistakes and provides "soft landings" when they try and fail, people will be more likely to take action.

Sometimes the problem is that memory substitutes for action, says Sutton.

"That's more insidious - companies do things because they've always done it that way," he says. A company gets stuck in the past because the commitment to the past reaffirms its social identity and culture.

That's a particular problem for HR professionals because "HR is often in the position of having to enforcelegal requirements and follow a bunch of careful rules. They end up being cautious" and doing things the oldway.

To break from the past, Sutton calls for a revolution that creates new ways of doing things and makes itimpossible to go back to the old ways.

In both hiring decisions and in the way performance evaluations are done, Sutton urges HR to recognize morefully the importance of interdependent work. "Work is more interdependent than we seem to pretend it is. It'snot about individual superstars."

From an HR perspective, what the war for talent too often means is piling up the best possible people whohave the highest dollar value, he says. "But the problem with that kind of hiring is that the ability to cooperate asa team member is overlooked. In the war for talent, that's sometimes forgotten."

And more and more, performance evaluations seem to be set up to create a forced ranking, Sutton says. Thatpractice by definition pits people against one another instead of trying to develop employees who do theirjobs reliably, consistently, and in cooperation with coworkers.

Peer Evaluation

The ideal performance evaluation is done by peers, he says. "It's not 360-degree feedback. It's apeer-controlled culture. It does consider other things, but part of it is the employee's reputation for helpingothers."

Sutton says that David Kelley, president of IDEO Product Development, told him, "It's relatively easy to fool theboss, but it's hard to fool the team. You can't be like Eddie Haskell [of the television show Leave It toBeaver] and be on you best behavior" for a short period of time.

The company's compensation system should "reward smart action, not smart talk" and help employees focuson the outside enemy and not on internal competition, Sutton emphasizes. The company may have individualincentives, but it should have incentives to cooperate as well.

One of best examples of how to avoid internal competition, he says, is from a medical device manufacturer that went from a system in whichemployees working on various products were in competition with each other to a system in which a large proportion of everyone's bonus isnow based on the performance of the company's five most critical projects.

Copyright © Kennedy Information LLC, 800-521-0007. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction prohibited by law.

Last updated: Mar 1, 2000




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