The “idea-action gap” and sustainability

Why do factories within the same company, which make the same products, using similar technology, differ so much (up to 500%) in environmental performance (e.g. energy and water use)?

This is one the main research challenges our research centre ( is looking into.

Already more than 10 years ago, Pfeffer and Sutton were annoyed by the fact that many smart people in smart organisations do not transfer their knowledge into action. They found that 42 food plants using similar technology in one company varied up to 300% in performance. This is not dissimilar from the environmental performance variations we identified by talking to large companies (Bocken et al., forthcoming).

The reason why knowledge is not shared does not seem to be “complexity”. For instance, when the car company Honda’s set out to improve the performance of its suppliers, this resulted in productivity increases averaging 50% across the 53 suppliers involved in the programme (Honda’s BP; Best Practice, Process, & Performance). The scientific knowledge used for changing production lines was concrete and simple, rather than abstract and complex (Honda example is taken from MacDuffie and Helper mentioned in the book).  As is also found in social psychology literature, setting a goal may really help to make things happen. Then, knowledge, which sits with individual workers, may be shared.

Pfeffer and Sutton give many good insights in causes of the knowledge-action gap, which may help understand how to overcome this, for instance:

  • Knowing “what” is not sufficient. Often “tacit knowledge” – the knowledge people sharing by talking to each other, knowledge you obtain by trial-and-error, and demonstrating what they do to others – is not captured in databases and management systems.
  • Don’t confuse memory (e.g. historical thinking) with thinking. The business rationale “this is how we always do this” may not be a very strong one but is often used.
  • Be aware of instances when talk substitutes action
  • Be aware of instances when fear prevents action
  • Avoid complicated measurement systems and “over-measurement” which obstructs good judgment (common sense is important!)
  • Avoid unhealthy competition in organisations


Each of these areas can lead to very specific analysis and research. But one of the “pitfalls” in particular made me think about the role of academics in particular: When talk substitutes for action. Some of the signs of when talk substitutes action observed by Pfeffer and Sutton (p. 54) for instance include:

  • Talking a lot is mistaken for doing a lot
  • There is no follow up to ensure whether what was said is being done
  • People forget that merely making a decision does not change anything
  • Meetings and reporting become an action in their own right & have little effect on action
  • People are evaluated on how smart they sound (rather than on things they do)
  • Complex language, ideas and processes are thought to be better than simple ones (although simplicity may be preferred!)
  • Status comes from talking a lot and being critical of others ideas


Industrial sustainability is an area, which lends itself for jargon and discussion around terminology. Being aware of instances when talk takes the overhand of action is important. Can this awareness in itself lead to more action than just talking? Certainly, the best action to overcome the gap between knowledge and action is action – a maybe unsurprising recommendation by Pfeffer and Sutton! Action based research and research close to practice may be the way forward to tackle this research area and make a real difference.



Bocken, N., Morgan, D., Evans, S. 2013. Understanding environmental performance variation in manufacturing companies. Journal of Productivity and Performance Management, Special issue on performance measurement of sustainable supply chains, 62 (8) (forthcoming)

EPSRC Centre for Innovative Manufacturing in Industrial Sustainability:

MacDuffie, P.  Helper, S. 1997. Creating Lean Suppliers: Diffusing Lean Production through the Supply Chain. California Management Review, 39 (summer), 118-150

Peffer, J., Sutton, R. 2000. The Knowing-Doing Gap. How smart companies turn knowledge into action. Harvard Business School Press, Boston MA.