New from the Institute: Zach Ponders Converting Knowledge into Action

Last week, I joined 30 fellow scholars and educators at a meeting of the National Forum on the Future of Liberal Education. We spent some time with Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard, whose 2006 book Our Underachieving Colleges has sparked a lot of introspection in higher education.

Bok spoke on innovation in the classroom—and, specifically, how teachers can better apply what we already know about effective instructional practices. “Throughout undergraduate education,” Bok writes, “a great wall separates the world of research from the world of practice—even though the practitioners involved are professors, trained in research, who would seem ideally prepared to take full advantage of whatever findings empirical investigators have to offer.”

Listening to Bok was like looking into a mirror. Though our focus at the Drucker Institute is management effectiveness and his is student learning, the underlying theme is the same: improved results come from the conversion of the right knowledge into action. Or, as Drucker put it in an unpublished excerpt from the acknowledgements in his 1973 “big book” Management, “Above all the present book aims at motivating managers to act.”

The trick for us, of course, is in prompting the organizations we work with to make that leap. Writing in Peter Drucker’s edited volume Preparing Tomorrow’s Business Leaders Today, Dale Zand (now an emeritus professor of management at NYU) echoes Bok when he asks, “What relationships best aid the conversion of knowledge to action? Corporations are generally organized into a chain of command and into divisions that separate knowledge people from operating people. Difficulties in the conversion of knowledge most often emerge in the form of an ‘interface’ problem. The people who ‘know’ are in one group, while the people who ‘do’ are in another group.”

As knowledge people, we constantly face this interface problem. We can teach others what we know. We can inspire them. We can cajole them. But we can never do for them — that’s up to the people who work in the organizations we serve.This got me wondering: What kinds of organizations excel at being a source of knowledge that other organizations convert into action? And what can we learn from their successes? I thought of architecture firms, which inform contractors about what and how to build. And movie studios, which shape what a team of writers, producers, actors and a director create. What examples can you think of?

— Zach

Zach First, Drucker Institute managing director