The High Cost of Accurate Knowledge

Kathleen M. Sutcliffe*, Klaus Weber

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

57 Scopus citations


Many business thinkers believe it's the role of senior managers to scan the external environment to monitor contingencies and constraints, and to use that precise knowledge to modify the company's strategy and design. As these thinkers see it, managers need accurate and abundant information to carry out that role. According to that logic, it makes sense to invest heavily in systems for collecting and organizing competitive information. Another school of pundits contends that, since today's complex information often isn't precise anyway, it's not worth going overboard with such investments. In other words, it's not the accuracy and abundance of information that should matter most to top executives - rather, it's how that information is interpreted. After all, the role of senior managers isn't just to make decisions; it's to set direction and motivate others in the face of ambiguities and conflicting demands. Top executives must interpret information and communicate those interpretations - they must manage meaning more than they must manage information. So which of these competing views is the right one? Research conducted by academics Sutcliffe and Weber found that how accurate senior executives are about their competitive environments is indeed less important for strategy and corresponding organizational changes than the way in which they interpret information about their environments. Investments in shaping those interpretations, therefore, may create a more durable competitive advantage than investments in obtaining and organizing more information. And what kinds of interpretations are most closely linked with high performance? Their research suggests that high performers respond positively to opportunities, yet they aren't overconfident in their abilities to take advantage of those opportunities.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)74-82+129
JournalHarvard business review
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 1 2003

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Business and International Management
  • Business, Management and Accounting(all)
  • Economics and Econometrics
  • Strategy and Management
  • Management of Technology and Innovation


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