Can an Organization’s “Deep Smarts” Be Preserved?
When employees leave, they take more than their coat and hat. How can companies better preserve the accumulated knowledge of individuals? Isn’t that what separates average companies from truly great ones?
This month's column appears to have struck a chord with those who lament the continuing loss of implicit knowledge buried inside the heads of experienced leaders (termed "deep smarts" by Dorothy Leonard and Walter Swap in their book of the same name). Of particular concern is the phenomenon in large, publicly-listed business organizations.
What are the causes? As Simon Griffiths puts it, "While we continue to focus on the short term, we will lose the benefits of working for the long term. Wisdom is only gained through time and good teachers." Ray Wright suggests that "those companies that are in the hands of accountants will shrink from ... [preserving deep smarts] because they will not be able to quantify the benefits in business terms." C. J. Cullinane elaborates on this in commenting that "In a quest for a less costly and younger workforce, a lot of companies have eliminated the accumulated wisdom of older workers." Saira Somani-Mendelin points to another possible cause: The failure to preserve deep smarts "... goes much deeper than the bottom line. It may stem from insecurity and thus the unwillingness to share organizational knowledge." Joe Violette raises a more practical issue: "Knowledge coaching ... cannot be effectively accomplished on a one-on-one basis. Too few people will benefit ...."
Respondents provided possible responses to these dilemmas. Anshu Vats points out that "It can be done, but only by the firms that have employee longevity and a valued ... way of life." This may not mean retaining everyone, however, as Horacio Cavallero suggests in commenting that "I have always thought that it was very important to keep and shelter 'experienced professionals,' but not everyone. Organizations should keep those pros who keep up with constant learning and upgrading ...." Paul McDowall points out that "Any organization can immediately identify at least a handful of people whose departure would seem devastating ... [then] come up with some ideas on how to share and retain some of their knowledge. It's not rocket science."
Among more specific proposals, Sharon Richmond suggests an antidote to the Violette objection by suggesting that "Rather than relying only on private, one-to-one transmission of the information using an apprenticeship model, organizational leaders should insist on and practice greater transparency in management decision making." In a U.K. bank, David Physick relates that "we encouraged knowledge sharing through "lunch 'n' learn' sessions." Richard Smith writes, "One of the models found in our military services begins in structuring leadership positions of 'executive officer' ... principal assistants to designated leaders having command responsibilities ... growth positions to enhance individuals' abilities."
Francine McKenna poses a significant challenge in commenting that all of this "presumes two things about corporate life today: That enough corporate executives can be 'deep.' That it pays to be 'smart' in today's corporation." If the presumptions are not correct, as she implies, how do we deal with the deeper dilemmas this suggests? Do we have even a fighting chance to preserve "deep smarts"? What do you think?
Successful organizations, according to Dorothy Leonard and Walter Swap in their new book, Deep Smarts: How to Cultivate and Transfer Enduring Business Wisdom, rely on people who possess knowledge that provides a distinctive competitive advantage. It is tacit (non-quantifiable, implicit, and often very subtle in nature) knowledge based on "first-hand life experiences" and "shaped by beliefs and social forces" based primarily on "know-how" and "know-who." It is "as close as we get to wisdom," and is dubbed "deep smarts" by the authors. Deep smarts are, in many ways, what enables managers to reach good judgements well before others—at the extreme, to practice "blink" (recalling my February column). The authors, based on their observation of deep smarts at work, prescribe ways in which they can be cultivated and transferred, and therefore preserved.
Conscious efforts can be made to develop deep smarts, according to the authors. They involve offering opportunities to obtain a great deal of experience through combinations of various jobs (requiring at least ten years for the accumulation of sufficient experience), simulations (speeding up the process a bit), and formal education. But most importantly of all, they involve the employment of "knowledge coaches" capable of creating opportunities for "coachees" to develop deep smarts through everyday observation and decision making. Such coaches are distinguished from mentors by the degree to which they structure and engage their charges in various learning experiences.
Deep smarts, it is maintained, can be transferred from one management "generation" to another. But it isn't easy. It requires that carefully-selected individuals possessing deep smarts devote significant amounts of time to the coaching of a self-selected protégé by creating a learning process that the authors term "guided experience" (including practice, observation, problem solving, and experimentation). Techniques to be employed range from presentations and lectures on the passive side to the provision of rules of thumb, storytelling with a moral, Socratic questioning, and learning by doing at the active learning end of the spectrum. It might involve following the coach through important activities or conducting post mortems of both the coach's and the protégé's behaviors and decisions. In an educational institution, one example of the use of knowledge coaches in the transfer of deep smarts is the employment of emeritus faculty members, disengaged from the performance evaluation and promotion process, to teach alongside junior faculty members while providing coaching in everything from classroom teaching techniques to the mores and culture of the organization.
The problem, of course, is that this process is both costly and time-consuming, particularly in organizations required to meet quarterly earnings targets. This raises the question of just how practical it is: Won't it always be relegated to the "nice to do" category of activities and responsibilities? How is knowledge coaching measured and rewarded? While everyone with requisite experience, according to the authors, is a candidate for knowledge coaching, can an organization afford to allocate sufficient time to the practice, including training? Conversely, are these questions merely symptomatic of a basic problem in management today; that is, the failure to preserve the deep smarts that separate the best from the average performers? What do you think?