Critical Knowledge Transfer: A book review by Bob Morris

Critical KnowledgeCritical Knowledge Transfer: Tools for Managing Your Company’s Deep Smarts
Dorothy Leonard, Walter Swap, and Gavin Barton
Harvard Business Review Press (2014)

How to locate, obtain or develop, assimilate, manage, and leverage your organization’s “Deep Smarts”

Dorothy Leonard is among my intellectual heroines. I make it a point to re-read at least once a year her previously published books, When Sparks Fly: Igniting Creativity in Groups (1999) and Deep Smarts: How to Cultivate and Transfer Enduring Business Wisdom (2005), both co-authored with Walter Swap. What we have in this latest book is a wealth of information, insights, and counsel provided by Leonard, Swap, and their co-author Gavin Barton that business leaders can use to locate, obtain, assimilate, manage, and leverage your organization’s “Deep Smarts.”

As Leonard and Swap explain in a Harvard Business Review article (September 2004, “When a person sizes up a complex situation and comes to a rapid decision that proves to be not just good but brilliant, you think, ‘That was smart.’ After you’ve watched him do this a few times, you realize you’re in the presence of something special. It’s not raw brainpower, though that helps. It’s not emotional intelligence, either, though that, too, is often involved. It’s deep smarts, the stuff that produces that mysterious quality, good judgment. Those who have deep smarts can see the whole picture and yet zoom in on a specific problem others haven’t been able to diagnose. Almost intuitively, they can make the right decision, at the right level, with the right people.

The manager who understands when and how to move into a new international market, the executive who knows just what kind of talk to give when her organization is in crisis, the technician who can track a product failure back to an interaction between independently produced elements—these are people whose knowledge would be hard to purchase on the open market. Their insight is based more on know-how than on facts; it comprises a system view as well as expertise in individual areas. Deep smarts are not philosophical—they’re not ‘wisdom in that sense—but they’re as close to wisdom as business gets.”

Those who possess deep smarts are needed at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise. The challenge for leaders is to establish and then sustain a culture within which deep smarts are most likely to thrive. Hence the importance of communication, cooperation, and most important of all, collaboration. Leonard, Swap, and Barton develop in much greater depth a concept introduced in the aforementioned article: guided experience.

Those who possess deep smarts in a specific area such as marketing, sales, and distribution can serve as mentors when guiding others through learning experiences that increase knowledge and skills in that area. I hasten to add that one of the best ways to learn more and learn faster is to teach others. Deep smarts can go deeper. Socrates once said that the more he knew, the more he realized how much he didn’t know. In the healthiest organizations, knowledge transfers are constant. If an organization is viewed as a living organism, I believe that knowledge transfers provide its oxygen.

These are among the dozens of passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Leonard, Swap, and Barton ’s coverage:

o Important aspects of the knowledge transfer process (Pages 5-6)
o Invisible Hits to the Bottom Line, and, One More Cost: Loss of capacity to Innovate (9-15)
o Explicit, Implicit, and Tacit Knowledge (18-25)
o Deep Smarts: All Three Kinds of Knowledge (25-35)
o The Limits of Experience-Based Knowledge (39-41)
o Who Knows? Knowledge Experts (46-52)
o Who Needs to Know? Knowledge Learners (52-55)
o Who Helps? Facilitators and Coaches (55-57)
o TABLE 4-2: Sample question kit for knowledge elicitation (81)
o Gaining Experience: Real and Vicarious (118-135)
o The Art of Knowledge Transfer through Discovery (135-141)
o Background of the Knowledge-Transfer Project (163-166)
o Selecting a Knowledge Transfer Strategy (168-170)
o Some Lessons Learned at GE Global Research Centers, and, Other Generic Lessons earned (177-180)
o Does Organizational Culture Support Knowledge Sharing? (182-185)
o Knowledge Sharing All the Time, Everywhere, and (199-200)

I commend the co-authors on their skillful use of several devices when completing knowledge transfers to their reader. For example, “Questions for Managers” and “Questions for Knowledge Recipients” at the conclusion of each chapter. Also, there are boxed mini-commentaries from a variety of sources on subjects of direct relevance to chapter material such as “thin-slice” judgments (Page 24), “Just-in-Time Knowledge Sharing in the Military (76-77), “Working the Brain Harder Makes Learning Faster” (137), and “Nucor Steel’s Tuscaloosa Turnaround” (183-184). They also make clever use of dozens of “Tables” located strategically throughout the narrative. For example, 2-1 “What are the indicators of deep smarts?” (26), 5-1 “Knowledge-elicitation techniques requiring training and experience” (90), and 8-3 “Examples o0f an agreement (contract) between expert and near expert” (175). These devices will facilitate, indeed expedite frequent review of key material later.

As I re-read this brilliant book for the second time, I was again reminded of another, If Only We Knew What We Know: The Transfer of Internal Knowledge and Best Practice (1998), in which Carla O’Dell and Jack Grayson focus on what they call “beds of knowledge” which are “hidden resources of intelligence that exist in almost every organization, relatively untapped and unmined.” They suggest all manner of effective strategies to “tap into “this hidden asset, capturing it, organizing it, transferring it, and using it to create customer value, operational excellence, and product innovation — all the while increasing profits and effectiveness.” Almost all organizations claim that their “most valuable assets walk out the door at the end of each business day.” That is correct. Almost all intellectual “capital” is stored between two ears and much (too much) of it is, for whatever reasons, inaccessible to others except in “small change.”

My fervent hope is that, thanks to Dorothy Leonard, Walter Swap, and Gavin Barton as well as to the book they co-authored, those who read it will develop the deep smarts they and their organizations need, both now and in years so come. Of even greater importance, they will do all they can to help others to do so, also. In this context, I am reminded of Margaret Mead’s memorable affirmation: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

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