Dorothy Leonard: An interview by Bob Morris

LeonardDorothy Leonard, the William J. Abernathy Professor of Business Administration Emerita, joined the Harvard faculty in 1983 after teaching for three years at the Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has taught MBA courses in managerial leadership, corporate capabilities, new product and process design, technology strategy and innovation management. At Harvard, M.I.T., and for corporations such as Hewlett-Packard, AT&T, and 3M, Professor Leonard has conducted executive courses on a wide range of innovation-related topics such as cross-functional coordination during new product development, technology transfer and knowledge management. She has initiated and served as faculty chair for executive education programs such as Leveraging Knowledge for the 21st Century, Leading Product Development, and Enhancing Corporate Creativity. She also served as a Director of Research for the Harvard Business School and Director of Research and Knowledge Programs for Harvard Business School’s non-profit organization, HBS Interactive.

These are her major works, all published by Harvard Business Review Press: When Sparks Fly: Igniting Creativity in Groups. Boston: Harvard Business School Press (1999) and Deep Smarts: How to Cultivate and Transfer Business Wisdom (2005), both co-authored with Walter Swap; also, Wellsprings of Knowledge: Building and Sustaining the Sources of Innovation (1995) and, most recently, Critical Knowledge Transfer, co-authored with Swap and Gavin Barton (2015).

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Morris: When and why did you decide to write Critical Knowledge Transfer, and do so in collaboration with Walter Swap and Gavin Barton?

Leonard:: After Walter and I wrote Deep Smarts, which was largely research and theory-driven, we were approached by managers who were interested in the concept and wanted to know how to use it in their companies. They knew that employees in their organizations had much “business-critical, experience-based knowledge” (the short definition of deep smarts) but the question was how to develop more, retain what underlay their company’s success—and pass it along to the next generation. So it was time to make our research very practical, to give specific guidance to managers. Gavin and I formed a business to do just that—to help businesses identify and retain the expertise in the heads and hands of their most experienced employees.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Leonard: The research that we did for the book was pretty revealing. While almost every one of the CIOs, CTOs and top HR executives we surveyed and interviewed said that loss of important knowledge was more critical today than five years ago, relatively few said that their organization was doing a lot about it. The perennial challenge that all managers face is that urgent issues drive out important ones. Executives can see a problem that could turn extremely serious just a couple years down the road—but be overwhelmed by fighting the latest fire. It’s not easy to invest in the future.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Leonard: Our first draft was more academic (after all, all three of us are teachers!) but two influences shaped the book into more of a practical guide: 1) our editors at HBR and 2) the Leonard-Barton Group’s clients. As we worked directly with managers in the field and created the techniques they needed to transfer deep smarts, we incorporated more and more tools into the book.

Morris: In your opinion, by what process should the most important knowledge transfers be identified?

Leonard: It depends upon the form of the knowledge that is deemed critical: explicit (readily available in documents such as design rules, reports, presentations); implicit (not yet articulated, but can be made explicit by highly experienced people as rules of thumb, known stages or processes); tacit (not articulated, and made explicit only with considerable effort). These three different types of knowledge require different transfer processes. And often the tacit knowledge is actually the most important, because it is proprietary, can’t be purchased on the open market and is not easily imitated.

Morris: By what process are transfers most effectively completed?

Leonard: Explicit knowledge is relatively easier to transfer because it is captured in a form that can be made accessible to other users. Implicit knowledge can be transferred through skillfully conducted interviews—especially if the interviewers are possible successors who have been trained in using proven protocols. While some tacit knowledge will become explicit through such smart questioning, the best method for transferring the tacit knowledge buried in experts’ heads is through an accelerated apprenticeship, or what we think of as knowledge mentoring. The OPPTY™ process described in the book is highly structured, focuses on just those deep smarts that the business requires and provides measurable accountability for the transfer.

Morris: What seems to be the single greatest barrier to the success of such transfers? How best to avoid or overcome that barrier?

Leonard: Time is the scarcest resource. Deeply smart people and teams have developed their expertise over decades of work; these experts are the “go-to” people in the organization. Consequently, their time is in great demand. There are two partial solutions to this problem. The first solution is to recognize existing opportunities for transfer throughout the workday. Once experts and potential learners focus on identifying those opportunities and apply techniques for effective transfer, knowledge transfer gets built into the work. The second solution is to conduct smart questioning over lunch or during a hallway conversation—whenever there is a 10-minute opportunity for interaction. Most important to the success of knowledge transfer, however, is managers’ recognition that it is essential to the future of the company—and therefore requires some investment of time.

Morris: Of all the tools that are now available for managing a company’s “deep smarts,” which seems to be the most difficult to master? Why?

Leonard: The knowledge mentoring through OPPTY™ mentioned earlier requires discipline and time. We believe that it also yields the most valuable, longest lasting benefit. Eliciting knowledge during that process or during smart questioning does require attention and skills. We find that some people have very good observation, questioning, and reflection skills—all of which are essential. Others, for a variety of reasons, do not persist long enough or dig deep enough to make tacit knowledge explicit.

Morris: In your own opinion, are knowledge transfers easier to complete today, more difficult, or about the same as they were ten years ago? Please explain.

The need today is greater because of the wave of Baby Boomer retirements, when people are walking out the door with incredible riches in their heads. So one would think knowledge transfer would be a priority. But this greater need conflicts with the greater time constraints we all face. The constant pings of our ubiquitous smart phones and email demand immediate attention.

Morris: What are the most important dos and don’ts to keep in mind when assessing the transfer of deep smarts?

Leonard: Because they are based on experience, deep smarts are best transferred among people, face-to-face, including use of technology to augment or substitute for physical presence when people are geographically distant from each other. Some experience is well captured in video or even text—but without the opportunity to question, reflect on, and discuss what the learner reads, hears or sees–much know-how is lost.

Morris: What are the most important dos and don’ts to keep in mind when selecting analytics to measure the nature and extent of impact of critical knowledge transfers?

Leonard: One pitfall is to confuse the level of using information systems (either input of information or retrieval of it) with knowledge transfer. Accessing a piece of information does not equate to comprehension or the ability to apply that bit of information to other situations.

Morris: Over the years, I have helped dozens of Fortune 100 companies to establish or improve exit interviews. In your opinion, what (at least potentially) are the most important knowledge transfers to be made during these interviews? Please explain.

Leonard: Exit interviews are necessarily limited to whatever the retiree can retrieve in the moment, without a lot of context. As indicated in our book, we suggest that focusing on some common but specific problems they encounter and mistakes they fear a “newbie” would make, may uncover some of the implicit knowledge that otherwise might not emerge. But the best exit interviews are those conducted with a departed employee after a successor has been in place for a month and knows what to ask!

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of “smart questioning”?

Leonard: The term smart questioning implies that greater efficiency and effectiveness results from using certain kinds of questions. When faced with trying to elicit deep smarts from a very experienced person, interviewers often don’t’ know where to start. So one characteristic is focus–choosing a particular topic such as project leadership or rich relationships to start with. Second, the questions need to probe. That is, the questioner needs to follow up each response with another question such as “why” or “give me an example” that will lead to richer explanations. Third, the interviewer must be persistent: Smart questioners are not afraid to appear stupid or to assume they know what a response means. There are others—but these are probably the top three.

Morris: I cannot recall a prior time when change occurred faster and more frequently than it does in today’s business world. Obviously, the relative importance of knowledge changes, sometimes significantly. Here’s my question: How best to ensure that knowledge transfers involve information that is most relevant to the given circumstances?

Leonard: Business managers generally have a good idea about what expertise they rely upon today. However, it is a valuable exercise to consider what deep smarts will be needed in the future. We like to have executives conduct an exercise in which they consider their firm’s core capabilities and major trends that will affect those capabilities in the future, so as to predict what new deep smarts need to be developed.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in Critical Knowledge Transfer, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Leonard: The techniques and tools we offer are only feasible for all companies. Probably the greatest value we hope managers will find in Critical Knowledge Transfer is a shift in perspective towards encouraging knowledge transfer during any job transition, not just retirements. Simply paying attention to where deep smarts exist and then setting up the conditions for sharing them would pay large dividends.

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Dorothy cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Critical Knowledge Transfer link

Deep Smarts link

HBS faculty page link

LinkedIn link

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