Kelman: Deep smarts

Senior managers must nurture institutional knowledge

Deep Smarts: How to Cultivate and Transfer Enduring Business Wisdom

It has become commonplace to note that the government has seriously begun to bleed senior career talent. We see this dramatically in information technology, and the exodus will continue. Although this turnover creates opportunities, it could also lead to agencies losing skills and what is often called "institutional memory."

Now, the husband-and-wife academic team of Dorothy Leonard and Walter Swap of Harvard Business School and the Tufts University psychology department, respectively, have published a book called "Deep Smarts: How to Cultivate and Transfer Enduring Business Wisdom," which examines this problem and ways to address it. Although it mainly addresses a business audience, the book includes public-sector examples from NASA and Army Communications-Electronics Command. It is definitely worth reading.

People with deep smarts have good judgment about how to handle the situations an organization faces. "When many opinions are on the table, theirs have more weight," the authors write. Leonard and Swap's point is that developing deep smarts takes time and experience.

Novices have learned the most basic rules about how to deal with situations or have developed guidelines for acting based on their limited experience. More experience produces deep smarts because people have been in a wide enough range of situations to develop a feel for what responses are appropriate in different contexts.

Young people are in danger of thinking they've "figured out the path to success — or the route to failure — from one experience, not realizing the particular set of circumstances that makes it dangerous to generalize," Leonard and Swap write. By contrast, "the expert manager recognizes the context, the pattern that directs the application of the rule — or suggests exceptions."

Thus, junior project managers at NASA overgeneralized from the successful experience of the Mars Pathfinder mission in the 1990s and made mistakes that led to lost missions later on.

If experience is the essence of deep smarts, can one pass them on to younger people? Or is the loss of senior people simply a problem agencies must live with? The authors argue that developing deep smarts can be accelerated through guided experience. The key features of guided experience are opportunities for junior people to observe senior managers and for that to spur discussion about lessons learned.

My guess is that not much of this discussion is taking place, certainly not as a conscious policy for transferring knowledge. Workers who shadow senior managers are often already quite senior themselves, and most agencies seldom look for opportunities to include junior people in meetings. The main discussion element of guided experience is, I suspect, seldom used outside the military.

The message of "Deep Smarts" is that knowledge transfer must be part of senior federal managers' job descriptions.

Kelman is a professor of public management at Harvard University's Kennedy School and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. He can be reached at steve_kelman@harvard.edu.

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