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

FCW in Print

In the latest issue: Looking back on three decades of big stories in federal IT.


  • FCW @ 30 GPS

    FCW @ 30

    Since 1996, FCW has covered it all -- the major contracts, the disruptive technologies, the picayune scandals and the many, many people who make federal IT function. Here's a look back at six of the most significant stories.

  • Shutterstock image.

    A 'minibus' appropriations package could be in the cards

    A short-term funding bill is expected by Sept. 30 to keep the federal government operating through early December, but after that the options get more complicated.

  • Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaks at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco

    DOD launches new tech hub in Austin

    The DOD is opening a new Defense Innovation Unit Experimental office in Austin, Texas, while Congress debates legislation that could defund DIUx.

  • Shutterstock image.

    Merged IT modernization bill punts on funding

    A House panel approved a new IT modernization bill that appears poised to pass, but key funding questions are left for appropriators.

  • General Frost

    Army wants cyber capability everywhere

    The Army's cyber director said cyber, electronic warfare and information operations must be integrated into warfighters' doctrine and training.

  • Rising Star 2013

    Meet the 2016 Rising Stars

    FCW honors 30 early-career leaders in federal IT.

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group