The APQC Blog

How KM Can Capture Deep Smarts

Knowledge loss goes by lots of names: “The Big Crew Change” in oil and gas; “The Baby Boomer Exodus” and “Corporate Amnesia” across business and government. They all point to the retirement of a whole generation of experts and the loss of what Dorothy Leonard has coined as deep smarts: business- or organization-critical, experience-based knowledge.

The loss of deep smarts can also come from churn in an industry, a revolving door of talent raiding, or rapid project turnover. Whatever the cause, the cost is huge in terms of organizational capability until it relearns the hard way what these folks knew.

Leonard says that sometimes deep smarts are highly technical but often they are softer skills. Whether it is designing a Boeing Dreamliner airplane or figuring out why a top sales person is so good, wisdom comes from the experiential knowledge of how systems and people work together, and how to get work done in an organization. 

Further complicating the matter, often experts don’t know what they know or how to communicate it to others. They need help.

So how can KM help? 

That is the topic of Dorothy Leonard’s keynote and breakout session at APQC’s 23rd Annual Knowledge Management Conference April 19-20, 2018. She has found a number of different ways to get at what are the deep smarts of some of these experts.

  1. “You can do pretty structured interviews with an expert and then what’s really effective is to have some 360 degree interviews with their peers or their direct reports because those people can tell you sometimes as much as or more than the experts can about what they do well. All you have to ask these direct reports is, “What would you like to learn or what would you want to emulate?” and they can come up with all sorts of behaviors and ways of thinking.”
  2. “You can also observe experts’ behavior by following a sort of ethnographic approach. Follow them around and observe, and then review it with the experts and ask them to reflect on it.”
  3. “A third tangible way is discovery: you pose a problem or a scenario with an expert and then you can capture how they go about diagnosing and addressing the situation. Here’s just one example. A construction company had a lot of trouble with novices understanding what kind of damage they were seeing in older buildings and what to do about it. A video of water damage was produced and shown to people with less experience, and then they were asked what causes this damage and what would they do about it. Was there something fundamental about the design? Then, that same video was shown to the expert and they explained how they went about diagnosing the situation and understanding it. That’s one way of figuring out how to get experts to explain what they know.”

Until artificial intelligence (AI) makes a few more great leaps forward, we still need ways to capture and transfer that knowledge before people walk out the door. To learn how to capture deep smarts, come to APQC’s conference April 19- April 20, 2018 in Houston, Texas. For more information about the conference, visit www.apqc.org/kmconf18 for more information.

Dr. Dorothy Leonard was a Professor of Harvard for 20 years, she taught courses in innovation, new product development, creativity, and knowledge management. Her two most recent books are “Deep Smarts,” which explores the importance and nature of experience based knowledge and “Critical Knowledge Transfer: Tools For Managing Your Company’s Deep Smarts.”  She now consults with companies who want to retain deep smarts.