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Deep Smarts

The Idea in Brief

It takes years for your company's best people to acquire their expertise--but only seconds for them to walk out the door when opportunity beckons. And when they go, they take their deep smarts with them. Deeply smart people make intuitive decisions fast and spot problems and possibilities others miss. Informed by almost preternaturally sound judgment and a gut sense for interrelationships, they see the big picture--rather then getting bogged down in details. Their wisdom is crucial to your company's survival.

How to capture the deep smarts residing in your organization? Turn your experts into knowledge coaches. Knowledge coaches use learn-by-doing techniques--guided practice, observation, problem solving, and experimentation--to help novices absorb long-acquired business wisdom.

Knowledge coaching not only spurs transfer and retention of vital wisdom; it yields breakthrough product ideas and more efficient business processes. Can your company afford not to invest in it?

The Idea in Practice

Consider these knowledge coaching techniques:

Guided Practice

Novices practice skills under the watchful eye of knowledge coaches, who then provide feedback that allows them to refine their new capabilities.

At SAIC, new consultants learn their trade from seasoned colleagues through a "see one, lead one, teach one" process. First, they observe an expert helping a client solve a specific problem. Next, they practice their skills by leading a client session, receiving feedback from the knowledge coach. Then, they teach those skills to another consultant.

Guided Observation

This technique takes two forms--shadowing and field trips. Through shadowing, novices absorb deep smarts by following experienced, skilled colleagues, and then discussing their observations with those colleagues. One junior consultant who sat in on client meetings and then analyzed his observations with an older colleague contended, "I learned more from those debriefs than in four years at my prior company and two years of business school."

During field trips, novices break out of rigid mental habits and expand their experience through exposure to novel ways of thinking and behaving.

On field trips to Mexico, Korea, and a U.S. specialty toy store, teams from retailer Best Buy observed young people engaged in communal play focused on a product (such as a doll) or technology (such as video games). These visits spurred ideas for providing socially oriented experiences in Best Buy stores. For instance, the company's engineers developed "PCBang," which enables teens and people in their early twenties--much younger than Best Buy's typical customer--to play computer games and socialize.

Guided Problem Solving

Knowledge coaches and protégés work on problems jointly, so protégés learn how to approach problems.

A senior engineer renowned for his ability to bring multiple perspectives to the design of complex products had his protégé spend several months on the assembly line tackling problems with a test technician. The senior engineer joined many of these sessions, adding perspectives the technician lacked--such as customer preferences. The protégé acquired comprehensive know-how about the product, from design to production to fulfillment of customers' needs.

Guided Experimentation

Knowledge coaches help novices set up modest experiments that speed learning.

Start-up company ActivePhoto had developed a technology for instantly downloading and cataloguing digital photographs. To determine its most profitable market, the firm conducted pilot studies with three promising customer bases: public emergency services, insurance-claims processing, and on-line auctioning. Through discussions of each experiment's results with knowledge coaches, ActivePhoto quickly eliminated the first market.

Copyright 2004 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. All rights reserved.

Further Reading


The People Who Make Organizations Go--or Stop

Harvard Business Review

June 2002

by Rob Cross and Laurence Prusak

People with deep smarts don't just rely on their own expertise. They supplement their know-how by tapping into informal networks of personal contacts to gain information and make decisions. Their roles in such networks include: 1) central connectors who link most employees in informal connections with one another; 2) boundary spanners who connect a network with other parts of the company or with similar networks in other organizations; 3) information brokers who link different subgroups within an informal network; or 4) peripheral specialists who provide specialized expertise while working apart from most other network members.

Though such networks are unobservable, they're vital for facilitating information flow and spreading knowledge throughout your company. To nurture this valuable form of social capital, the authors recommend use of a tool called social network analysis to determine who these role-players are in your company's networks. They also suggest ways to transform ineffective informal networks into productive ones.

Learning to Lead at Toyota

Harvard Business Review

May 2004

by Steven J. Spear

Toyota makes liberal use of knowledge coaching--particularly guided observation and experimentation--to inculcate managers with the principles behind the company's unrivaled production system. Based on his analysis of Toyota's experiences with knowledge coaching, Spear offers four guidelines for any company seeking to transfer and sustain deep smarts:

1) There's no substitute for direct observation. Toyota employees are encouraged to observe failures as they occur--for example, by sitting next to a machine on the assembly line and watching for problems. 2) Proposed changes should always be structured as experiments that enable people to examine gaps between predicted and actual results. 3) Workers and managers should experiment as frequently as possible, achieving continuous improvement through quick, simple trials rather than lengthy, complex ones. 4) Managers should coach, not fix. At Toyota, managers act as enablers--directing employees but not telling them where to find opportunities for improvements.

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