!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC "-//W3C//DTD XHTML 1.0 Strict//EN" "http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-strict.dtd"> Streamline Training & Documentation: Coaching to Help a Learner Develop "Deep Smarts"

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Coaching to Help a Learner Develop "Deep Smarts"

In the September 2004 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Dorothy Leonard, professor emerita at Harvard Business School, and Walter Swap (pdf), professor emeritus of psychology at Tufts University, cover key points from the research exounded in more detail in their book, Deep Smarts: How to Cultivate and Transfer Enduring Business Wisdom.

As Leonard and Swap explain in a 2005 interview,"deep smarts" is a term they coined
to express our belief that there's a certain subset of expertise that deserves to be identified by itself, because though it possesses many of the general characteristics of expertise it is also a very particular kind of expertise.

. . .

For one thing, it involves having an ability to recognize patterns based upon extensive experience, and so is very contextualized expertise. For example, someone who may have a lot of book learning but not a lot of real life experience won't be able to look at a new situation and say, "Aha, that reminds me of a time when I did X," and that memory suggests a way to act. So deep smarts are connected in a person's mind to rich context. There are a lot of tacit dimensions to this kind of practical wisdom, such as the person with deep smarts may not actually be able to recognize or to put into so many words where that knowledge came from — but is nonetheless able to react quickly and wisely.
One of the HBR article's exhibits provides an overview of Leonard and Swap's advice for helping a person develop deep smarts. The basic method guided experience, i.e., individual on-the-job coaching of the learner by someone who has already accumulated deep smarts. Leonard and Swap identify four particularly fruitful situations for such coaching:
  • The skills to be learned involve interpersonal relations, so there is no set of absolute steps but rather an array of possible responses to the actions and emotions of others. Examples: working with a board of directors, negotiating a merger or acquisition, handling a talented prima donna.

  • There are many tacit dimensions to the skills, so even an expert may not be able to make them all explicit. Examples: closing a sale, dissipating tension in a meeting, creating a new perfume or best-selling wine.

  • The knowledge is context-specific, so it's appropriate to be adaptive rather than apply formulas. Examples: managing in a foreign culture, manufacturing with proprietary, plant-specific equipment, handling sexual harassment cases.

  • The situation is new, so there is great uncertainty. Examples: launching a new service product in a new market, using a new mode of manufacturing.
The coach's job is to provide feedback as the learner is handling the above types of situations.

In the aforementioned interview, Leonard offers an example of a person with deep smarts who particularly resonated with me because he reminded me of one of my best teachers in graduate school:
In the [Deep Smarts] book, we tell a story about two missile companies competing in the 1980s for a government contract that if won would provide literally billions of dollars to the company over the subsequent 30 or 40 years. The two competitors sent up six prototype missiles but none of them was really up to the performance demanded. In one of these companies, a scientist who wasn't even on the project team — but who had 20 years of experience in building missiles — called the project team together in a large auditorium, because these are very big systems, requiring large development teams. Speaking without notes, the scientist proceeded to walk them through a complete redesign of the missiles from fore to aft, including software and hardware that he'd come up with on his own, working alone over the period of a week. And after they closed their mouths, because they were really in awe of his performance, the project team members realized that the implications of his redesign were that 400 people would have to work for a year and a half to make all the changes. Nevertheless, their faith in this guy was so strong and their understanding of the redesign and of everything that he'd proposed was so favorable that they went ahead. They won the contract and they still have it; so that's an example of how a person with deep smarts can save the day.
In Leonard and Swap's view, guided experience is actually a matter of having the learner recreate the knowledge in question (as opposed to transferring the knowledge in a "listen to me as I explain" fashion).


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