Deep Smarts: How to Cultivate and Transfer Enduring Business Wisdom

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By Dorothy Leonard and Walter Swap
Harvard Business School Press, 2005
288 pages, $29.95

Dorothy Leonard is the William J. Abernathy Professor of Business Administration emerita at the Harvard Business School and Walter Swap is professor of psychology emeritus at Tufts University. In Deep Smarts, this wife-and-husband team examine the way experienced entrepreneurs succeed in transferring “deep smarts” (known formally as tacit knowledge) to business neophytes. They were studying startup companies in Silicon Valley and other entrepreneurial hot spots in 2000–2001 when the dot-com bust gave them a natural before-and-after situation as they tried to assess whether, and if so how, business novices could acquire the expertise to become apprentices, journeymen, and — ultimately — masters of their craft.

The book is built on an academic 2×2 matrix: One axis distinguishes between the acquisition of deep smarts and the shaping of that intelligence; the other axis contrasts the internal and external influences on intelligence. The nine chapters take the reader on a circular journey, from building of knowledge to its framing and filtering, and finally to transferring that knowledge from expert to novices so that they can achieve mastery.

Deep smarts are acquired through experience rather than formal teaching, and in any complex field it can take as long as 10 years to develop an expert. The challenge for both managers and teachers of business is how to accelerate this process. Many try to do so by using simulations to compress both space and time and to allow safe experimentation. But good simulations are hard to find and often omit crucial dimensions — car designers still build clay models despite the advances in computer-assisted design, because nothing but clay supplies that sensual relationship between designer and car. If only we had “clay models” of organizations to augment our business cases.

Rigorous academic frameworks that allow broad generalizations are usually hostile to the narrative structures that best convey the content-specific advice desired by managers. Although the authors try to address this problem with short sections on the “Implications for Managers,” and summary bullets at the end of every chapter, Deep Smarts is not a smooth read. Perhaps this is the fate of any book that extols the value of learning through experience!

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