Professor Leonard, what do you associate with Leonardo da Vinci?
Leonardo da Vinci was a highly creative person and an expert in different fields – for example in arts, science and engineering. Usually you need different people to get different perspectives that spark creativity. Leonardo da Vinci was able to access different perspectives in his own head.
As you said, Leonardo da Vinci was an expert in different fields. This relates to your work on “deep smarts” and expert knowledge. What are deep smarts?
Deep smarts means organizationally critical and experienced-based expertise. This last phrase – “experienced-based” – distinguishes deep smarts from other kinds of expertise. Expertise can also be based on facts and scientific principles. But we are talking about the expertise that exists in someone’s head, after they have pursued some activity for many years. People can have deep smarts on very different topics. You can have a deeply smart chef who is expert at combining particular foods, sauces and spices. But you can also have deeply smart scientists who are very aware of how molecules work. Their knowledge has a large tacit component. Tacit knowledge is unarticulated knowledge that is held in someone’s head. It has not been expressed in text or in any other form.
How do deeply smart people use this knowledge at work?
Pattern recognition and system thinking are typical skills of deeply smart people. They are able to make decisions quickly, because they can recognize patterns, size up a situation and see what is likely to happen next. The doctor who is deeply smart can look at a part of your eye and knows how it interacts with all the other parts of your system of vision. He can anticipate that a problem in this part of your eye will lead to problems with the rest of the visual system. A chef can anticipate that if you put certain kinds of spices in a sauce, it will curdle or be overly spicy or become tasty. So being able to anticipate how a given component interacts with all the other parts of a system – that’s a characteristic skill of deeply smart people.
When do they develop this skill?
We are talking about deep smarts that are relevant to organizations and corporations and therefore are developed mainly through work. But any artist, sculptor or painter develops deep smarts from the first time he or she picks up a pencil, pen or paint brush. Deep smarts develop over time through experience.
Can you describe this process of developing deep smarts a little bit further?
Suppose that you have some experience. You are competent, but want to become a true expert, a guru, someone to whom everyone goes when they have a question. The best way to develop that experience is through what we call guided experience. In other words: You need the expert to help you have the kinds of experience that will develop the tacit knowledge, the pattern recognition, the system thinking. You need to become an active learner and try to understand how the expert behaves, diagnoses and approaches problem solving. The best way to do this is to observe the expert, to practice and solve problems with him. Germany and Austria have a long tradition of apprenticeships. In the United States we have lost that tradition in most businesses and that has lessened the opportunity for inexperienced people to learn from experts.
How many companies practice guided experience?
There are a lot of companies that do support this process. But there are many more who haven’t realized how much expertise they are losing by waiting until the baby boomer expert walks out the door. What does it cost to replace someone with deep smarts who retires or leaves the enterprise? The estimates reach from three times that person’s annual salary to ten or more times that person’s annual salary. And that doesn’t count losses that occur because his or her expertise was not available to help customers – or because projects were delayed or cancelled due to the absence of this person. Because of the recession in the United States many people delayed retiring. So there was a window of opportunity for companies to ask their experts to help mentor and teach. But not all companies took advantage of that window.