by Michael Kull, PhD |
The idiom “still waters run deep” refers to people who may say little but who often have complex and capable personalities. A more apt metaphor would be hard to find to describe the concept of tacit knowledge and its role in decision-making. Tacit knowledge was described as far back as 1966 by Michael Polanyi who pointed out that much of our most complicated but important knowledge is inexplicable, learned through experience, and difficult to share. “We know more than we can say,” said Polanyi.
Fast forward forty years. Our modern, shiny organizations search for ways to leverage their vast array of deep, hidden knowledge that information technology has begun to probe. Like nimble fly fishermen suddenly realizing the need for deep water lures to find the big fish, knowledge innovators and architects within organizations have learned, often the hard way, that technology has not solved our knowledge problems but only shown us a different way to think about how we think. Three of today’s popular leading authors illuminate us on how true experts really think and approach complex situations; they include Dorothy Leonard, author of “Deep Smarts,” Malcolm Gladwell, author of “Blink,” and Daniel Pink, author of “A Whole New Mind.”
Pink argues that we are moving into a “Conceptual Age” out of the Information Age and beginning to experience the shift beyond the analytical knowledge worker presaged by Peter Drucker in the 1960’s to a new kind of expert: one who blends “high concept” with “high touch.” It is a melding of complex pattern recognition and adroit human interaction skills drawn from right-brain oriented systems, and the people who master the concomitant abilities are quickly becoming the masters of our known, mediated universe. Pink offers a guide to right-brain directed aptitudes. These include what he labels the new six senses: design, story, symphony, empathy, play, and meaning. Each sense or ability marks a fault-line between those who think linearly and struggle with applying the lessons of the past to the present, and those who think non-linearly and live into the future.
If the dichotomy of right-brain left-brain offers a powerful albeit simple model for understanding the difference between, for example, art and science, design and function, synthesis and analysis, it also creates the unintended and perhaps false impression that we need only shift our thinking from one hemisphere to the other to thrive in the new age. Malcolm Gladwell offers another more holistic perspective. Experts, Gladwell suggests, rely on “thin-slicing” of their perceptions to make brilliant decisions in the blink of an eye. Out of the multitude of information confronted by an expert looking at a complicated situation, these people are able to sift through the chaff to find the wheat. This phenomenon explains why experts use words and phrases such as “it doesn’t look right” or “I feel comfortable with that choice” or “you’re asking the wrong question.” Experts connect the cognitive with the somatic: the thinking brain with the feeling brain. Using evidence drawn from psychology and the neurosciences, Gladwell reveals how intuition forms the basis for expert decision-making. He is careful to point out that not all decisions made by experts are necessarily fruitful or correct in the long-run, but merely that the quality of expert judgment is irreducible to rational-analytical explanations.
Dorothy Leonard and her co-author, Walter Swap, pick up this idea in “Deep Smarts” and apply it to making organizations more effective. Originally a look at how successful entrepreneurs mentor protégés and transfer their knowledge and experience, the authors refocused in the wake of the dot-bomb years to consider the social fears of the pending brain drain as the baby-boomer generation retires and takes its knowledge with it. While Leonard is certainly interested in how our brains work, she is more concerned with how organizations utilize their experts and translate the management of knowledge into actual learning. The goal: to ensure organizational continuity and a high quality of decision-making in the gap between when managerial expertise exits the stage and new talent comes up to speed. The most competitive resource organizations have, Leonard maintains, is our deep smarts. The organizations that leverage their deep smarts and pass them on subscribe to a set of learning and knowledge transfer tools that include scenarios, guided experience, Socratic questioning, stories with a moral, rules-of-thumb, as well as more rich media learning environments. These help build an “experience repertoire” or a wide distribution of experiences that experts rely upon when approaching their craft. Leonard makes the point this way: “When you go to a surgeon, for example, the last thing you want to hear that surgeon say just as you go under is, ‘Whoa! Never seen one of these before!’”
Each of these authors touches on a common theme: to address the most complex issues and situations that confront post-modern organizations, a more sophisticated understanding of the thought processes of the imagination is needed by organizational leaders. Interestingly, it is often exactly how these leaders think that is reflected in the theme. Strategies for eliciting, capturing and sharing leadership expertise have become more prevalent in recent years precisely because organizations have sensed the need to activate expertise in making sense of the organization and its environment.
As organizations learn how to learn in this new age, they must increasingly rely upon the expertise of human capital professionals. These are the people who must integrate the knowledge of authors like Gladwell, Pink and Leonard into programmatic initiatives that allow expertise to thrive and innovation to occur. While earlier decades of thought around organizational performance has stressed disciplines such as finance, marketing, and strategic positioning, the next decade and beyond will highlight the management of knowledge and expertise in order to make a difference. How that difference is measured will depend less on the traditional, analytical methods and more on the instincts and intuitions of artistic, right-brained thinkers.
Eventually the Conceptual Age will give way to the Creative Age, where a profound understanding of how people think and interact is embraced with insight and thoughtful reflection on the nature of creativity, invention and innovation. The human capital challenge is to learn how to create creative leaders who set the example for others to emulate. In the Creative Age, the leadership imperative focuses attention on crafting imaginative and meaningful experiences for customers, clients, and other stakeholders. Organizations that understand the power of deep knowledge will look not for ways to “capture” or “harness” that knowledge, but to give it an innovative range of expression.
© 2011 Intervista Inc.
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