Unleashing Deep Smarts

The most valuable untapped source of knowledge lies within the district’s own personnel by Harold J. Burbach and Alfred R. Butler IV

A widely applied premise in the field of business asserts that the key to an organization’s success in today’s changing environment is a world-class knowledge management system. The most critical value-added piece of this puzzle lies in what co-authors Dorothy Leonard and Walter Swap in their book Deep Smarts: How to Cultivate and Transfer Enduring Business Wisdom refer to as the “deep smarts” of an organization’s employees.

We contend the social and cultural forces that are driving change in the world of business are presenting schools with these same challenges. Further, we assert that the idea of activating the deep smarts of all the professional personnel in a school system is an idea with an enormous upside potential for education. We believe it’s possible to infuse the present knowledge management system of school districts with the deep smarts or the unarticulated explicit and tacit knowledge that lies largely dormant in the collective minds of the teaching and administrative personnel in these districts.

Initially, we offer some exploratory ideas on how school system leaders can begin to cultivate the deep smarts of their personnel with an eye toward building and maintaining a state-of-the-art knowledge management system. Then we outline some of the potential organizational payoffs that can result from infusing the knowledge management system of school districts with the deep smarts of their professional personnel.

A Knowledge Gap
Knowledge management refers to a system developed by school district leaders to gather and link the most up-to-date and relevant information essential to the organization’s mission, to its fundamental work processes and ultimately to the day-to-day social and cultural life of the organization. This knowledge includes both the easy-to-identify explicit and codified information as well as the more elusive tacit knowledge or deep smarts that remain largely untapped in the collective minds of district personnel.

While the developers of knowledge management in most districts do an excellent job with explicit kinds of knowledge, few have made a concerted effort to tap the more difficult kinds of implicit knowledge that exists. We believe this gap offers an excellent value-added opportunity for leaders who can see the rich potential of this latter knowledge.

Our use of the term “deep smarts” is taken from the aforementioned 2005 book by Leonard and Swap and refers to the multiplicity of ways in which employees build up an implicit or tacit knowledge base through their work experience. While most of their examples are drawn from the world of business, they assert that individuals in every organization possess at least some deep smarts about the context within which they work.

But unlike explicit knowledge, deep smarts cannot easily be reduced to data points and compiled in an electronic data base. Rather, they only can be brought into play through face-to-face communication. Thus those who seek to integrate this valuable resource into their knowledge management systems have to figure out ways to create the conditions whereby all in the organization can verbalize their tacit knowledge. Applied to our context of interest, a key challenge for the leaders in a school district is to figure out how to maximize the contributions of their employees to a pool of ideas that promote the eventual success of their school system.

Action Ideas
We believe it is possible to activate the deep smarts of the personnel in a typical school district. We do so with the hope they stimulate thinking of school district leaders on how these and other ideas might be adapted to fit the unique contingencies of their organizations.

* Flatter is better.
While the command-and-control system has been dominant in nearly all organizations since the Industrial Revolution, business leaders today realize the survival contingencies for organizations are changing and there is a pressing need to experiment with systems that tend to flatten this traditional vertical model. The emerging model is an organization that is designed to create a more horizontal system, one in which the active voices of all members of the organization can be brought into active play.

We are among a growing number of educators who believe that the command-and-control, top-down model has outlived its usefulness and that schools of the future need to experiment with flatter, more collegial models. This means school district leaders who become interested in activating the deep smarts of their colleagues will need to move toward structures that are more horizontal, ones that will invite more widespread communication inputs from all levels of the organization.

The challenge essentially is to gradually phase out the old command-and-control thinking and begin to move toward what we would call an “engage and empower” organizational model. We believe this structural shift will open up new communication networks that will bring the deep smarts in the organization into stronger play and thereby add an element of strength to the district’s knowledge management system.

* Toward a more enabling context.
The structural reconfiguration of an organization spawns a corresponding need to rethink the patterning of social relationships in that organization. Thus district leaders who seek to flatten the organizational lines of action and authority will need to think carefully about how to create the contextual changes that will produce the results they are seeking.

While the intricacies of this process exceed our purview here, we believe the work of Georg Von Krogh, Kazuo Ichijo and Ikujiro Nonaka, co-authors of Enabling Knowledge Creation, articulates a simple but powerful point on this subject: Effective knowledge creation and exchange in an organization depends on an enabling context. By this, they mean a social context where not only is it safe to share ideas but people are actively encouraged to engage in mutually generative conversations in which they can exchange new ideas with colleagues, some of which will eventually find their way into the knowledge management system of the district.

No formula exists for creating an enabling context, but the initial vision has to come from the district leadership, and it is the leaders who will have to monitor and support this vision until it becomes an integral part of the district’s culture.

* Peer coaching.
Peer coaching is a process involving two teachers and/or principals working together through mutual consent for the express purpose of observing each other’s work performance with the intent of enriching the personal and professional learning potential of each participant. One of the most convincing rationales for the use of peer coaching in schools is based on the simple but compelling contention that the collective deep smarts of the teachers and principals across a school district is an invaluable and largely untapped intellectual and experiential resource.

While this initiative is not for everyone, it has exciting possibilities for those who are personally suited for this kind of professional development experience. And where peer coaching is carefully designed and implemented, it provides an experience that has the potential to improve the professional climate of a school district while adding to the pool of deep smarts that may eventually find their way into its knowledge management system.

* Professional development.
Another effective means of activating the deep smarts of teachers in a school system is to invite their active input on the question of how to improve the professional development program in their district. It is a subject that most have strong feelings about and one that evokes a wide range of positive and negative opinions.

We argue, however, that whatever the present ratio of positive to negative feelings about professional development, effective teacher input in the design and delivery of these services will have the effect of shifting the balance strongly toward the positive end of a continuum. The reason for this rests on two very simple assertions: First, no one but teachers themselves have the deep smarts to know what professional development best suits their needs and, second, the active involvement of teachers in something as important as their professional growth tends to generate feelings of professional empowerment.

As with all initiatives that seek to tap the deep smarts of frontline employees, the end result promises to be a net gain for the knowledge management system.

* A districtwide learning community.
One of the most heartening trends in public education in recent years is that a large number of schools that have transformed themselves into professional learning communities. While a few school systems have enjoyed measured success at the district level, the sheer size and/or complexity of many have tended to dissuade them from taking serious initiatives.

We contend the goal of creating a districtwide learning community is a logical extension of forming a districtwide knowledge management system and that initiatives designed to tap the deep smarts of all district personnel have the potential to simultaneously contribute to both ends.

Potential Pluses
We believe the case for inviting school district leaders to think about ways to search out the deep smarts of their professional personnel is a compelling one. One of the strongest arguments for investing some serious energy in such an initiative is that it has the potential to make a significant contribution to a district’s knowledge management system.

To the extent that leaders are successful in this regard, they will provide their school districts with a current and richly textured knowledge management system and thereby position themselves to make better decisions than those who have invested less wisely in this vital organizational function. It will, in essence, bring about a systemic value-added advantage that will keep these leaders in the forefront of developments in the field of education.

Another important potential payoff in activating the deep smarts of professional educators is the contribution it can make to professionalizing education. In a March 2004 article in Phi Delta Kappan, management consultant Deanna Burney asserts that craft knowledge, a variation on the deep smarts theme, remains hidden from professional view because no systemic means of gathering, codifying and sharing it exists among the professionals in the education community.

We assert that, when combined with the vast storehouse of codified knowledge in the field of education, the cumulative craft knowledge of teachers and administrators has the potential to build a new foundation for the profession. The first step toward realizing this potential is for education leaders to awaken to the fact the deep smarts of the people they lead hold the answers to many of the challenges they face.

Yet another plus-side argument for creating opportunities for district personnel to share some of their deep smarts is that it opens up a professional space for them to draw upon a positive, pro-active part of their professional psyches that cannot be called upon often enough. Nearly all professionals love talking about their craft, and everyone is energized by talking pro-actively about what is working and about ideas for improving what is not working so well.

These are called conversations of possibilities, and they serve to enliven individuals and their workplaces. The obverse of conversations that grow out of pro-active thinking are those that spring from reactive thinking. Without conjecturing about the ratio of pro-active versus reactive thinking in public schools, we think that regardless of the balance, the challenge for district leaders is to do their best to shift the balance to the pro-active side of the ledger. And we know of no other initiative that holds more promise for bringing this pro-active element into play than creating opportunities for their professional personnel to share the tacit knowledge that accrues from their day-to-day work.

One of the most intractable challenges that we face in education is how to work more effectively with academically low-performing children. While these individuals are a favorite subject for researchers, those who study them can only capture and codify the more explicit aspects of the issue. However, every district has several teachers and principals who have consistently demonstrated a high level of success in working with these children.

We believe these professionals have an abundance of deep smarts about how to work successfully with this group. The challenge for district leaders is to identify these talented professionals and create interactive opportunities for them to share their deep smarts with colleagues. To the extent they are successful in realizing this potential, they will open up some new ways of addressing what is one of the most difficult educational challenges of our age.

Finally, for district leaders who see the potential of activating the professional voices of their administrative and teaching colleagues, the good news is that, compared with most change initiatives in education, this one carries very little risk. It requires comparatively little venture capital, and the upside potential is almost unlimited.

This said, we believe leaders should proceed with caution. We strongly recommend an incremental approach, one that is supported by a solid understanding of the initiative and that is guided by a carefully designed plan of action.

Harold Burbach is a professor in the department of leadership, foundations and policy in the Curry School of Education at University of Virginia, 190 Ruffner Hall, Charlottesville, VA 22903. E-mail: hb3c@virginia.edu. Alfred Butler is a professor in the same department and executive director of the Virginia Association of School Superintendents.