In search of Sri Lankan ‘Deep-Smarts’ | Sunday Observer

In search of Sri Lankan ‘Deep-Smarts’

28 November, 2021
The team which developed South Asia’s first electric supercar, Vega EVX
The team which developed South Asia’s first electric supercar, Vega EVX

Being smart makes you confident. Being ‘deep-smart’ makes you move beyond in unleashing the hidden potential. We are in an era where the country needs many such people. Despite the economic woes and pandemic pressures, there is still hope for a better Sri Lanka with its enormous talent, tapped or untapped. Let us discover the what, why and how of ‘deep-smarts’ in today’s column.

Describing smartness

We say working smart is better than working hard. Among the Oxford dictionary descriptions of smartness (of a person), clean, tidy, and well dressed, attractively neat and stylish, bright, and fresh in appearance are the prominent ones. It also highlights having or showing quick-witted intelligence. It is mainly associated with success.

In moving from smartness to “deep-smartness”, one key component emerges clearly. That is knowledge gained through experience. Ikujiro Nonaka, a Japanese professor of management, called this “tacit” knowledge, in the early nineties. According to him, tacit knowledge comes through experience and it is very hard to transfer from one to another.

Tacit and explicit knowledge

It reminds me of veteran traditional physicians we had in the rural areas in the past, where they treat patients through experience. In contrast his ‘golaya’ or the student carries a book jotting down every prescription and observing every move of his teacher.

What the student will acquire is known as “explicit knowledge” or “coded knowledge”. Essentially, it refers to knowledge available in documents, manuals, organisations in either hard or soft forms. The challenge today is to transfer “tacit” form of knowledge to “explicit” form.

Tacit knowledge is all about “know-how” in doing things smartly. I remember as a young engineer running a soap powder packing plant, there was a sachet-filling machine that gave a lot of problems. My typical approach was to use the troubleshooting manual and to go step by step, following instructions such as “if X happens then do Y”. I was in fact using my “explicit” knowledge.

We had an elderly technician who had several decades of service in the same department. He used to approach me and say, the problem lies with a particular valve inside, and he can sense it from the faulty noise of the machine. How did he know it to such a precise extent? He was simply using his “tacit” knowledge. Now we are getting closer to our core discussion. ‘Deep-smarts’ are the ones full of “tacit” knowledge.

Details of ‘deep-smarts’

The term ‘deep-smart’ first appeared in a book titled, “Deep Smarts: Experience based Wisdom” in 1995. The co-authors were Prof. Dorothy Leonard of Harvard Business School and her husband Prof. Walter Swap of Tufts University. Based on their years of research, the couple identified a breed of people in the society full of wisdom gained through experience. Let’s see how they describe ‘deep-smarts’.

“Have you ever seen a colleague make a swift, seemingly intuitive decision — one that turned out to be very wise — and you wondered, “How did she do that?” Or perhaps you yourself, drawing on years of experience and hard-won judgement, recognise a familiar pattern in a sea of information and quickly diagnose it. We call the practice-based wisdom used in such situations ‘deep smarts’.

As they elaborate, deep smarts are not philosophical--they’re not wisdom in that sense, but they’re as close to wisdom as business gets. You see them in the manager who understands when and how to move into a new international market, the executive who knows just what kind of talk to give when her organisation is in crisis, the technician who can track a product failure back to an interaction between independently produced elements. In all these instances, what is common is the demonstration of “tacit knowledge”.

“These are people whose knowledge would be hard to purchase on the open market,” said Prof. Leonard. Their insight is based on “know-how” more than on “know-what”, and it comprises a system view as well as expertise in individual areas. There is an organisational challenge here. Because deep smarts are experience based and often context specific, they can’t be produced overnight or readily imported into an organisation. It takes years for an individual to develop them. They can be taught, however, with the right techniques.

As the authors of the book say, every organisation relies on the deep smarts of key members to compete, progress, and innovate. People with deep smarts have an almost uncanny ability to size up a complex situation and consider its system-wide implications and yet dive intelligently into the details when necessary. Their smarts may be technical, managerial, or both.

One example of deep-smartness from the US is about a veteran scientist. He realised that his company is about to lose a profitable Defence Department contract because of basic flaws in software and hardware design in a missile prototype. Drawing on 20 years of experience and speaking without notes, he spends several hours with the project team, laying out in detail all the needed changes. It takes several hundred people 18 months to implement the design changes, but the company wins a contract that still delivers profits years later.

As Prof. Leonard observed, a central dilemma for managers is that deep smarts take time to develop, and much of the knowledge is tacit. As a result, the know-how is not easily transferred when a member possessing it is about to retire or transfer to a new job. Prof. Swap asks several fundamental questions in this context.

“What can you do to ensure that your organisational members cultivate deep smarts? How can you provide for the leadership of the future by passing along the accumulated wisdom the people with the deepest smarts have to younger or newer members? Or reuse the smarts in one association for the benefit of another?” According to him, the disconcerting truth is that you can never really transfer deep smarts from one brain to another, but you can recreate them.


We can identify so many skills developed in our lives simply by doing. Same is true for deep-smarts. Children learn through experience, but somehow, we expect adults to gain knowledge through PowerPoint presentations and lectures or by being thrown into an unfamiliar sink-or-swim situation.

As Professors Leonard and Swap observe, people can and learn through such exercises, but neither efficiently nor well. Such expectations ignore how our brains work. Our knowledge is anchored in long-term memory, where it is available for retrieval when needed. According to them, some of our most useful knowledge is procedural, an understanding of how things are done. But information that is fed to us does not always lodge in memory. The material in lectures, a wag once commented, goes from the notes of the teacher to the notes of the student, without passing through the brains of either.

While many types of “learning by doing” exist, research by Professors Leonard and Swap identified several types of guided experience that were used to re-create knowledge of deep-smarts.

Guided practise is by far the most familiar way of learning by doing repetition of behaviour, action, or mental routine until we are skilled. This is how we learn to play the piano, conduct a business meeting, or sell a new product. However, we learn much more quickly if we have competent feedback. Even professional athletes have coaches.

In business, as in all cognitively based activity, problem solving is key to building up a range of possible solutions. When a problem falls within a familiar pattern, we can react quickly and confidently. “I’ve seen this before,” you think. A relative novice working with an expert may be exposed not only to routine problems but also to unusual ones that occur infrequently, but that may prove critical. Moreover, joint problem solving enables the expert to learn from the relative novice, who may have intriguing approaches, more up-to-date technical skills, or other contributions.

From novice to an expert

A newcomer to business may be using ‘explicit knowledge’ whereas an expert has plenty of “tacit” knowledge in making him/her deep-smart. According to Professors Leonard and Swap, experts behave differently than novices.

• They recognise bear traps because of their pattern-recognition.

• They make decisions swiftly because of their expertise.

• They recognise context because of their conditionalised knowledge.

• They extrapolate alternatives because of their experience.

• They make fine distinctions that are indistinguishable to an untrained eye or ear.

• They know what they don’t know when they encounter an unusual situation.

• They know when rules don’t apply because no two situations are exactly the same.

As they observe, the key differentiator is the deep-smartness. “The world is not divided between novices and experts. Attaining Deep Smarts takes time and effort. All of us at some time in our lives assume the role of novice. Most of us spend our professional and personal lives moving up the ladder of expertise.” It in fact is a journey of gaining maturity.

Way forward

The discussion on deep-smarts opens up a whole new world of insights into the subtle dimensions of our knowledge. We need deep-smarts to solve unprecedented complex issues in organisations, industries, and nations. Cutting-edge technology should be blended with experience-based wisdom to provide sustainable solutions. We Sri Lankans can do much more if this clear awareness can be propelled into concrete action.