Monday, October 13, 2008

The Case for un-learning

I was asked the question "What role can Social Network enablement and social software play in enhancing individual and organisational learning?" In order to answer this we need to understand the flow of learning at an organisational level. Figure 1 depicts this in a very basic form which could be debated but we will accept for the purposes of this post:

Typically, most organisations are well equipped with a learning function that provides this flow of learning at the organisational level. But it could be argued that the majority of time is spent on the two areas of learning and relearning. However, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that it is in the unlearning, that KM and learning overlap and become dependant on each other. (Hedberg 1981) states “Knowledge grows, and simultaneously it becomes obsolete as reality changes. Understanding involves both learning new knowledge and discarding obsolete and misleading knowledge. The discarding activity – unlearning – is as important a part of understanding as is adding new knowledge.”

This presents an opportunity for the KM practitioner to play an important role of change agent and also utilise the social networking capability of an organisation to advantage. Understanding that most education within organisations is built around the routines and systems of the organisation is; essential. Resistance to change is usually related to the individual and communal dependencies that are built up over time with familiarity of task and outcome. Feldman and Pentland (2003) state that organizational routines are; “repetitive patterns of interdependent actions carried out by multiple organizational members involved in performing organizational tasks”. Unlearning these tasks is essential for learning the new tasks.

This then requires that the organisation show intent for unlearning. Martin de Holan and Phillips (2004: 1606) define organizational forgetting as ‘the loss, voluntary or otherwise, of organizational knowledge’. Whilst I am not sure I can agree with this entirely, I prefer to view forgetting as inadvertent loss of routines, tasks or patterns from organisational memory. In order to do this, there needs to be obvious action take place in conjunction with the relearning or new learning.

(Tsang and Zahra 2008) state; Unlearning at the organizational level requires unlearning at the individual level. Unlearning at the individual level refers to the case where a person becomes aware that certain items of knowledge he or she possesses are no longer valid or useful. If KM is to work with learning to understand whether unlearning is taking place then an effective social media repository would be of enormous benefit to understand the receptivity, reciprocity and usage of the new knowledge.

The opportunity is to ensure effective use of the organisational memory. What must be avoided is ending up with an organisational “memory” that is not used. (Tsang and Zahra, 2008) state that; organisations can end up with storage bins of organisational memory. By bin they mean a location where information is stored. Individuals in an organisation gather information through their own direct experiences and observations and retain it in their memories. Of course information is also stored in computer memory.

Social networking and the new types of supporting media present and opportunity to ensure that good organisational memory is accessible and at the same time, by eradicating that memory not required, foster unlearning to ensure that the organisational and individual memory is performing and providing up to date excellence in Knowledge Management and Learning.

Perhaps there is a case for the financial Services industry to unlearn a hell of a lot now? Hmmmm.......

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