Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Why unlearning is Worth the Effort

Yesterday I wrote about how important unlearning was for an organisation and what it represents in terms of managing organisational memory.

I was confronted by a challenge this morning that asked the question of "why anything would need to be "unlearned"." Conceptually i think we struggle with the term "unlearning" as it suggests that we need to forget what we know and sacrifice it for whatever is new. I believe this to be far from the truth and in fact I think unlearning is more about ensuring that we alter our mental models to deal with what we know to be the truth.

We all have existing mental models that, at times, allow us to "auto pilot" through life. The problem with this is there is little or no cognisance of value and worth of information and knowledge and therefore we carry on letting existing mental models have their way with what we believe to be the best part of a situation or context. My issue with this is we find ourselves in awkward situations where it is hard to challenge what is an organisational or social norm because we have not critically reflected on it.

A deliberate commitment to unlearning is required to begin to alter existing mental models and ensure individuals think critically about certain situations and contexts. There is certainly some global and local, policy, procedure, process and models that need to be "unlearned" as a result of the impacts associated with the global financial crisis. But it will take a disposition towards critically thinking about this and it will require organisations to reflect on the learning that has occurred and what action should be taken in the future.

The most important thing is to identify that which should no longer be part of the organisational memory and ensure steps are taken to "unlearn" that which would detrimental in the future.


Tony Wilson said...

Hi Rob. I haven't written before (mainly because I am not smart enough to understand a lot of what you write) but this is interesting and something which feeds into how we reinforce skills.

If we look at skill development for anything (including the way we think - or our mental patterns/models) we move from a state of Unconscious Incompetence (we don't know what we don't know) to Conscious Incompetence (where we know there is stuff that we don't know, or a better way of doing things etc), to Conscious Competence (we start to adopt the new behaviours, but it needs our mental attention) and finally to Unconscious Competence (auto-pilot).

Most people think that this last stage is the best one to be in, because it allows us to act out of instinct. But this can be a problem, epitomised by the fact that often we start driving to work, thinking "I'll stop and get the dry cleaning on the way" and then find ourselves in our carpark with no recollection of the trip and certainly no dry cleaning.

It is actually better to constantly switch between the last two stages - being conscious of what you are doing, any deviation that is happening and also any changes that need to be made, but also being able to act on pure instinct when the situation requires.

The funniest thing about the cycle is that once you are at Unconscious Competence, you are actually also back at Unconscious Incompetence........

Tony Wilson

Wilko said...

Hi Tony,

Mate, essentially I agree with you but there is also a core element to the cycle you point out.

At both stages you are unconscious, there are elements that force you to critically look at moving to the next stage of the cycle. It is this acknowledgment of the elements that sows the seeds for unlearning. The moment you become cognisant of your need for competence then there will be things that you begin to "unlearn" in order to gain that competence.

The theory of "unlearning" requires this cognisance. Otherwise we go through those cycles without adjustment and without the need to learn.