The Importance Of Unlearning

Is forgetting the past the only way to prepare for the future?

18Jan

Knowledge is a surplus resource in today's world. We are all privy to the largest well of information since the dawn of civilization, and more becomes available every day. While this is obviously great, it has put a lot of pressure on businesses to keep up with the latest trends and innovations.

Constantly learning new methods and processes have become essential to remaining competitive. It's one thing to introduce a completely new idea into your business. However, what about when there's a new innovation which contradicts an already existing system which has worked well for your company up until now?

This is when unlearning becomes essential. Unlearning is the act of letting go of old information or habits in order to make room for new ideas which might be better for the enterprise.

This is, of course, easier said than done, and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman has an idea why. 'One of the things that I tell people is that success imprints more strongly than failure,' he says. 'And it does so because as you've succeeded, it's like, I've learned this tool. And so, this tool must be right.'

We are programmed to trust the way we do things if they work and have a natural distrust of new procedures if they contest our previously held beliefs. However, there is no natural expiry date to ideas held, as Hoffman points out, '[You] just keep applying it, and even as the train comes off the tracks, because part of what happens is, you know, markets change, competitors change, industries change. You change.'

If you have functioned successfully for over a 100 years without online marketplaces, why fix what isn't broken? Levi Strauss is a perfect example of the above situation. Founded in 1853, they were late to adopt the e-commerce model because they felt they had enough brand recognition to need it. They carried on business as usual and suffered massive dips in profits throughout the early noughties until they rectified their folly. Countless companies are finding out that the 'if it ain't broke' model simply doesn't work anymore.

Businesses can no longer wait for their way of doing things to become outdated before examining and adopting new innovations. Once a new technique has been fashioned, it renders the old way obsolete by virtue of its existence. And with innovation being the propeller of industry, if you wait until a new method becomes mainstay before adopting it, you are likely too late to the party.

So companies need to adopt a culture of unlearning and relearning. For some enterprises, this can mean a fundamental shift in the staff mentality. Hoffman explains, '...Frequently, you have to go, 'Okay, which of the old lessons have to be thrown out? And which things do I have to unlearn or learn anew?'.

Ease into it

When you are trying to foster a culture of unlearning amongst employees, you need to be gentle. People and institutions don't change overnight. Staff who have become very used to doing a task a certain way for a very long time will take some time to come around. Individuals may have to make major adjustments to their daily work life for this to work, so it helps to have staff on your side.

Procedure changes shouldn't just be mandated from above but discussed with staff every step of the way. If employees understand why the changes are being made and have been consulted on it prior to implementation, they are more likely to get involved in a meaningful way.

Outside of procedure changes, there might be certain organization-wide habits you want to break for ethical reasons. For example, in an effort to be more sustainable, you might begin to encourage staff to turn off their PC's at the end of the day or when they are out of the office for longer than an hour. Simply telling staff to just do it or face some kind of consequence will do little to bring about actual behavior changes. Maybe it's hard to enforce because too many of them are stuck in their ways. Maybe they just don't care about going green.

Then remember that the process of unlearning goes both ways. You can also begin to innovate the way you implement company-wide changes. Software which automatically shuts down idle PCs might be a more effective alternative to trying to drill out habits. Technology has afforded us a third option after the carrot and the stick options fail.

Either way, always strive to make any unlearning and relearning changes a joint effort. The more involved staff feel, the more likely they are to come onboard.

Promote curiosity

More than any specific change, you are trying to foster a mentality in everyone to actively seek out innovation; not only better ways to do their jobs but better ways for the company as a whole to function. Google is famous for doing this with their '20%' policy - the practice of encouraging staff to use 20% of their time to experiment with their own ideas.

They also encourage all members of staff, regardless of their station, to speak up whenever they have an idea which they believe is important to the organization. A good example of this is when the staff medical doctor argued emphatically that Google had a moral responsibility to extend help to users who typed in 'how to commit suicide'.

This is the kind of issue which would have likely passed under the radar of some executives running a multi-billion dollar company, but Google acted, showing the benefit of a diverse range of opinions and perspectives. They ended up featuring the National Suicide Prevention hotline at the top of the page whenever it was searched and the hotline's call volume went up by 9%.

Make your intentions clear

If you are encouraging employees to make unlearning part and parcel of their job, they need goals to strive towards, lest the whole thing appears like an exercise in futility. Goals allow staff to keep track of how effective changes have been to their overall performance.

It is also important that these goals are attainable and devised with the employee's input. Making the goals attainable will give a sense of achievement when they accomplish them, which will spur them to keep at it. Giving them a say, on the other hand, will give them a sense of control over their lives.

It's a process

Unlearning is hard for everyone involved and can't be rushed. As you foster a culture of unlearning, foster a culture of cooperation and idea sharing. You want staff to help each other out when they see their colleagues struggling and create an atmosphere where everyone feels comfortable asking for help, either from colleagues or management. If you can, create a support team specifically to assist in the unlearning process made up of staff from all corners of the organization; the more diverse opinions are, the better. Remind them that you are all in this together.

Employees are any successful company's greatest asset and maximizing their commitment to the organization will improve every facet of it. You are bound to have glitches at the start, but if you manage to create a successful system of unlearning and relearning amongst your staff, it will ensure your company always remains at the forefront of innovation.

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