Learning to forget

Brett Miller has some interesting thoughts about memory and anti-memory: Technology makes it easy to "remember," the trick is learning how to forget

[snip] In the context of mastery, especially of something new, it is sometimes hard to know when to forget what you’ve learned. You have to build up a solid foundation of basic knowledge, the things that have to be done. And at some point you start to build up tacit knowledge of what you are trying to master. And this, the tacit knowledge that goes into learning and mastery, is probably the hardest thing to learn how to forget.

Sometimes, though, it is critical to forget what you know so you can continue to improve. Witness Tiger Wood’s reinvention of his swing, twice, and Neil Peart’s reinvention of his drumming.

This idea has been bouncing around knowledge management circles for a while, cropping up from time to time.  Brett mentions the disregard many have for best practice implementations because they simply reinforce what we already know.  And there always those jokes about people filling their brains with "too much" knowledge, forcing them to throw out stuff they used to know when they have to accommodate some new piece of information.

I have a thought.  Rather than argue whether best practices or benchmarking studies are a good idea, we should be checking where the organization is going.  If the organizational context is the same, then the best practices will remain valuable.  But if the direction for the organization is changing (either on purpose or because the industry is changing), then those practices may not help in the future.  And the fun thing here is that we can't always say when those fundamental changes are going to come. 

Step back from the day-to-day to check the direction.  What do we "know" that is no longer valuable?  What do we need to do differently?

2 Comment(s)

Brett said:


I debated whether or not to put in that reference to best practices. I compromised with myself (can you really do that?) by adding the caveat, "as most people implement them."

As I've written on my blog, the process of mastery is one of long plateaus followed by periodic, sometimes chaotic, jumps in ability/skill/knowledge; very similar to your description of the various stages an organization may find itself in. Self-reflection and self-understanding are key to successfully navigating this path.

This is as true for organizations as it is for individuals. The problem with organizations, in my experience anyway, is that they are extremely bad at this type of self-analysis (for whatever reason).

David Montgomery said:

another thorny issue and I would have replied sooner but I seem more adept at forgetting then I realised.

Brett makes a good point that organisations are poor at self-analysis or at least those that may be good at it keep it to themselves since this undoubtedly affords them good competitive advantage.

Is learning to forget the real issue or is it more a case of unlearning effectively so that at times of duress we do not revert to poor or previous working habits? The danger with persistently high levels of information is the difficulty in validating its worth since all too often by the time that this process is fully completed the currency of such news has much diminished. Consequently, in a rush to incorporate new information so that it becomes reflected in new more effective work practices we often superimpose the novel on the out of date such that the latter either floats to the surface over time or bursts out when under pressure.

but as you pointed out knowledge is context specific which makes for a double-edged sword since if we consciously discard some which is considered obsolete it may yet be needed later if we change direction and the context alters . Surely the better option is to learn how to adapt to new situations more readily -- we're back to that old cliche again of learning how to learn.

Still think that par five is rather harsh for a 300m hole but then I haven't managed to unlearn my old swing let alone master it!


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