Learning, unlearning and new learning

Whilst we think a lot about creation of new knowledge in KM – learning from experiences, learning from databases, learning from each other – one thing we talk less about is the need for unlearning as well.

People, especially experienced professionals, are not clean slates or empty vessels into which new learning pours. They are complex individuals with complex frames of reference, biases and a huge network of intertwined experiential learning, and unlearning old patterns of behaviour is as important as learning new ones.

Old knowledge is not overwritten like a computer programme. In the early stages of many people’s careers unlearning can be a fairly straightforward process, but later on, it can be more difficult for experts to wrap their heads around the changes necessary to unlearn existing processes or best practices, and adapt to new ones.

And when our organisations are not obviously failing, there can seem to be little imperative to change.

How are KM practitioners to help with this process inside their organisations?

Firstly, we need to understand that unlearning is not about forgetting.

If you’ve ever tried to “not think” about something, you’ll know how impossible “forgetting on demand” would be. Instead, unlearning is about questioning the existing mental models that we’ve been working with, discarding those that no longer provide value, and moving towards working with new ones.

Simple? As with other situations involving change by humans, it is a process rather than a discrete event … and it is tougher than it sounds.

Firstly, we need to encourage those involved to understand the reasoning behind the change. Why is the existing mental model no longer working? This can be a difficult change to support, as our mental models are often unconscious and, even once conscious, letting go of them can feel like an admission of failure. The subject matter experts that KMers support may have built their reputations and whole careers on their mastery of a particular field within a particular delivery process, so an admission that new models are needed can feel like a real loss.

Secondly, we need to support those involved in finding a new mental model that will work better for them.

Thirdly, everyone will need to practice, practice, practice, until the new mental habits are embedded.

What can KMers do to help with this process?

The exciting news is that unlearning and relearning appears (although there isn’t a huge amount of research) to be a process that gets easier each time, so once you get the ball rolling, things should get easier.

The skills needed to question, let go and learn, will be best learned through experience and reflection upon that experience, and will be encouraged by a strong culture of non-judgmental curiosity (not that I pretend that such a culture is easy to create). KMers can help those that they support by discussing the value of new knowledge as part of a wide tapestry of learning, and encouraging reflection on relevant experiences.

KMers can also help those they support, but in particular their subject matter experts, to understand that new knowledge doesn’t need to create dissonance with existing knowledge. Each moment of unlearning and new learning is in fact part of the creation of a wider expertise. Observation, experimentation and creation of new ways of working and understanding are essential to successful organisations, and experts’ wide levels of experience help them to adapt in novel situations, where simple best practices do not apply.


What are your experiences of unlearning in your organisation?

How do you support your subject matter experts in handling their natural resistance to change?

I’d love to hear from you below.


And if you have found this post interesting, follow the blog using the button at the top right, or sign up for the busy person’s roughly monthly summary of interesting stuff, or have me along to one of your knowledge sharing/learning meetings to start the conversation!

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KM teams – the post-pandemic landscape

We (in Knowledge Network) just had such an interesting discussion led by Simon Burton of CB Resourcing, looking at

  • how KM teams have stepped up to help their organisation adapt to new ways of delivering client services during the lockdown,
  • how they’re planning to help with changes to the business landscape, including areas anticipating expansion and areas that will remain depressed, as we emerge into the next phase, and
  • what skills they can learn and adapt now, to offer greater value for the future.

It was particularly interesting to me to hear how KM teams are trying to fill the informal knowledge sharing gap and new routes to relationship and network building when everyone is working from home.

How are you dealing with these issues?

Although I’d never say it was easy to create a user-friendly online knowledge database, I’d say it is even harder to create a trusting network when everyone is at home, coping with their own personal difficulties, which could include loneliness, caring responsibilities, health worries or difficult domestic circumstances.

Have you any bright ideas to share? Comment below.

And if you want to join KN-UK for similar interesting talks, get in touch for more info.

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Exciting news!

I’ve started another book.

It’s one I’ve been wanting to write for a while now and the silver lining to lockdown has been the time it has given me to write.

Will be a while until it’s out, but keep your eyes open for sneak-peaks and requests for help!

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K&IM awards

Have you nominated someone or something for the CILIP K&IM awards yet?

I’m sure you must know some outstanding people and outstanding work that justifies recognition. More information here

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Narrative Inquiry, oral history and knowledge sharing

Knowledge exists on a spectrum. At one end we have explicit knowledge which is easy to write down and access from written materials and towards the other end we have tacit knowledge which is highly subjective and difficult to access.

Storytelling and conversation is one of the more effective ways to surface and explore tacit knowledge. It is also a fantastic way to ensure that the shared knowledge sticks: stories which are vivid and meaningful are simply more likely to be remembered and acted upon.

Story sharing can also help organisations to retain their vibrancy, sharing stories of successes and help people to understand and frame their work as meaningful.

If you are interested in storytelling for knowledge sharing in organisations, join our webinar by Thaler Pekar, an internationally recognized pioneer in the field of organizational narrative, leadership storytelling, and persuasive communication.

Learn more and buy tickets here.

And if you want to learn more


This webinar is part of the series for Knowledge Network Online, the international knowledge sharing group for professional services KMers. Learn more and how to join us here.

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Serendipity, connection and coffee – an interview

My recent chat with Michael Soto about random virtual coffee connections.

Have you had any successes with virtual coffee connections? I’d love to hear your experiences in the comments below.

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Global support and community

In these difficult times I’ve been wondering how I can use my knowledge about knowledge sharing, conversation and community to help support my own community of Knowledge people.

I’ve already set up some random virtual coffees and if you want to join the second wave next month, let me know.

Now, thanks to a great idea from my colleague Katherine Thomas of Free Range Lawyers, I’m going to arrange some *planned* virtual coffees.

So, if you work in Information, Knowledge or Learning and want a bit of support from a peer who (mostly) doesn’t compete with you, drop me a line and I will do my best to pair you up with someone of a similar background/role from a different area of the world, so you can share experiences and support each other with no strings or fallout. No pressure on either party, just two friendly people who understand each others’ pressures, with less of the worry about spilling the wrong beans.

And of course a different geographical outlook might spark some new ideas too.

If you want to join in, email me (helenerussell@theknowledgebusiness.co.uk) or comment below with a few short details – 1) Info, Knowledge or Learning? 2) Country? 3) Sector? 4) Frontline or Senior Leader? – so I can pair similar people up.

And, most importantly, I need you all to share the heck out of this idea, so we have plenty of people from all over the world involved.

Free and no strings of course.

Stay home, stay well and make new virtual connections!

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KNUK online – a covid-19 update

I’m very excited that we have the lovely Alison Day online next week, talking about the knowledge sharing and learning frameworks they use in the NHS and how she influences leaders to improve decision-making with evidence and knowledge.

If you are an existing member of KNUK, you should already have heard from me with the details, but if you are one of those who comes along to the odd session or someone who’d like to come along but has always been too far away, or someone thinks this is the perfect time to join such a lovely community, read on

In the light of covid-19, for the time being, I’m combining all my KNUK in-person groups with the new online one and instead of 5x 2-hour in-person events, I’m going to be running 10x 1-hour online events instead.

I’m gradually contacting all those who were planning to speak at in-person events and hunting down some other people to speak, so the programme is “emerging”.

If you are already part of KNUK you should have had your invitation this morning and you don’t need to do anything more, just log in on 1st April at 12.30.

If you would like to join for the year, there is still time, drop me a line and I’ll invoice you (it’s £265 for one person for the year) and send you the log in details.

If you would like to book for individual sessions, you can find them on Eventbrite.

Any questions, drop me a line.

Hope to see you all there.

Stay home and stay well everyone!

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Tiny bit of help…

… to keep you connected in difficult times.

Strange to think that in my last newsletter in February I was sharing ideas for helping the elderly tackle loneliness by connecting more and how we could learn from this to improve networking inside businesses. And now I’m cancelling workshops and conferences and we’re all trying to avoid personal contact.



I guess the main thing to remember in these difficult times is that connection isn’t discouraged, just actual physical contact, and the fantastic thing about living now, is that there are many ways to connect with people using technology.

To help out anyone working virtually who wants a bit more connection, I’ll be running some more virtual coffee connections/RCTs (if you want to know what this is, have a look here). If you fancy joining in, email me and I’ll add you to the list, then I’ll do a random connection next Monday (23rd). It’s entirely free and no strings, just to help out the knowledge community. Previously I’ve done this for knowledge lawyers, but this time it will be for *anyone* on the list who wants a virtual coffee and chat with someone else.

And don’t forget although the in-person workshops are cancelled, all kinds of virtual stuff is still happening – the bookclub, the virtual KNUK and the online school – and there is likely to be more online soon (especially the virtual school at Teachable).

And all the in-person KNUK meetings will join up with the virtual group until the all-clear sounds. I’m just rearranging things at the moment.

Stay well, stay safe and stay connected.

*Update* I connected everyone who asked to join in on Monday 23rd March. If you fancy joining a second wave, perhaps around the end of April, let me know (comment below or email me).

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Working from home in difficult times

In these difficult times, a lot of people who don’t usually work from home will be having to give it a go or manage teams trying it out for the first time.

My colleague in the Law Consultancy Network, Katherine Thomas, has kindly released an ebook. She’s had it in the pipeline for a while, as agile working is a specialism of hers, but has put in the extra hours to get it to you now, when you really need it.

It’s available from her website directly, without any sign up.

Also, if anyone needs any help with implementing remote working, she’s making available some free 45 minute consultations. There are no strings, she just wants to help if she can (I can vouch for that, she’s a lovely person!). Get in touch with her here. Although she’s based in Australia, she’s making time available which suits most time zones.

And for my own customers, I’m working to add many of my workshops onto my online school. There’s just one there at the moment, but I’m working on them!

https://theknowledgebusiness.teachable.com/courses

Stay safe!

Quotation: However difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. Stephen Hawking
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