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.


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About knowledge4lawyers

I am a lawyer and a Knowledge Management expert. Through The Knowledge Business I help law firms improve their efficiency and profitability through knowledge services - consultancy, training and implementation help.
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