THE BLOG

You Must Learn How To Unlearn

11/23/2015 02:44pm ET | Updated November 21, 2016
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Last week, I attended the Next Economy conference. A lot was shared about how work is changing from folk at the frontline of the change. Speakers like Stewart Butterfield (Slack), Satya Nadella (Microsoft), Kimberley Bryant (Black Girls Code), Limor Fried (Adafruit Industries, she was fantastic!), Zoe Baird (Markle Foundation), Reid Hoffman (LinkedIn), Leah Busque (TaskRabbit) and a host of others. My summary: work is changing at an astonishing space due to technology, policy is not keeping up and we all need to keep learning.

One thing that stayed with me was actually unspoken and that is how we will all have to learn to unlearn most of what we 'know'.

Our access to knowledge now exponentially surpasses any other time in our history and the real competitive advantage will be how we use the knowledge we acquire. Knowing all this (pun intended) it seems we terribly undervalue a critical skill of survival in an age where the half life of knowledge continues to reduce at an exponential rate.

So what is unlearning? It is to let go of the things which you have learned. A visual works here. Take a cup, learning represents filling up the cup and unlearning would represent emptying the cup. You empty the cup and fill it up again. You might empty the cup of water and fill it up with a nice nutrient laden smoothie. Same cup, different drink. Continue the loop.

I work with companies in the utility/resource efficiency industry (and for those that provide technology to that industry) where ~50% of the population will be retiring in the next 6-8 years. A whopping ~50%. There is the obvious need for knowledge transfer. There is also the obsolescence of that knowledge due to the fast changing nature of technology and the prosumer these workers are now having to serve. Almost as important as storing the knowledge is the need to help these workers unlearn all they know as they will need to learn about new technology applications (in the form of renewables, electric vehicles and consumer enablement tools) in a changing industry.

To refuse to adapt is to get swept away by the sea of change. I had to unlearn most of what I knew about this industry to build an innovative business. After working at a power station for several years I had learned a lot (good and bad). I had to unlearn a lot of the old habits - customer service was something I'd never had to bother with at the power plant, as long as the turbines worked I was happy, but it proved critical to the my business - and this was key in bringing about the change that was required.

So what is the value of unlearning? The most obvious benefit is recognizing and stopping the stifling mindset that is manifested unintentionally when we feel we know. It's the 'this is how I or we've always done it' syndrome. The ability to rid yourself of old ideas that are no longer relevant in the new economy will be key as you plow into the future. For you the individual, in the new economy, unlearning (and then learning something new) will keep you innovative, relevant and valuable to your company.

Why you ask?

Because the old rules will no longer apply...