Learning to Forget

Back in the days when I was a full time consultant working inside a firm, I wore two hats; Chief Knowledge Officer and Chief Learning Officer. The accepted argument was that there was value in capturing and organizing what we knew as an organization so that we could teach it to our consultants and they could do better work for our clients. Knowledge was property—intellectual property—and was as asset to be managed. Good manufacturing firms managed their raw materials. Ideas were our raw materials and, therefore, worthy of active management.

Such a simple analogy. We thought we were more clever than most by tying the knowledge management and learning elements together.

We forgot about forgetting.

Our efforts were all about remembering. There was no attention to the need to make room for new and better ideas. We adopted a scholastic view of knowledge, not a scientific one.

Organizations can be haunted by obsolete ideas as they are held back by failing to remember what they already know. We neglected forgetting practices to go along with remembering ones.

This can be tricky business. Memory hooks are largely about stories; compelling stories make things memorable, even for abstract ideas. It’s hard to simply replace an old story with a new, shiny, story. It’s one of the things making organizational change so hard. The old stories are tightly knit into the fabric of the organization or discipline. The new story, however shiny, can’t compete against the weight of the entire tapestry.

We need to bury old ideas. Celebrate them if we must, but be careful about trying to dig them up when the result is more likely to be zombies than secret treasure.