Wednesday 16 July 2014

The Unlearning curve

We all know the concept of the learning curve – how an individual, team or organisation can improve performance over time through an accumulation of knowledge. 

You see this effect all over – in high jumps, frog rodeos, nuclear power plant construction and oilwell drilling – the more time you spend, the more you learn, and the better your performance.

Knowledge management helps the learning curve in two ways – its helps a single team learn more quickly and climb the learning curve faster, and it helps knowledge to be passed between people teams, so that the learning curve can extend beyond the activities of any one individual or project.

But what about the converse? What about the unlearning curve?

With individuals, if we don’t practice something, we forget. We get worse over time, not better.

As our memory fades, then we move from unconscious competence to unconscious incompetence, and we often get a shock when we try to reproduce previous skills and find that we have forgotten what we used to know.

Organisations have forgetting curves as well. What teams used to be able to do easily, now becomes impossible.

There are some very prominent examples of this; NASA “forgetting” how to design a Saturn Rocket, NNSA forgetting how to make a crucial component of Nuclear Warheads, Arup forgetting about the resonant periodicity of footbridges.

How do you avoid this kind of unlearning?

The answer seems to be to embed knowledge into designs, processes and procedures rather than relying on human memory, and to keep not only the design documents and procedural documents themselves, but also the thinking behind them.

There comes a time when knowledge needs to be written down, and written down carefully, before the unlearning curve kicks in.

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