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How We Know When to “Unlearn” What We Have Learned…

March 1, 2011

It is a bit of an odd thought, but not one you wake up with every morning. A few weeks back as a class introduced itself to me; one of the participants wanted to know, “What do I have to unlearn?”

I thought it was the best thing I was likely to hear all day.

Even as technologists and futurists, we too commonly fall into the trap of what works. We hold to routines, practices and protocols that accomplish the necessary tasks with the same efficiency as when we first implemented them. The thing is…time, tech and ways of thinking might have changed since then. In order to embrace not just the future, but rather the present, we must re-evaluate the tenants we hold true and let go of them if needed. We must unlearn.

The question arose in response to Office 2010. Fluid ribbons replace arcane toolbars and menus to expose functionality we didn’t know existed. Well-trained fingers want to dig deeply into the dark corners of Word 2003 only to discover that Word 2010 has dragged what they labor for into the light. If we can unlearn, or if we have never learned, we can take advantage of new and faster ways of doing things.

The transition to Windows 7 serves as a great example of the need to “unlearn.” Most of us have used Windows in one form or another for many, many years. We know our tricks, our little processes, our keyboard shortcuts that help us get our work done. All that’s still there, but now, changes to the interface expose new and old functionality to help us get work done faster.

I no longer need to walk a user through to some obscure applet on the control panel. I can just type its name into the Start Button’s Search Window. I can find documents and applications right from there. Once I realize the Windows key actually serves a purpose beyond advertising, I might never use the mouse again. ((Just kidding.))

The tricky part of “unlearning” stems from larger processes than how we interact with individual applications. Technology is not the only evolving element in our environments. The company is growing. Is our process of asking for support still effective and efficient? Are we evaluating our employees correctly against the skills needed to make our organization profitable? How do we inspire our workers to learn (and unlearn) better ways of doing things.

Unlearning takes some confidence and a willingness to explore the unknown. It’s not that we’ve been doing things the wrong way. It’s more that we need the freedom and support to discover a potentially better path. “What can I unlearn today?” might not be a question I ask myself every morning, but it’s certainly one to ask more frequently.

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