The stubborness, and flexibility, of memory and learning

In my last post I discussed the question of knowledge loss in the form of the impending retirement of baby boomers. I wrote, “Organizational memory, like human memory, can be a stubborn thing to change and often results in a this is how we’ve always done it syndrome,” and suggested that maybe we don’t want to capture and continue to use their knowledge. Obviously, this is not something that should (or even could) be done, but the point was to look at the problem from “outside,” to try to get a more objective view of the situation.

The beauty of the human mind in memory formation, and thus learning, is that it is inherently flexible. I believe the same to be true of organizational memory and learning. The stubborness I mention in learning and memory above is a learned behavior that can be overcome, if the desire is there. Unfortunately, my experience has shown me that most people – and organizations – have this stubborn type of memory, which leads to the inability (or very hard time) and sometimes unwillingness to learn new things. And by new things I don’t mean new information molded to fit the way you already think of something.

A better way to describe these two aspects of memory/learning comes from The Power of Impossible Thinking: Transform the Business of Your Life and the Life of Your Business. In her discussion of the book, along with several other things under the title Flexing Mental Muscles, Evelyn Rodriguez provides the following quote:

  • The first kind of learning, which is far more common and more easily achieved, is to deepen our knowledge within an existing mental model or discipline.

  • The second kind of learning is focused on new mental models and shifting from one to another. It does not deepen knowledge in a specific model but rather looks at the world outside the model and adopts or develops new models to make sense of this broader world…Learning about new mental models is much more challenging and complex, but crucial in an environment of rapid change and uncertainty.

Johnnie Moore also discusses the ideas in his post Changing Mental Models.