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The value of old knowledge


At any management conference you will find people pitching new ideas. HR is always looking for new perspectives, new tips, or new programs. After a while all this newness becomes tedious. Sometimes the new ideas are simply not very good. Sometimes we find they are merely old concepts repackaged in an unfamiliar way. Sometimes there is just too much newness to contend with.

Are we too in love with the new? Do we need to learn to love the old?

Of course, if you go to a conference and hear the same old stuff that can be even worse. Why would you spend time ‘learning’ something you already knew?

Practicing, reminding and encouraging

The most obvious reason to repeat old ideas is that people need practice. A course on giving feedback need not teach you any new techniques, it just needs to give you a chance to practice the ones you already know.

Another reason for revisiting old ideas is that people need reminding. It is human nature to forget even the things we think are important. We may believe the research saying we need to give our staff positive feedback, and commit ourselves to doing so, only to find that it slips our minds and we go weeks without sharing a kind word. We do not need a new idea about managing employees, we just need to be reminded to do what we know works.

A related idea is that we need encouragement. The major religions all encourage practitioners to regularly attend services and read religious texts. The purpose is not to learn something new. The purpose is to provide on-going encouragement and reinforcement so the lessons become deeply embedded. Sports coaches tell their players the same things over and over. The players already know they need to ‘keep their eye on the ball’; but they need the constant encouragement of the coach to do so in the face of other distractions.

Building ‘old ideas’ into learning and development

It can be hard for HR to build development programs based on reinforcing old ideas. Nevertheless, revisiting old ideas can be built-in if there is a coherent development program, not just a hodgepodge of courses.

One way to do so is to build courses in a series (for example basic, intermediate and advanced levels) and then focus less on teaching new skills each time but deepening the ability to put the old ones to use.

Another of my favourite techniques is to use reflection exercises where small groups are convened to discuss their experiences on some topic. If giving feedback is the topic, then arranging for managers to meet to discuss and reflect on their experience can be a powerful way of reinforcing old lessons.

Finally, if people need reminding or encouragement rather than new learning, then we should be relying more on on-going communications than on workshops. If you give a course on feedback then back it up with an communication campaign to reinforce the message.

Following one master

The notion of focusing on mastering old ideas instead of flitting about looking for new ones reminds me of the Tibetan Buddhists’ insistence that it is important to follow one master. They are not saying that other masters are not equally good; it is just that you need to choose a path and stick to it to make a progress. We know there are many good ideas about how to run an organization. There is the model of the high performance organization, McKinsey’s 7-S model, lean manufacturing, requisite organization…the list goes on and on. It is probably better to get really good at one of these rather than dabble in them all. I suspect that many of these different paths will lead you to the same place; nonetheless, getting the organization to commit to one philosophy will speed progress.

Breaking free of the new

Our philosophy of learning and development should be as much focused on reminding, encouraging and practicing as learning something new. If a company has a philosophy of management then what people need is constant refreshment, renewal, deepening, and honing of the relevant skills, not being introduced to new philosophies with each edition of the Harvard Business Review.

Since the world is gripped by the love of the new it may not be easy to promote the old, yet we need a better balance than is currently the norm.


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