The Underestimated Power of Unlearning

Does a technically sound person make a great auditor? Well, the answer is both yes and no, as it all depends on the other qualities that the individual brings to the table.

Qualifications of auditors and learning and development programs are getting a lot of attention more than ever today, which is great. I believe there is still too much emphasis on technical skills – which is crucial and fundamental–, and the industries are missing the essence of human and strategic skills big time.

When we look at the qualification criteria published for auditors, we see a good amount of reference to human and strategic skills such as being ethical, open-minded, diplomatic, observant, perceptive, decisive, culturally sensitive. However, most of the training courses designed and implemented are not going any further than listing these skills as part of their curriculum. This is most probably because teaching and learning human and strategic skills require a different set of muscles with a different way of thinking. And it all starts with understanding how we unlearn the old methods and replace them with the new ones, within the context of value created through auditing.

Mystery of brain remains unfolded

Brain is an extremely surprising piece of organ. The scientists are exploring probably at least one new thing, every other day, yet there are many things stay unfolded. How does the brain think and learn? This has been one of the biggest mysterious questions ever, and we are able to scratch only the surface of it today.

Almost till the end of the last century, many of us believed that the pathways created on our brains remain the same after certain age. We are born with a very plastic brain and neurons start to build pathways from the very first days of our lives. We learn mainly through observations and a lot of practice. This comes also with an important amount of patience. I cannot think of any other form of human being who does not quit until he/she succeeds in what he/she does. Remember how we all learned to walk.

Some of those pathways, get solid by time particularly after being travelled many times. You can think of those as the highways that you had developed and use when performing a task without even thinking like driving, biking etc. The reason we perform those tasks with a little effort today is because our brains chose to use those well-established pathways to be more productive. Building a new path will require the brain to work more and consequently use more glucose and energy. But is it enough to function through the established paths to demonstrate all the potential we have as individuals?

Our brains are plastic

Neuroplasticity is introduced as a very answer to this fundamental question.  It is defined as the capacity of neurons and neural networks in the brain to change their connections and behavior in response to new information, sensory stimulation, development, damage, or dysfunction.

Scientists state that the human brain remains plastic throughout the entire life. The productivity of the brain to keep and use the well-established pathways is the intelligence it has developed through the evolution and is very vital. However, this should not result in being prisoned in the frame that we have created until the ages of 30 to 35. Human brain can still learn and have the potential to create new paths. I am quite sure that you would remember at least a few important skills or knowledge that you acquired at your – rather experienced – ages. The difficulty is to unlock this potential and use it to the extent possible. How is it going to happen?

There is a simple answer to this very question, but it is a perplexing task to perform at the same time. Childhood curiosity is the only willpower you would need, a hunger to learn similar to what you had in your very early days in life. This will come with a lot of patience and eager to practice. The word curiosity includes the zest of creating increased number of synapses (neural junction) in the brain for the better. A true learning is achieved when there is positive inner-motivation, and this always overweighs the forced learning.

Unlearning is key to success

One of the challenges in front of adult learning is to be able to unlearn. Here, we are not talking about forgetting everything we learned. This is against the evolution and unnecessary. The main thing here is to unlearn the obsolete, dogmatic, “old school” knowledge and understanding, and move to new models of thinking.

Unlearning a thing requires more effort than learning new things in many aspects. No matter what, the brain will automatically show you the well-established pathway as the only option – not necessarily the best option in all cases. It requires important amount of conscious effort to realize which mental model we are using and why it may be obsolete. It is equally difficult to create that new model to achieve your objectives, as most probably at the beginning you would evaluate the new model through your old way of thinking. But this is no different than any new habit or exercise you deliberately decide to make an essential part of your life.

In the world of auditing, I believe there are two main reasons why there is too much emphasis on technical skills and a light touch on human and strategic skills:

  1. Building technical skills is a linear process as most technical skills are acquired on-the job and in most cases built on top of earlier knowledge and understanding. Acquiring human and strategic skills on the other hand is a more complex process, includes a lot of back and forth and requires substantial amount of unlearning until the right model is constructed.
  2. Assessment on the acquired knowledge for technical skills is rather easy and more a “black and white”. When we talk about human and strategic skills, there are substantial number of gray areas where the auditor should demonstrate high level of adaptability and switch between separate set of skills. Therefore, it is difficult to judge and rather a longer-term process.

As Einstein once said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” If we keep focusing on the development of same type of skills with similar learning models and techniques for auditors, I do not know how far we can go. We need to unlearn some of the old things we kept doing for the last few decades to develop and improve the required skill set of auditors.

By Tülay Kahraman
April 04, 2022

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