On the Strategic Challenges of Unlearning

In the conversation about organization and the way(s) in which we develop them, there is one constant: The notion of “the learning organization”. This term, possibly coined and definitively associated with the work of Peter Senge, has become such a mainstay in our discussion that it is rarely if ever questioned, let alone criticized. Learning is our holy cow, the untouchable great and good thing that we always take for granted.

At the same time, learning isn’t in and of itself always a good thing. Yes, often it is better to learn than not to do so, but not always. Issues such as “what is learnt?”, “are the right things learnt?” and “is our learning efficient?” all come in to play here. So does a question that one seldom sees raised: “Are we unlearning?”

Unlearning might seem like an odd thing to be interested in, let alone argue for. Unlearning seems like a pathology, like the lessening of a great good thing, like the very decay of the learning organization. Yet it isn’t. On the contrary, an organization that cannot unlearn will never become a learning organization.

Even if we ignore the issue of whether we are learning the right things or not, just adding to the existing knowledge of an organization isn’t necessarily enough to change it. Without reflection regarding what learning is supposed to achieve in an organization, adding on to the stock is akin to building a bigger and bigger pile — it might look like you’re working, but the results are still just a big, unsorted heap. This said, many companies have a HR function where learning — in the form of courses, seminars, databases of best practices and so on — is built upon in just this manner, with scant attention to how already existing knowledge may in fact be a more important problem.

If we look to the fall of great corporations, i.e. the way in which once great organizations suffered the indignity of being run over by smaller, nimbler competitors, this issue comes into stark focus. The great US car companies did not run into trouble because of too little knowledge. Nor did Kodak, or Commodore Computers, or Kmart, or Blackberry. All of these were companies with a tremendous amount of knowledge and, lest we forget, massive investments in research, development and additional learning.

What they lacked, then, was not learning, but a system of unlearning. For all the resources put into R&D and HR, they lacked a process by which they could rid their organizations of learnt behaviors that was holding the organization back. New knowledge was merely piled onto the existing knowledge base of the company, and when there was a lack of fit, the old knowledge still reigned supreme.

The organizations simply remained unchanged, no matter how much they learnt.

An organization without a system of unlearning will thus be forever caught up in its old ideas about “best practices”, hamstrung by the inability to let learning occur on a deep level. Whilst the notion of a learning organization sounds good, establishing such without a thorough analysis of how unlearning can occur is a fool’s errand. For HR, this puts up the following challenges:

Development programs alone aren’t enough. One can easily have people take dozens of courses, but if this isn’t supplemented with a rigorous debate about the direction of the company’s strategy, they will have little effect. “Learning” shouldn’t be a way to just look like you’re changing, it should be a support for deep change already in play in the organization — otherwise it represents personal rather than organizational development. The former is not a bad thing, but doesn’t necessarily translate into true change.

Conduct unlearning reviews. Unlearning is a process that can be quite painful, but just as HR needs to review which competencies the organization lacks, it should review which competencies the organization has that it shouldn’t. Having tremendous understanding about customers that are becoming irrelevant is of limited value. Having world-class skills about technologies that customers are losing interest is can work as an ego-boost, but represent a strategic failure. An unlearning review would take a hard look at things that need to be forgotten rather than a source of pride — no matter how beloved they are.

Unlearning and hierarchies are enemies. If an organization does not act on the way in which individuals with a personal investment in old knowledge and old practices occupy (and even block) critical passages in the organization, no amount of courses or seminars will shift this. Far too often I come across vice presidents or division heads that prefer the kind of knowledge they too have amassed, knowledge they feel comfortable around. By not unlearning, they also block the advancement of others, with far more productive and current know-how. Hierarchies and organizational inflexibility are great ways of keeping old knowledge alive, whilst smothering the new and needed.

Incentivize unlearning. Too often organizations are hampered by old practices simply because there is no valid reason for people within it to change their ways of working. Whereas we have protocols in place to reward people for developing their skill sets through courses or the likes, few companies actively incentivize unlearning. Still, it often holds that what gets rewarded gets done. How do you incentivize people to rid themselves of outdated knowledge and practices long past their best-before date?

In an organization striving to keep up with its times, a strategic approach to unlearning is a necessity. Yes, unlearning can occur naturally, through a shifting of focus, through turnover and retirements. Yet this is rarely enough. Many companies have failed because they did not consider the need to forget, unlearn and leave behind the knowledge they were rooted in. So when crisis hit, their mountain of knowledge effectively became quicksand, binding them rather than giving them a solid foundation. Don’t let this happen to you.

An edited version of this text was published in the German magazine HR Performance

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Alf Rehn’s story.