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unlearning3Learning how to learn: The case against ‘UNLEARNING’

There’s an important issue that keeps on coming up on relevant business groups on Linkedin. It’s whether it’s necessary to UNLEARN in order to learn. It seems that to make progress, one has to actively ‘delete’ existing knowledge and experience from the intellectual knowledge base.

Is the word unlearning a misnomer? Is it an unfortunate description of one of the technical and philosophical confusions of how best we can and should learn? Does it confuse and disrupt the process of erudition? And does it negatively affect the quality of decision-making?

I’d like to subscribe to all of these portrayals alongside it being a part-explanation for why we’re so bad at implementing change and, indeed, why we don’t learn very well from experience.

The connotations of self-styled unlearning requires individuals or organisations to erase or forget prior knowledge and experience from their consciousness, effectively throwing away the intellectual evidence that delivered prevailing outcomes to date. To do so – as many are taught to do – there are a number of interrelated issues that also upset the process of actual learning.    

To ‘unlearn’ means one has first to be aware of the historical evidence. To go through the process of demolishing part of an evidential base and then re-constructing it is extremely wasteful. Rather, APPLYING it to changed environments and circumstances – my preferred description of the learning process (see – is surely more constructive, a methodology that’s not yet fully accepted as the more suitable way to engage the process of ‘moving forward’.

It’s acknowledged, anyway, that the best way of making progress is organic – i.e. the building of one experience on another. So, removing the older experience – even if it didn’t turn up trumps – is just disruptive and hamstringing to the whole determination process, like the insensitive imagery of having one’s legs unnecessarily amputated at the knees.

In learning terms, the ‘deleted’ knowledge and experience also means that the presence of any historical perspective becomes unavailable, as does the opportunity to factor in another important factor in the decision-making process, precedent.

Moreover, the reasons why past decisions were taken were because they were once thought relevant. As such, the evidence remains pertinent for the reasons at the time, so unlearning it only reduces the evidential base and, in the process, increases the chance of repeating mistakes, reinventing the wheel and not learning past lessons.

And finally, it can also be argued that in today’s highly flexible labour market, walkabout employees reduce the organisations’ evidential base even further, making good and better determinations even more uncertain.

The alternative to unlearning is the acknowledged methodology known as Experiential Learning (EL), which specifically rejects the theory of removing any part of corporate body intellectual. Its methodology is to employ constructive reflection to the more comprehensive evidence base. As indicated, it is still little used in favour of the traditional one-size-fits-all approach to decision-making formulated for the old-fashioned and inflexible workplace when employees rarely moved away from their employer.

The reasons aside why employers and business educators have been slow to adapt to the new workplace, learning is unquestionably an essential component of decision-making. As such its importance to good decision-making shouldn’t be under-estimated, under-resourced or stripped of its raison d’etre. It might seem subtle to some but to unlearn is a supremely negative way of defining what the discipline is all about.

Bottom line, a truncated evidential base is no friend of good decision-making. Many educators and employers need to rearrange their mind sets ….

The Big Question: What Lessons from History Keep Being Forgotten? HELP WANTED!

I’ve just read a motivating Paper published by the Swiss science-orientated university, ETH Zurich, on how a knowledge of history is “the best education folessons not learned 1.pngr those who aspire to change the world” (

The examples are short and all are related to POLITICAL events in different countries.

It strikes me that a similar BUSINESS-related Paper could also be put together. I’m happy to do it but rather than hog the project myself, I’m suggesting that I write one example and around a dozen of you also contribute.

Like the ETH example, you don’t have to be an academic. My idea is that we keep to the same format and length – i.e. be very short and very succinct. What would be especially interesting is a fresh collection of different geographical and/or industry-related examples such as the recurring mistakes of, say, a European, American or Asian country
 or the unlearned lessons of food manufacturing, healthcare provision and high tech. For corporately political reasons the examples of own-employers are probably excused but, hey, here’s where the bulk of examples flourish in the undergrowth.

In addition to bringing timeworn case studies up to date, I’m thinking it would be enlightening, especially useful in today’s globalised marketplace and, importantly, also provide excellent ammo to get more of our business educators to use the concept to much greater effect. We all know how unfashionable is the ‘old’ to business.

I’m confident there are enough proponents of the underlying concept of good history as a decision-making tool and plenty of examples to illustrate it. Through my personal regard for Experiential Learning (EL), a subject that this blog deals with extensively, my own conviction is that without history’s awareness (in business I call it organisational or institutional memory because of managers’ aversion to the lexis ‘history) the evidential base is necessarily constrained, a characteristic that diminishes the ability to APPLY tried-and-tested practice to new environments and circumstances. In other words, it diminishes the quality of decision-making.

If the idea appeals, proposals please to I’ll keep responders informed of progress ….

Posted November 5, 2016 by waytoogo

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