Learning and Unlearning

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Could it be really possible that almost everything your organisation is doing to promote learning and development is a waste of time? Why is it that innovation and learning programmes don’t deliver the land of promise that is coupled with innovative, talented and self-driven colleagues?

To deliver increased productivity, organisations must be in a constant state of adaptation, planned and unplanned learning. The concept that is often left behind from this track of thought is unlearning. Why is this approach crucial? Why  is it so relevant for any organisation to adapt its HR practices? Buckle up, in this post we will walk you through unlearning.

Learning vs unlearning in HR

The objective of learning and development (L&D), a subgroup of Human Resource Management, is to ameliorate individual and organisational performance by creating an environment, in which learning is facilitated and could take place. Learning and development is an important and big piece in the HR puzzle, which forms an integral part of an organisation’s talent strategy. In fact, the topic still divides professionals and it is often called “training and development” or “human capital development” and got only standardized after a thorough debate at the level of the HR heavy-lifter, CIPD.

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the definition of ‘unlearning’ is to make an effort to forget our usual way of doing something so that we can learn a new and sometimes better way. Unlearning in HR is about identifying certain motives in decision making in terms of maximizing employee performance that no longer benefit the company. It’s about dumping ingrained “the way we do things around here is…” thinking and practices that no longer support and benefit organisations in achieving their goals – just like safely getting rid of old company computers.

Unlearning is about emptying the imaginary mug of our organisation from which we have been consuming beverages for years, and by filling it up again with new knowledge and information about people policies as well as practices, we deliver exciting new thinking and results.

Unlearning is letting go of all things that represent averageness. It is a choice that every organisation and its employees and leaders could make. Will you take your first steps with us? This blog post is here to help you embark on your unlearning expedition and support you understand what will you need to carry during your adventure.

#Unlearning is letting go of all things that represent averageness. It is a choice! Click To Tweet


Characteristics of unlearning

Alvin Toffler, world famous philosopher and futurist, once wrote: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

Along the lines of Toffler’s quotation unlearning is often demonstrated through a very simple metaphor as it can be described through the process of stripping the existing plaster of a wall so that new lawyers of patching than paint would stick. What is a general rule of thumb here is that the stripping often takes more time than the actual repainting of the wall. And this assumption is no less true when it comes to unlearning in HR policies.

Similar to the look of the fresh paint on the wall unlearning in HR aims to asking original and raw type of questions that could unlock new solutions for old problems. Working through an unlearning mindset (that often manifests itself in the form of workshops, trainings, coaching or seminars) one must be prepared to take comfort in the random, and be fascinated about coming up with the “wrong” answer. Just think about it for a moment. Wouldn’t it be so refreshing to try to find the faulty answer for a pressing e-recruiting, training or outsourcing question. Would this steer more conversation and ultimately lead to finding a new and innovative solution? This is the core of unlearning. To kick off the so much anticipated ‘let go of things’ mentality and make space for novelty.

There are endless things HR departments and professionals may have to unlearn in the course of their operations / careers / or even in the next 12 months, and these could include the following ideas:

  • Unlearn the way it carries out recruitment;
  • Unlearn the way it manages employee relations;
  • Unlearn the way it approaches compensation and benefit policies;
  • Unlearn the way it delivers on compliance;
  • Unlearn the way it approaches learning and development;
  • Or, unlearn the way it approaches the question of unlearning.

Approaching unlearning

An Australian study, Considering unlearning in HRD practices, revealed that larger corporations give more consideration to unlearning than smaller ones. Those organisations, and perhaps sectors, that face with high levels of turnover focus less on unlearning than those with a more solid workforce. (Coaching and performance feedback were reportedly the most commonly used method of reinforcement of learning and unlearning.) From a managerial point of view the results show that line managers need to be employed with a range of supporting tools and knowledge to ensure unlearning can happen.

Main barriers to unlearning and what HR could do about it

At the individual level experts, senior level managers, or even CEOs / COOs might manifest the highest level of resistance or difficulty in the unlearning process as they have already devoted a considerable amount of time and energy into their current position and thus could have rooted habits, precious power relationships, beliefs and work practices. How should HR work with these individuals? To begin with, we recommend you listening to this excellent podcast episode with Edgar Schein, who is considered to be the founding father of organisational culture.

At the organisational level HR managers should be concerned with a very unique, but serious and far-reaching theory which is the memory of an organisation. “The way we do things around here..” or “We have always done it this way..” phrases are often ingrained in the hard disks of organisations so be ready to handle these objections. Are you looking into digital HR solutions? Is your organisation examining choices between cloud versus on-premise systems? Be prepared for the organisation memory to kick in as in letting go of old habits and practices, and in embracing the new world of work, resistance will certainly surface. How to cope with this resistance at the organisation level? One way is to design a proper unlearning curve for the organisation. Where to start? Keep reading.

Unlearning Curve

What discoveries should organisations make? How does unlearning take place? Next, we propose an unlearning curve for every HR manager, and organisation, to follow and be armoured with in their campaigns.

As a first step in the unlearning process, organisations should make sure that they thoroughly understand the nature of knowledge involved in the unlearning process. What is the relation between the old and new information? How wide is the gap between the knowledge or practice that is about to be replaced with fresh content? Understand this first, and the rest should come easier. Competence, theoretical knowledge, cognitive and behavior skills, negotiation or emotional intelligence are all important aspect for HR, and for learning and development professionals to perceive and be able to restore them with brand-new knowledge.

Once the area is identified from where the unlearning process will be commenced you have to make sure that enough enticement is built in so employees will feel motivated to get involved in the process. This could be further enhanced with employee incentives and benefits.

Unlearning, once it is proven to make the difference, will scatter swiftly across the organisation. Recognition between the old and new knowledge will lead up to changes in the organisation of work and could later be stored in the memory system of the company. Although, it is crucial to remember that unlearning must be constant, as managerial turnover or change in the governance structure might cause distraction in the process.

Unlearn something old and pick up something new at #ZP17

“Work:olution” – this is the theme of this year’s Zukunft Personal. It provides us bloggers with such a unique opportunity to go out and explore new ideas in the business and organisational development world, of course, always keeping on our HR lenses. One front-page and upcoming concept is about unlearning and we hope that through the present blog post HR folks understood, and got inspired about, the ways through which they could benefit from it.

One key takeaway for you to remember: unlearning will be key in the life of organisations, and HR professionals, to plow into the future and build irresistible and innovative businesses, as well as motivated and constantly engaged workforce.

Would you like to meet some of the brightest minds of workology in Europe? Would you like to get inspired about the areas from where unlearning could take place at your organisations? The Zukunft Personal will surely provide enough thought provoking discussion topics and exhibitors for you to get energized and start unlearning something from day one of the conference.


Why We Love #Unlearning (And You Should, Too!) Click To Tweet


About the author:

Zoltan Vadkerti_Employee ExperienceZoltan Vadkerti is a work-life expert, blogger and co-founder of the WorkLife HUB. He studied economics in both the Netherlands and Hungary before he moved to Brussels to becoming a lobbyist on EU social and employment policies. That experience, and many others, led him to an interest in the organisation of work and specifically on the quality of work and work-life integration.

E-Mail: zv@worklifehub.com

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