Learning to Unlearn

 

Business Man with Ball and Chain
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Nothing kills a moment of corporate creativity more than this phrase:  “That’s not the way we do things around here.” Once it is issued, it ensures that the status quo, no matter how bad that may be, will remain untouched and, most importantly, unchanged. It is a phrase that is usually uttered by those working within a specific power-brokering segment of an organization.

How is this a power play?

When one part of an organization refuses to move, it ensures that the rest of the organization remains anchored in the past, is resistant to change, and presents no opportunity for creativity or new learning.

How can true learning organizations respond to this type of resistance?

They need to unlearn and let go of that which is holding them back.

According to Vijay Govindarajan, the Coxe Distinguished Professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business and a Marvin Bower Fellow at Harvard Business School, organizations must divest themselves of old ideas and methodologies even though these may be the very things that made the organization great in the first place. In order to move forward, Govindarajan states that organizations must let go of what has been learned in the past.

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From a Human Resources perspective, Govindarajan’s concept can create great organizational learning opportunities if the Human Resources function has a leadership role.  Human Resources must lead with powerful impact, in order to push the change agenda both forward and throughout the entire organization.

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Not only must the Human Resources professional be able to provide incentives that pull people forward into change, we must also be vigilant in stopping what is sometimes a cultural and entrenched longing for both the past and not so recent past by helping people to let go of that huge anchor which is represented by the status quo.  We can do well to observe the past, but we must leave it behind and let it go in order to move forward and learn what is new and uncomfortable and create a future that does not yet exist.

To do this, the Human Resources professional needs to be brave.

The brave Human Resources professional will be the leader who will help to break the chain of the status quo, discard the anchor to the past, and set forward, freely, into an uncharted future full of greatness and new learning.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is the difference between ‘unlearning’ and forgetting in the context of employee training and development?
  2. Do you agree with Vijay Govindarajan’s perspective that creativity comes by having to unlearn what was learned in the past? Why or why not?
  3. What do you perceive as the biggest barriers to bringing new learning, creativity, and fresh ideas into an organization from a Human Resources perspective?
  4. Have you worked with someone who was resistant to learning something new? What was that experience like for you? How did it influence your own work and learning experiences?