“You must unlearn what you have learned” (Master Yoda).
It’s an understatement to say that we live in a changing world. In fact, the change around is so rapid that experts believe that a major part of what students are learning today will be obsolete a decade later, when they will be working in jobs that are yet to be created.
The corporate world is experiencing revolutions and disruptions at an alarming rate and the “gig economy,” the “skill economy” and all the other new economies that make up the modern work world demand a different kind of learning. Continuous learning is the need of the hour. We need to be on our toes 24/7 when it comes to learning, lest we miss something new. Naturally, then, it’s a dynamic time for L&D, organizational development and talent management.
From the learner’s perspective, there is so much to assimilate at any given moment. They don’t seem to have much choice, then, but to learn continuously. In this busy time when there is so much learning, now is also the best time to take a pause and consider unlearning, too.
What Is Unlearning?
The simplest definition of unlearning is to do away with the old to give way to the new. A clearer description is not forgetting what we know but stepping back from it to be able to see things differently. While learning is important for building ourselves professionally (and personally), it is the ability to unlearn that helps us to adapt.
Many of us were born at a time when mobile devices did not exist (at least not as they do now), technology was nowhere close to being all-pervasive, and work cultures did not have terms like “flexibility” and “agility” in their corporate DNA. Today, we have a completely different work environment, and employees must make an effort to keep up. They have to unlearn the habits of formal learning and communication to adapt to a more agile learning and collaborative approach to work.
Why Should We Unlearn?
Often, employees are bombarded with so much knowledge through their working hours (and even afterward) that they tend to develop fatigue, and they may have a hard time being receptive to more learning. Unlearning can pave the way for relearning over a period of time.
Unlearning is also important because the circumstances in which an employee learned something the first time might be different from where they are now. As we move forward in life, we start looking at the same things in new lights. We may become more receptive to knowledge and more disciplined when learning. What we learned in school and found hard to understand may not be as complicated if we try to learn it now. All we may have to do is unlearn what we learned then and try to re-learn it now.
Unlearning is also a great way to help us pursue the unfamiliar. People who refuse to embrace new technologies may be limiting themselves in more ways than they know. It is best in these cases to unlearn old techniques and strategies and move on to more current ones. Time makes everything outdated even before we learn it.
How Should We Unlearn?
The first step toward unlearning is accepting that our current knowledge may be insufficient in fully tapping our potential in the context of today’s technology-infused, dynamic corporate world. It is best to keep an open mind to unlearn old habits. One of the most important factors when it comes to accepting change, especially in relation to the implementation of new technologies, is to unlearn prior knowledge and models, which may hinder the implementation of new ideas.
Helping individuals embrace unlearning as a prerequisite for new insights, skills and results requires a concerted effort throughout the organization, with support from executives, line leaders, and L&D professionals. Here are some ways in which L&D can help employees unlearn:
Encourage creativity. While pre-set company policies, procedures and processes are in the DNA of all businesses, setting them in stone and expecting them to be followed blindly is counterproductive. L&D should encourage employees to share ideas and alternatives to existing models, even if it means challenging the status quo. You can do so through open communication and social learning and knowledge collaboration tools.
Embrace failure. If we took Henry Ford’s advice that “failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently” to heart, failing would not hold the same stigma. It’s important that the business and the L&D function in particular, reward, recognize and accommodate risk-taking and failure.
Use fear. Adeo Ressi, CEO of the Founder Institute, says, “It takes three and a half months to wipe away a lot of bad conditioning and recondition former employees with attitudes and behaviors that lead to entrepreneurial success.” The best way to help employees unlearn, in his experience, is using fear as a motivator . L&D can take a leaf out of Ressi’s book by allocating strict timelines to completions and certifications and mapping them to performance evaluations/appraisals. Ressi believes this fear helps people achieve superior results as they unlearn the perceived limitations of their potential. It’s critical, however, to understand how much and what type of fear to use in order to achieve maximum success.
Build a culture of unlearning. Culture is the framework on which the success of an organization’s learning (and unlearning) is built. Executive buy-in into the culture is a must.
Unlearning is not a day-long or overnight process, because both learning and unlearning happen through our lifetime. Letting go of what we know and giving way to new ideas demands persistency. Learning new skills is a great way to keep up with market developments, but the process of unlearning empowers us to adapt to change.