The Unlearning Organisation LO9662
Sat, 31 Aug 1996 20:58:38 -0400

Replying to LO9632 --

I think that Keith Cowan has done this thread a huge service with his
comments in LO9632. I would like to continue with some ideas that Kieth

>Unlearning means changing from what we were doing......
>Change will require the individual to decide that change is finally
> needed. This is the "unfreezing" step which involves them accepting
> that something better for them may result from their action.
>At that point new knowledge or habit can be installed because
>they are open to it.

I'll pursue my comments with an example:

General Motors, in the US, learned a formula for success in the car market:
be a financially driven company that emphasized multiple brands with minor
cosmetic differences. What I want to emphasize here is that GM LEARNED its
behavior and succeeded for years (1930s - 1960s) while other car makers in
the US were going out of business in droves.

When the car market changed in the 1970s, and quality and economy became
market drivers, GM nose-dived and, arguably, has still not fully recovered.
I would submit that GM's failure to adapt to its changing market was because
it had to "unlearn" its paradigm before it could make substantive changes.

I would like to emphasize two points here: the first is that GM was correct
for a long time. Managers learned a paradigm that served the company well
for decades. The second is that, once the paradigm was no longer valid,
there was no incremental improvement or "work harder, faster" approach that
would help them. Before GM could learn a new paradigm, it had to
collectively unlearn the old one.

"Unlearning" to me is the recognition that knowledge, which perhaps has been
valid for years, is no longer a basis for further learning (i.e. refinement
or incremental improvement of "the old way") and is, in fact, an obstacle to
learning new things (i.e. to changing to the "new way"). Thus I would equate
unlearning to Kieth's "unfreezing" and go on to say that the difficulty of
unlearning is shown by companies resistance to change, even in the face of
overwhelming evidence and financial ruin.

I will go one step further and say that the difficulty of unlearning is a
major factor in the common scenario of a company where the lower levels of
the organization perceive the need for change much faster and more completely
than the top levels of the organization. The newer people, at lower levels,
have only to learn, while the upper levels of management have first to

Does this remind anyone else of the ?Zen? story (which I will recount very
poorly here) of an egotistical apprentice who goes to learn from a master.
The master insists they have tea, then begins to pour. The master continues
to pour even when the apprentice's cup is full and tea begins to spill out.
The apprentice finally asks the master to stop pouring because the cup is
full. The cup, of course, represents the student who must make room for the
master's teachings before he can receive them. Unlearning anyone???

Robert L.


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