The Unlearning Organisation LO9727
Wed, 4 Sep 1996 07:32:26 -0400

Replying to LO9674 --

Phillip says:

>It seems to me that the issue here is not that GM had to
>'unlearn', but that they failed to access the REAL learning in
>their former success, settling instead for the surface
>manifestations of it. GM's success lay in satisfying existing
>market needs. That paradigm remains valid - they needed to
>truly learn what the actual paradigm was.

Good comment! I thought about this for awhile and it occured to me that I
had taken this statement: "Managers learned a paradigm that served the
company well for decades" and this statement: "....GM was correct for a
long time" as linked, in the sense that the paradigm's success meant that
it was correct.

Now I am wondering if there is some useful semantic term for discarding a
successful mental model that is no longer useful (which may be what I
truly meant by "unlearning") as opposed to (or as a prerequisite for?)
actually learning a deeper truth.

The corollary of this, I suppose, is reinforcement of the idea that a
paradigm can be highly useful without being fundamentally correct.

frank billot, I think, was moving down a similar path with his comments:

>And if I understand properly, what you are pointing is gaining
>freedom over our models, certainties, (protections?).
>That reminds me of a Zen story, which ends like "one cannot
>fill a glass already full". Is your idea of unlearning close to
>"taking some distance with our certainty of knowing" ? Would
>you buy this as a first step to freeing oneself from mental
>conditionning ?

I assume Frank and I are both harking back to the same Zen story, so I
propose that we adopt the term "emptying the cup" (I say "cup" instead of
"glass" since I remember it as a tea story...). Since I am making the
term up, I would define it as "discarding a mental model that obstructs
the adoption of a more correct mental model or simply prevents the
acknowledgement of the need for a new mental model"

This seems to encompass what I meant by "unlearning" and I think it
addresses Phillip and Frank's points as well. I think that it also works
with the "unfreezing" term that Kieth used. Does this work for people or
am I carried away with the idea of a new catch phrase?

Anyway, now I am wondering if what we are dealing with in this
"unlearning" thread is the results, often at the organizational level, of
the "ladder of inference" developed by Chris Argyris and included in the
Fifth Discipline Fieldbook.

The Ladder of Inference does provide a means of seeing how mental models
develop, how they can diverge from reality and how they can be highly
resistant to identification and change. Is this why we desire

Perhaps both "unlearning" (as I had been using the term), "learning" (as
Phillip used the term in his comments), and "emptying the cup" are all
manifestations of a desire to deal with the effects of a "ladder of
inference", especially at an organizational level?

I used to think I understood exactly what I meant by unlearning, and now
I'm not sure I do, so am I unlearning or learning? Time for more tea....

Thanks for the excellent comments,
Robert L.


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