Need for Unlearning

Thomas Grissold interview for Nedeljnik Need for Unlearning

Covid-19 pandemic changed the world enormously. Some things are changed for good. Some practices completely abandoned. Organizations and processes are dealing with something that might be the largest structural challenge in generation. These days, we are learning a lot. But we are unlearning a lot too.

How did different companies and organizations tackled these challenges, we spoke to Thomas Grisold, assistant professor at University of Leichtenstein, experienced marketer, who took part in a research addressing fundamental organizational changes and structural evolution.

This interview was published in Nedeljnik weekly

How would you define unlearning in terms of an organizational setting?

Organizational unlearning means that an organization intentionally discards knowledge. By this, it adds a new lens to look at organizational change processes. When we speak of organizational change, we usually focus on those things that are new for the organization and need to be added. Organizational unlearning directs our attention to those behaviors, mindsets or values that become obsolete or even opposed to new knowledge. The question is how organizational actors get rid of outdated knowledge so that they can adopt new behaviors.

We all know instances of unlearning from our everyday activities. For example, when you are used to drive with a manual gear and you switch to automatic. In order to drive safely, you want to make sure that your right foot does not occasionally –automatically– hit the break when aiming to hit the clutch.

Organizational unlearning can occur in diverse contexts. For example, when organizations cannot sustain their established business models, they need to unlearn what they do and who they are. Take Encyclopedia Brittanica. The company recognized that they cannot sell books in the long term because the internet is cheaper, faster and more convenient. So, they started to ask, „What could we do if we do not sell those encyclopedias anymore?“. Over time, they re-defined their identity as a company. They agreed that they want to provide high-quality editorial content (in the broadest sense). With this move, they entered new business fields, such as further education. The point is, they did not learn what they can improve. Instead, they unlearnt what they could *not* do any longer. (You can read more about this case here)

What changes in the business development approach related to Covid-19 pandemic do you find most important?

There are tons of changes that were and still are important (think of virtual communication platforms). The pandemic showed that organizations managed remarkably well to switch from one business practice to another over night. In the US, for example, numerous manufacturing companies started to develop respirators and face masks (instead of e.g. automotive parts).

But there is also subtle –and from my point of view– more important implication: Companies recognize that much of what has been taken for granted is very fragile. The pandemic showed that business practices can become problematic from one day to another. Companies were reminded that things are not stable forever. They are stable for now. From this point of view, I expect that companies remain sensitized towards the fact that they might have to change and adopt very quickly. The question I am most interested in is: Do companies try to keep this awareness for unlearning? This can be relevant for other developments too. Think of climate change and how this will affect business practices.

One context where change triggered by the pandemic will be ongoing is higher education. Some of the most profound assumptions about higher education have been challenged. Many universities unlearnt the central assumption that education needs to be provided in physical settings (e.g. lecture halls). They recognized that it can be done virtually, too. I expect that such unlearning/learnings will continue. We may see more fundamental challenges here over the next years.

Based on the research you have worked on, you are proposing a four-point program that should lead to faster transformations. Could you tell us more about that?

My colleagues and I have done extensive research with organizations and consultants. One central question we were interested in was, „How do organizations manage to unlearn?“. Across companies, industries, and countries, we collected numerous insights, examples, and stories. In our recently published article in the California Management Review, we summarized those findings into four central mechanisms that enable organizational unlearning processes.

  1. Organizations need to identify central and often taken-for-granted assumptions. This is important because, in order to unlearn, you need to figure out what you as an organization think and do. This is often a challenging process because many assumptions, routines and values are so embedded that one is hardly aware of them.
  2. There needs to be a perceived urgency to break patterns. Unlearning is effortful. Getting rid of things means that organizations need to be focused and committed. We found that if actors feel the need to do so increases the chance for the process to be successful. Covid-19 certainly triggered a perceived need to unlearn.
  3. Organizations need to provide space and time for experimentation. When organizations get rid of those things they did for a long time, the central question becomes: What should they do next? Unlearning does not necessarily lead to better products or services. Rather, organizations need to start exploring emerging opportunities. This often involves trial-and-error and actors need to feel free to experiment with new ideas.
  4. There needs to be feedback and open communication in the organization. Actors need to be able to exchange knowledge, share ideas and engage in mutual sense-making processes. Unlearning processes can benefit from situations where different viewpoints come together, e.g, people from the tech department share ideas with people from the business department who use this input to develop new business ideas.

Is this program applicable for the advertising market, especially here in Western Balkans, with all its good and bad sides?

I think that unlearning is applicable to any industry, organization and region. When a company is able to question established assumptions and practices, it more likely adapts to a changing business environment.

I was fortunate to work in the Balkan advertising market, at first at BBDO Zagreb and then at BBDO Ovation Belgrade. I learnt that the Balkan market is highly dynamic, both in business-related as well as political regards. I was extremely impressed how managers in the Balkans are constantly evaluating, assessing and questioning the current situation. Things can change very quickly and there is strong awareness for this. I have never seen anything like this in Central Europe.

When it comes to unlearning, I think that many countries can learn from the Balkan area. How to lead a company when the key parameters can change quickly? How to pursue strategic foresight when long-term assessments are challenging? I think it would be great to hear experiences and recommendations from Balkan managers on this. This can be very useful, especially in times of Covid-19.

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