To learn new, first unlearn the old (Deccan Herald :INDIA:Wednesday Dec.12 , 2007 )

Training and coaching is turning out to be the two of the main approaches for the industry to facilitate unlearning…

As technologies, business environments, and approach towards work evolve constantly, unlearning all that’s not relevant in the current contexts has become the key for learning and development  Come to think of it, what could be the most daunting part of being in a new organisation or a new role? Certainly, it’s that grey stretch comprising new work, new people and new organisation.

So what is it that renders such an exigent look to the ‘new’, to anything that we come across for the first time?

Well, it is the existence of the old, the past, the bygones. ‘New’ is not so much about learning something afresh than about ‘unlearning’ what we already know. Quite obviously for something new to find its way, the old has to go; which means for a new learning the old needs to be unlearnt.

Unlearning today is at the heart of learning and development. Technologies, business environments, way we work are evolving rapidly – how much do you learn, how much do you assimilate?

We can’t outgrow our cerebral capacity, yet we need to pace up with the change. How? The trick is to create space by discarding or unlearning all that’s not relevant in the current scenario. Here’s an example. Dr Sankaran P Raghunathan – a doctorate from Temple University, Philadelphia and a visiting teacher at The Emory University in Atlanta – has stinted through a number of careers from banking to IT.

Currently he is COO of a company named Blueshift that he founded. Raghunathan says unlearning has been his greatest challenge through the years, “Till last year I was the CEO of my company. Then we got a new CEO. Now as the COO, I have to report to the CEO.

It’s very difficult. I have to unlearn what I was. Many a times I tend to get into an authoritarian mode – something that I inherit from my teaching career. But it’s totally a different context today, I will be thrown out if am authoritative to my people, they have so many options out there. I need to be relevant to them they should be able to learn something from me.” 

What is unlearning? Is it about forgetting, or deleting past learning? Well, unlearning means to be able to be surprised with a new perspective yet internalise the perspective with equanimity. It’s about accepting concepts that would radically change our previous assumptions. That’s when we can create the context for acquiring new knowledge and skills.

Work contextUnpredictability is the order of the day you never know who you get to work with the next moment – which culture, what language, what thinking pattern. You can’t grow unless you are agile and all encompassing to this randomness. So says Ashis Roy, Director – Operations, Xora Software Systems, “The collaborative nature of work across geographies and technologies has made unlearning more relevant in today’s work context.

What works for one culture may not work for another.” For professional growth it is ‘the’ thing – you are as good as what you have unlearnt last. As Gopi Natarajan, Chief Executive Officer of Omega Healthcare Management Services puts it, “The ability to unlearn old ways of doing things is as critical as learning and upgrading one’s skill sets.” 

New horizonFor some unlearning is a natural process to recondition old patterns before adding new ones. Indu Padmanabhan, HR Head, Thinksoft quotes the example of a computer where an old programme  has to be removed first, before a newly installed program mecan work efficiently. “Similarly in an organisation, unlearning paves a way to new horizon and to relearn in a different direction.”

For vibrant businesses like ITES, the need to unlearn is all the more pressing. This is the sector that hires maximum number of fresh graduates – who join the worklife with a lot of theories and mindsets built over a period of time. Organisations need to reframe these minds so that they could come in terms with the ground realities of work life. As Anurag Jain, President CAS and IBPS, Perot System puts it, “Considering the nature of the IT and BPO industries, where projects are very specific in nature, the skills needed for successful execution are not acquired in the academia.

So, unlearning has taken a centre stage when employees are inducted into the workforce.”

Set of challengesIt is always difficult to let go; whether it is a fondly held belief or an idea. While you can’t expect employees to radically change their behaviour on the job, organisations have their own set of challenges. As Padmanabhan recounts some:

*Training existing employees to set aside present ideas/practices that are no longer relevant in the present day business needs

*New recruits being inducted into a new system where it becomes essential for them to unlearn certain practices/methodologies that they were familiar with in their previous assignments

*Internal job rotation where it is crucial to understand which part has to be unlearned so that the employee fits into the role

Past achievements also sometimes are a roadblock to unlearn. What worked earlier will work always – is the common belief we carry. Like Pravin Tatavarti, Managing Director, Allegis India says, “Unlearning is not easy especially if you were successful in the past.

It needs a different paradigm which very few people appreciate. People do not know what needs to be unlearned in the first place and constantly fight the change required for the future.” While unlearning to a large extent depends on individual attitude and receptivity towards new approaches, given the relevance of it in today’s context organisations too are striving to facilitate this.

Sole content expertThinksoft, for instance, helps employees identify the current skill sets and job content of employees, evaluates if it suits the present business needs and then enables unlearning and relearning by imparting training and job rotations.

By facilitating constant learning, Xora Software tries to build up a mindset that there isn’t anything like a ‘sole content expert’; each one can be a fountainhead of a new and radical idea.  “There is no curriculum for unlearning. We say to ourselves to be agile to all ideas that are thrown in. The challenge is to experience things fully, vividly and without introducing filters”, says Roy.

Holistic approachTraining and coaching is turning out to be the two of the main approaches for the industry to facilitate unlearning. Based on the changing needs of the customer, Allegis India constantly multi skills its people in different technologies.

Training methodologies at Perot Systems include participatory methods, transformational learning/thinking methods, simulations, shadow training (person piggy backs on another employee to be conditioned to acquire the necessary skills), and conditional training methods.

“An individual has to see the benefits of overcoming the conditional and instinctive learning and reconditioning themselves to acquire the knowledge required for the job. The training methods have to be holistic rather than focus on a particular area”, says Mr Jain.


Author: Shalini Verma

Hi ! I am Shalini Verma and I help people to Achieve continuous inspiration and success , aid them to FREE energy from patterns and programmes that no longer serve them , partner with them to CREATE energy by putting into place regular work and life practices that are inspiring and sustaining and to MOBILIZE energy by taking intentional action into new oppurtunities and adventures . If you are ready to make inspiration and success your daily reality......then we are ready to go !

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