The power of un-learning

The power of un-learning

For learning and development teams charged with implementing change it can seem easy to say 'we need more training' as though a magic marker can be wielded and all will be well again. Read any report about demonstrable failings in a corporate department, you can pretty much guarantee that more training will be prescribed as the solution.

Sometimes the easiest thing to be done is to demand more training. However, making the demand is one thing. Designing what that training might be, how to deliver it and how we might know if it actually delivered results is something else entirely.

The fact that those of us who make our livings from improving workplace performance know it’s not about simply taking people away for a spot of presentation induced enlightenment but that doesn’t deter business leaders from looking to training for easy answers.

More training probably isn’t the solution. In fact, the real answer might be more un-learning.

Very often people who under-perform have learned how to do things, the problem is that they’ve learned how to do those things wrong. Although they may never have attended a course about how to give poor customer service or sell using product features, but that’s what they have learned. The stunning capability of people to do the wrong things demonstrates how effective informal learning really is.

The first challenge of changing ineffective behaviour is not learning new behaviours. The challenge is un-learning the old behaviours; the behaviours learned by observing what everyone else does; the behaviours learned because the resources simply aren’t there to do the  right things; the behaviours learned because following the rules takes time.

The definition of learning I’ve always used is 'the acquisition or modification of knowledge, skills, behaviours, values and preferences'.  The inclusion of the word 'modification' presents us with that real challenge of addressing outdated performance standards in the workplace. It is further complicated by the focus on ‘behaviours, values and preferences’. Most times, I think people know what not to do or what they shouldn’t be doing. Knowledge isn’t the issue here. 

One of our difficulties with the whole un-learning thing is that we haven’t got many models of how to do it. If we look at the learning theorists of the last hundred years or so they have spent time and effort on looking at how new knowledge skills and behaviours are acquired. Many have focused exclusively on children and the young – with fewer bad habits to un-learn.

The likes of Bloom and latterly Krathwohl have created taxonomies for how we learn new things. They have progressed beyond knowledge (the Cognitive domain). If we look at their work on the Affective domain (attitudes and values) the focus is on a student’s attitude to the learning rather than to attitudes beyond the learning. Changing attitudes and values at work requires a root and branch approach which resonates beyond the training room. 

Psychologists talk about norms and specifically ‘group norms’. These are behaviours which – while not necessarily desirable – are nonetheless encouraged within the group within which one works. Adjusting these behaviours requires the group norms to be tackled first – or at least alongside the move towards developing new skills.

This process of un-learning is unlikely to happen in the classroom. It may be part of a social network, but the role of online collaboration in shifting entrenched behaviours is at best unproven and could result in a reinforcement of existing cultures and group norms than in any active questioning of ‘how we do things around here’.

Changing behaviours entrenched within the dominant culture of the team, department or organisation requires a review of the goals people have been set or have set themselves, the way these goals and tasks are achieved and the motivation provided to work ‘well’ – however well may be defined. It is complicated. Training can and should describe how things could be done, but the culture within which the work is performed will always have a more significant impact on whether things are done well, or even at all, once that training has happened.

Learning & Development professionals should not expect training to have an end point when the e-learning module shows as complete on the learning management system or the training room door has closed behind course participants. They rely on things happening in the workplace which reinforce and embed the desirable new skills and behaviours. They want some space and time to be made available for people to put the new knowledge to use.

This requires an input from peers and from line managers. It requires time and space in which outdated values and attitudes are eschewed in favour of new approaches. It requires people to be motivated to try new ways of working, to be rewarded for effort not just achievement and to be supported when things are difficult and heading back to the comfort zone of how we used to do things seems like the best option.

As Daniel Pink describes, this traditional approach to motivation and reward used in organisations is deeply flawed. The use of short-term targets, rewards and incentives are deeply unimpressive in relation to achieving real behavioural and attitudinal change.

The answer comes in a root-and-branch approach to addressing unwanted behaviour. It comes from managers making a commitment to change their practice. It comes from addressing cultural issues in the workplace. It comes from properly resourcing activity so that training is recognised as only one piece of the jigsaw of ‘capability’. By addressing these issues, the slip back to the ‘comfort zone’ of doing things the way we’ve always done them, becomes less available once the training which may be part of the solution has been delivered and the ‘trained’ have been handed back to their teams.

More than anything, it comes from people turning away from the quick fix and the easy solution and the call for training as a knee-jerk reaction to bad news and bad behaviour. We can work the magic required, but we need fertile ground to plant the seeds of change.

About the Author
Robin Hoyle

Written by Robin Hoyle

Robin has spent almost three decades as a strategic L&D leader, trainer and consultant. As a writer and blogger he focuses on workforce development policies, learning strategies, tools and techniques. He has written two books, ‘Informal Learning in Organizations: How to Create a Continuous Learning Culture’ and ‘Complete Training: From Recruitment to Retirement’, both published by Kogan Page. Robin is a Fellow of the Learning and Performance Institute and the Chair of the World of Learning Conference. In his role as Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International, he is exploring routes to enhancing the learning experience and the impact of all Huthwaite’s training and learning interventions.