Learning new skills isn’t enough to stay ahead. You must also unlearn old ones

A business man rides an escalator in the financial district of Pudong in Shanghai September 21, 2011. REUTERS/Aly Song (CHINA - Tags: CITYSPACE SOCIETY) - RTR2RVU1

Image: REUTERS/Aly Song

Chander Prakash Gurnani
Chairman, Club Mahindra and Former MD and Chief Executive Officer, Tech Mahindra
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When we look at the dizzying pace of digital transformation, emerging technologies, and rapidly changing social-economic trends, how can organizations keep up? A better question to ask may be, what’s required for them to thrive in the future?

Of course, nobody really knows for sure what the future holds. But we can gain an understanding of what it takes to succeed tomorrow with insights from evolutionists and today’s futurists.

  • Darwin: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”
  • Futurist Jack Uldrich: “New advances in technology bring forth exciting discoveries every day. But often lost in this new reality is the fact that organizations must unlearn old, obsolete knowledge and old ways of doing business before they can seize tomorrow’s opportunities.”
  • Futurists and philosopher, Alvin Toffler: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.

The common thread here is the emphasis on unlearning.

Why unlearning holds the key… and why it’s hard

When we look at the history of technology, it’s worth noting that programming language has evolved through the decades, and, at last count, there were over 2,500 developed since IBM’s FORTRAN in 1957. Although there are only a few major languages, successful programmers consistently stay at the top of their game by unlearning outdated code so they can learn and write the latest and greatest.

It’s an apt analogy for what companies today need to do in order to not just keep the doors open in today’s fast-changing world, but rather the key to gaining on the competition. In fact, in India, virtually every tech company puts a great deal of emphasis and resources into retraining and re-skilling their work force. This is driven by a very prevalent and strong regional fear – that their company will become obsolete in the midst of rapid technology changes.

Unfortunately, knowledge “stickiness” is a big obstacle to unlearning. Consider that for most of us, as individuals, we approach learning with energy and passion (at least, when it is not something forced, a topic we actually want to learn about). Once we have learned something well, we tend to stick to it, applying daily habits to what we’ve learned.

The same can be said about organizations. Executive leadership steers the ship based on learnings, and management leverages learned strengths, creates processes around them, and deploys and holds onto technology that is within their comfort zones. For a moment in time, providing the organization’s learnings help fill a need and create products and services that offer value, all is well.

But, life changes quickly. Those organizations that don’t adapt to fast changes in the technology, consumer, economic, and social landscapes risk falling behind and failing.

The good news is that unlearning doesn’t necessarily mean completely tossing everything out the window that’s worked for you in the past (although it may in some areas). It simply means that your team should be open to different ways of getting things done, unfettered by old thinking that can act like a dirty filter clogging your organization’s adaptability pipeline.

Not just unlearning, but agile unlearning

Of course, we’ve all heard of Moore’s Law, popularized in the mid-70’s, that theorized that transistors would double every two years, and many have applied it since to technology in general. But, for a more accurate and modern theory, one can look to Ray Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns. By his analysis, we won’t be experiencing 100 years of progress in the next 100 years – at today’s rate, we’ll be experiencing 20,000 years of progress!

No matter what analysis you look at, the future will indeed change very, very rapidly. Keeping up will take more than just adaptability, but agility.

We often hear the word agility applied to technology. But it’s an apt term to apply to exactly how organizations must unlearn their old ways of thinking. The faster you can let go of outdated modes of thinking within an organization and its culture, the faster your company can embrace high-impact future innovations.

Agile unlearning applies to many areas of an organization, from the technologies and methodologies you use, to the way you communicate to your customers, and even how you define your target audience. You and your team can unlearn skills and knowledge that no longer work in today’s world, stripping off the sticky old layers, and paving the way for new and fresh learnings. Other examples:

  • Agile unlearning can apply to the traditional workplace, allowing new ways of thinking using digital and cloud technologies that nurture greater collaboration.
  • Companies must unlearn ways of selling that no longer work, looking at sales processes around trends like peer-to-peer, and others yet to be developed.
  • Agile unlearning can apply to channels, opening the door to an omni-channel model that caters to the increasingly personalized demands of consumers.

As market forces heat up and the global economy continues to evolve, every enterprise must continually reinvent themselves to be relevant today. That starts with agile unlearning.

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