Study encourages 'unlearning' to manage change

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Study encourages 'unlearning' to manage change

A study of four major Australian organisations has suggested that “unlearning” old workplace practices could be just as important as learning new ones.

The term “unlearning” describes the process of recognising prior knowledge, but discarding it to make room for new information.

According to Karen Becker, a researcher in the Queensland University of Technology’s Faculty of Business, unlearning is an often-overlooked but effective way of dealing with change in an organisation.

"In the cases I looked at for my study, processes were put into place to assist unlearning and seemed to minimise resistance," she said. "The organisations had an increased amount of time put into training and support.

“They still had hiccups, but in one case they were planning the whole process from three years out, so workers were able to accept the changes by the time they were implemented."

While the organisations studied were of differing backgrounds and industries, Becker noted that they each had “fairly entrenched” systems in place, such as physical security processes and information systems.

In the case of a government-owned corporation operating within the Australian energy industry, the organisation undertook a three-year-long project to develop and implement a new enterprise resource planning (ERP) system to replace multiple previous systems and streamline processes.

Becker observed that the most resistance to change tended to come from staff members who were considered experts in the old systems.

Experts in current systems and processes could fear becoming learners of new ones, she explained, suggesting that managers maintain an active dialogue with this group of employees throughout the implementation of new technologies.

“In a broader sense, the IT industry is relying on people to take up new technology,” Becker told iTnews.

“At times, I don’t think we focus as much as we should on how it impacts people, how it impacts their jobs, and why they resist change in the ways they do.”

Another organisation in the study underwent a change in safety procedures in a heavy industry setting.

Employees were observed to resist, and even ignore, procedural changes as they were not consulted with and briefed about reasons for change by their direct managers.

“Change was seen as being driven by external forces,” Becker said.

“It was an issue of safety -- valid reasons -- but the staff weren’t made aware of these reasons and saw it [change] very much as being cast upon them from outside.”

For most effective change management, Becker suggests organisations ensure that long-term employees are consulted, staff are engaged in implementation processes, and a flow of communication is maintained about reasons for change, status updates and any glitches in the new system.

Trainers also should be aware of existing habits and knowledge that may stand in the way of new processes, and not assume that each trainee is “starting on a clean slate”, Becker said.
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