Biology is a source of many metaphors currently used in the literature on organizational sciences (McAuley et al., 2013). Indeed, organizations are often considered as organisms which, in addition to being inextricably devoted to survival, learn from their experience (Argote, 2013). However, once the internal and external environment of the organization system changes, the “old” experience and, consequently, the beliefs and knowledge acquired through it, may become devalued (Ethiraj, Levinthal, 2004), obsolete (Tripsas, Gavetti, 2000) or even misleading (Barton, 1992). More specifically, in the contemporary organizational literature, the view is emerging that, in order to survive in scenarios characterized by hypercompetition, organization systems must, in addition to continuously improve (a process often called “kaizen” in the theoretical literature about lean production), be also able to get rid of path dependency mechanisms (Martignoni, Keil, 2021) via unlearning. According to several recent studies, unlearning is a fundamental ability that organizations must possess in their toolbox (Tsang, Zahra, 2008; Cirnu, 2015; Grisold, Kaiser, 2017; Zhang, Liu, 2021; Martignoni, Keil, 2021). What is unlearning? This concept was introduced by Hedberg (1981) and, slightly after, by Nystrom and Starbuck (1984). These scholars suggested that the act of acquiring new knowledge embodies a dual simultaneous process: at the same rate as knowledge is learned, it becomes obsolete as soon as the external environment changes. Based on this assumption, they came to the conclusion that the act of understanding requires not only the learning of new knowledge, but also the contemporary discard of the old and misleading constructs. The voluntary and conscious abandonment of old knowledge is defined, by these authors, with the term "unlearning”. From these studies on, the concept of unlearning has been widely used in the literature - especially in the last years, which have massively urged organizations to introduce deep changes in their strategies. However, that concept has not received a satisfactory definition. Existing definitions are vague, imprecise and often mutually incompatible or contradictory with one another. Moreover, it is not yet clear how unlearning differs from concepts commonly used in psychology such as inhibition, interference, extinction or forgetting (Howells, Scholderer, 2016). Finally, it is still questionable whether unlearning - as distinct, for example, from forgetting - is cognitively plausible. Our work contributes to filling these gaps. In particular, this work will address a descriptive, a conceptual and a theoretical goal. a) (Descriptive goal) To identify how the concept of unlearning is defined in the organizational literature. b) (Conceptual goal) To identify the relationships, if any, between the concept of unlearning and other concepts which are more commonly used in psychology (including inhibition, interference, extinction, forgetting, etc). c) (Theoretical goal) To identify (if any) senses of unlearning which are cognitively plausible. Accordingly, we will achieve the following results: a) A multidimensional taxonomy of the different meanings of unlearning used so far will be proposed, organized along several and previously neglected dimensions (who is the subject of the unlearning, what is unlearned, how one can unlearn, …) b) It will be suggested that the concept of unlearning, as conceived in the organizational literature, is not fully captured by other concepts frequently used in the cognitive literature to denote the “discarding” of knowledge. c) A definition of unlearning will be proposed and shown to be cognitively plausible and useful to formulate empirically testable theories. By reflecting on a widely used, but ill-defined concept, this work aims at contributing to filling an important gap in the contemporary theoretical literature about organization systems, and to strengthening the epistemological foundations of organization system theory.

Maccioni, S., & Ghiringhelli, C. (2022). Can you unlearn? A reflection on the conceptual and cognitive foundations of organization systems theory. Intervento presentato a: SILFS - Postgraduate Conference on Logic and Philosophy of Science, Università Milano-Bicocca, Milano, Italia.

Can you unlearn? A reflection on the conceptual and cognitive foundations of organization systems theory

Maccioni, S;Ghiringhelli, C
2022

Abstract

Biology is a source of many metaphors currently used in the literature on organizational sciences (McAuley et al., 2013). Indeed, organizations are often considered as organisms which, in addition to being inextricably devoted to survival, learn from their experience (Argote, 2013). However, once the internal and external environment of the organization system changes, the “old” experience and, consequently, the beliefs and knowledge acquired through it, may become devalued (Ethiraj, Levinthal, 2004), obsolete (Tripsas, Gavetti, 2000) or even misleading (Barton, 1992). More specifically, in the contemporary organizational literature, the view is emerging that, in order to survive in scenarios characterized by hypercompetition, organization systems must, in addition to continuously improve (a process often called “kaizen” in the theoretical literature about lean production), be also able to get rid of path dependency mechanisms (Martignoni, Keil, 2021) via unlearning. According to several recent studies, unlearning is a fundamental ability that organizations must possess in their toolbox (Tsang, Zahra, 2008; Cirnu, 2015; Grisold, Kaiser, 2017; Zhang, Liu, 2021; Martignoni, Keil, 2021). What is unlearning? This concept was introduced by Hedberg (1981) and, slightly after, by Nystrom and Starbuck (1984). These scholars suggested that the act of acquiring new knowledge embodies a dual simultaneous process: at the same rate as knowledge is learned, it becomes obsolete as soon as the external environment changes. Based on this assumption, they came to the conclusion that the act of understanding requires not only the learning of new knowledge, but also the contemporary discard of the old and misleading constructs. The voluntary and conscious abandonment of old knowledge is defined, by these authors, with the term "unlearning”. From these studies on, the concept of unlearning has been widely used in the literature - especially in the last years, which have massively urged organizations to introduce deep changes in their strategies. However, that concept has not received a satisfactory definition. Existing definitions are vague, imprecise and often mutually incompatible or contradictory with one another. Moreover, it is not yet clear how unlearning differs from concepts commonly used in psychology such as inhibition, interference, extinction or forgetting (Howells, Scholderer, 2016). Finally, it is still questionable whether unlearning - as distinct, for example, from forgetting - is cognitively plausible. Our work contributes to filling these gaps. In particular, this work will address a descriptive, a conceptual and a theoretical goal. a) (Descriptive goal) To identify how the concept of unlearning is defined in the organizational literature. b) (Conceptual goal) To identify the relationships, if any, between the concept of unlearning and other concepts which are more commonly used in psychology (including inhibition, interference, extinction, forgetting, etc). c) (Theoretical goal) To identify (if any) senses of unlearning which are cognitively plausible. Accordingly, we will achieve the following results: a) A multidimensional taxonomy of the different meanings of unlearning used so far will be proposed, organized along several and previously neglected dimensions (who is the subject of the unlearning, what is unlearned, how one can unlearn, …) b) It will be suggested that the concept of unlearning, as conceived in the organizational literature, is not fully captured by other concepts frequently used in the cognitive literature to denote the “discarding” of knowledge. c) A definition of unlearning will be proposed and shown to be cognitively plausible and useful to formulate empirically testable theories. By reflecting on a widely used, but ill-defined concept, this work aims at contributing to filling an important gap in the contemporary theoretical literature about organization systems, and to strengthening the epistemological foundations of organization system theory.
No
abstract + slide
Scientifica
Unlearning, Organization system theory, Change management, Cognitive sciences
English
SILFS - Postgraduate Conference on Logic and Philosophy of Science
Maccioni, S., & Ghiringhelli, C. (2022). Can you unlearn? A reflection on the conceptual and cognitive foundations of organization systems theory. Intervento presentato a: SILFS - Postgraduate Conference on Logic and Philosophy of Science, Università Milano-Bicocca, Milano, Italia.
Maccioni, S; Ghiringhelli, C
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Utilizza questo identificativo per citare o creare un link a questo documento: http://hdl.handle.net/10281/388209
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