The concept and its implications on organizational learning revisited
Master Program Organization Studies IOL, University of Innsbruck
Seminar on Organizational Learning 25th of April 2018
Learning and forgetting - what at the first glance seems contradictory, turns out to interrelate. The authorship argues that forgetting constitutes the prerequisite for learning as it releases capacities to be able to deal with new stimuli (Blaschke & Schoeneborn, 2006; De Holan & Phillips, 2011; Luhmann, 1997). Out of this, a positive impact of forgetting on learning is apparent. But is this really the only effect? It is time to scrutinize forgetting and its implications more carefully.
Between learning and forgetting, there is a cause-effect-relation. As Blaschke and Schoeneborn (2006) argue: „[I]ncreasing the organizational forgetting rate leads to even higher levels of knowledge" (p. 113) and can therefore be seen as prerequisite for organzational learning. One can easily imagine this, when thinking for example of a bakery. During the last decade, the employees formed pretzels out of pastry by crossing over the pastry ends. Imagine, the bakery owner found a less time consuming way of forming a pretzel and instructs his employees to solely use this new method as of now. As the employees formed pretzels with the crossing-method for many years, the knowledge how to do it is deeply entrenched in the organization and turned into a routine. As the old routine constitutes a barrier for learning the new method, the bakery needs to eliminate the old knowledge to set capacities free. Only by doing this, the staff can learn and adapt to the new and more appropriate way of forming pretzels. If forgetting is not happening and the bakery parallel focuses on the old method, the organization blocks itself.
But there is one important condition tied to the concept of forgetting, so that it can be effective: Blaschke and Schoeneborn (2006) empirically found out that forgetting only leads to more knowledge if forgetting is not amnesia. Hence, the result of forgetting must not mean that the forgotten knowledge is completely gone. Rather forgetting is a process, which brings knowledge to a lower level of consciousness with the possibility to recall and remember it again anytime. One can compare the concept of forgetting with a paper bin on a computer, where data are recoverable after they have been deleted respectively forgotten.
This understanding of forgetting in the sense of no amnesia raises the question if the phenomenon can be really described by the notion of „forgetting". The knowledge is never completely forgotten, as the learners leave the backdoor open in case the old knowledge can be useful at a later point of time. Rather one could say, that the knowledge, deemed as irrelevant, is stored at a less conscious level of the organizational memory. In the literature also other expressions can be found. De Holan and Phillips (2011) name the process of deliberately forgetting established knowledge as „unlearning" (p.438). However, this notion is not accurately chosen. Unlearning would implicate that the unlearned knowledge would need to be relearnt in case of afresh usage. But this does not apply; the advantage of forgetting in the sense of no amnesia is, that the forgotten knowledge can be easily remembered again with low effort and not need to be relearnt (Blaschke & Schoeneborn, 2006). Summarily, neither the notion of forgetting nor of unlearning in their prevalent meaning really grasp the phenomenon. The process of bringing down irrelevant knowledge to a lower level of consciousness within organizational memory, but at the same time not eliminating it, can be better phrased by the notion of „blinding out".
Thinking further, from the process of „blinding out" irrelevant knowledge to the consequent intention - learning new, more appropriate knowledge - the following question comes up: Does the blinding out of knowledge have impact on learning? The answer is a paradox: On the one site - as already described above - forgetting in the sense of no amnesia / blinding out constitutes the prerequisite for learning, but on the other side it restricts learning. To put the latter more precisely: It determines the learning content beforehand and narrows what organizations can potentially learn. This can be traced back to the phenomenon of constructivism. (As organizations „cannot learn by themselves, but only through their members" (cited in Blaschke & Schoeneborn, 2006, p. 108), it is reasonable to touch also upon individuals' behavior in this context.)
Constructivism means that reality is not objective, but that every individual has a subjective image of reality in mind. The individual constructs his own reality based on the senses used for perceiving and based on already made experiences (Glasersfeld, 1997). Here lies the crucial point: Past experiences actually represent knowledge which has been acquired in the past. Although previously acquired knowledge has been deemed for irrelevant and has been blinded out to make place for more appropriate knowledge, it is still existent and unconsciously influences the individual in the perception of reality. Due to this, an individual can never see the objective, whole reality, but only a limited snapshot of it. Within this narrow segment of reality lies also the potential new knowledge, which can be learnt. Thus, the scope of possible learning content is restricted beforehand. To put it in other words: Knowledge, even though deemed as irrelevant and „forgotten", is still existent in a less conscious level of individual memory, and therefore still determines future actions and learning. This is especially the case, when the knowledge, which is blinded out now, has been used for a longer time before and is embedded in the individuals' long-term memory. Things once embedded in the long-term memory, can be stored there for years or even lifelong (Die Ebenen des Gedachtnisses, n.d.).
The following examples prove the above argumentation: Complacent background conversations and framing. The former term depicts organizations acting according to the way which has already worked out in the past (Ford, Ford, & McNamara, 2002). One imagines members of an organization located in a situation, where environment changes and they are forced to learn a new way of how to deal with new conditions. Instead of inventing new methods, it is high probable that they act according to old methods in their repertoire, which have worked out once, but maybe have been deemed as irrelevant and have been forgotten in the meantime due to other changes. But now, as these well-tried methods might become relevant again, individuals remember them. This is an example, how „forgotten" knowledge determines possible learning content.
Framing poses another example: Things, individuals have learnt throughout their life, result in a specific way of thinking, which each individual develops. Although many of the things learnt have again been forgotten, they are still in the subconscious mind. Therefore, they influence the individuals daily acquisition of information and also the potential information which may be transformed to newly learnt knowledge. An individual way of thinking determines for example which kind of questions an individual asks and therefore to which information the individual comes. Oftentimes the solely posing of questions reduces the amount of potential answers connected with less information in the same moment. Out of this, it can be derived that former acquired knowledge, although only unconsciously present, works like a filter or a frame, which determines the way of thinking and therefore also restricts the amount of information and learning content to which an individual can come.
The above stated thesis, that forgetting restricts the learning content, rests on the understanding of organizations and individuals as autopoietic systems. The characteristic of autopoietic systems is that they create themselves from within, based on their inner components and not on triggers coming from the external environment. They only learn upon their own rules and what is inherent in them (Luhmann, 1986). Inherent in them are certainly also these things, which might have been forgotten, but are still existent in the subconscious mind. Out of this, two last question can be posed: Despite the phenonomen of forgetting, is an organization not still „trapped in its ever-cumulating past" (Blaschke & Schoeneborn, 2006, p. 110)? Is learning novel knowledge possible without triggers from the external environment?
Duncan and Weiss (1979) define knowledge as the „process by which knowledge is accumulated or developed" (cited in Blaschke & Schoeneborn, 2006). But where does this knowledge come from? When considering the organization as autopoietic system, the knowledge stems from inside the organization. Although it may be declared as „new" knowledge, - as argued above - it still comes from within the scope of constructed reality, which is in the end only a narrow picture of the whole reality. Therefore, one could argue, that the degree of novelty of newly learnt knowledge will always be determined and thus the following applies: For learning innovative, novel knowledge, which does not stand in relation with former acquired knowledge, organizations are dependent on triggers from the external environment. This already constitutes a prevention method, how the influence on future learning content can be diminished. In the following, two additional methods will be described:
As every individual has its own reality, which particulary only represents a small cake piece of the whole reality, organizations can help themselves by including as many individuals as possible in the learning process. Hereby, many individual world views are put on top of each other to make the picture of reality wider. Consequently, organizations are enabled to learn out of a wider imagination tank. By this method, the learning content is less limited.
A second method is to foremost include individuals in the organizational learning process which are ready and able to challenge underlying assumptions and the already known. Of course, the organizational members are still imprisoned in their own constructed reality, but the challenging helps to look more on the outer edge of the own reality, where one normally does not search for new information and potential learning content.
In order to sum up the essay, three propositions have been made:
(1) The phenomenon of forgetting in the sense of amnesia is better expressed by the notion of „blinding out".
(2) Forgetting may be necessary for learning, but forgotten knowledge also restricts the learning content of organizations.
(3) Organizations can only learn novel content, when accepting triggers from the external environment.
The statements emphasize once more, that forgetting is an elementary component in the organizational learning process. This is exactly why the concept behind the notion „forgetting" needs to be scrutinized and grasped in detail in order to ensure an optimal learning outcome for the organization, especially in terms of novelty of the learning content. The essay contributes decisively to a better understanding of forgetting and at the same time opens up new research questions. But is it not always like this: Once one got insight in a fascinating topic, one feels the urge to learn more and more?