woensdag 5 december 2012


A human being can learn, but can she also unlearn? I don’t mean that she can forget, for example in the sense of a skill you get unused to and lose. No, I mean that one has gained insights and then returns them. And not so by progressive clarification, but because these insights have become socially less desirable. In that case the question is: did you really get rid of them? Is the situation as it was before you gained the insights?

If that would be the case, unlearning would indeed exist. But if you still carry the learned things with you and simply don’t talk about them, then there is no question of unlearning. Then anyway the situation is very different from what it was before you started to learn.

These thoughts come to me because the last two years at my work were geared to collective learning. By focusing, with the help of external consultants, on our customer (the Amsterdam citizen) and our primary staff the permanent question was: where do our management concepts and controldrive hamper us more than they help us. When the management factory becomes dysfunctional?

In the process, we learned that the reality of the customer and the workplace may sometimes be very different from the manager’s reality. And that, in order to bridge the gap, and especially in order to somehow “have a control dashboard” often too quickly ICT is embraced, forgetting that a subtle network of connections between people and between people and machines determines the quality of information. We learned that there is no quick route, and that only constant attention to these connections eventually guarantees quality.

Those are insights indeed. Can one just shake them off once they are there? It seems so. At my work I already heard the simplicities pass again: just name some goals and implement them, and then the desired information rolls with the push of a button from the machine. As if not information is the result of a multitude of dependencies and delicate interactions. But maybe that kind of talk comes from people to whom the insights of the past two years have gone by, that is: who didn’t learn anything anyway. Of course, in that case you also cannot dislearn.

With people who díd learn something the past few years I suspect that the situation is different. There, I think, things have definitely changed in a way that is not easily reversed. Once you have seen how dysfunctional an organization can operate, your alertness to sham management will be aroused for ever. Dislearning and return to a naive embrace of command-and-control management have become impossible then. A broken egg cannot be repaired.

Of course, a stiffer regime and tight economic conditions can curtail the space to give effect to these insights quite severely. But people do not just lose their insights like that, so something under the surface will be different from what was the case before the insights came. Completely back to before will therefore not really be an option.

Also see Blowing bubbles and AAA