Knowledge Management and Unlearning/Forgetting

  • Karen L. Becker


The concept of unlearning emerged in response to recognition that individuals and organisations are not ‘blank slates’ and that existence of prior knowledge may hinder efforts to learn or acquire new knowledge. Knowledge management relies on the acquisition and sharing of knowledge by both individuals and organisations, and learning is an important part of this process. However, being willing and able to unlearn is proving to be just as important. Unlearning involves questioning existing knowledge and, in many cases, relinquishing what was previously thought to be ‘true’. The focus of this chapter on unlearning argues that releasing prior knowledge, or at least acknowledging its presence and shortcomings, may hold the key to successful knowledge management, for both individuals and collectives. The chapter provides an overview of unlearning and the key theories and models. It also provides examples of unlearning in practice and identifies tangible ways to facilitate unlearning in the workplace.


Unlearning Learning Organisational unlearning Individual unlearning Forgetting 


  1. Akgun, A. E., Byrne, J. C., Lynn, G. S., & Keskin, H. (2007). Organizational unlearning as changes in beliefs and routines in organizations. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 20(6), 794–812.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Alvesson, M. (2004). Knowledge work and knowledge-intensive firms (Vol. vi). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Argyris, C., & Schon, D. A. (1978). Organizational learning: A theory of action perspective. Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.Google Scholar
  4. Balogun, J., & Jenkins, M. (2003). Re-conceiving change management: A knowledge-based perspective. European Management Journal, 21(2), 247–257.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Barrett, F. J., Thoman, G. F., & Hocevar, S. P. (1995). The central role of discourse in large-scale change: A social construction perspective. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 31(3), 352–373.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an ecology of mind. London: Intertext Books.Google Scholar
  7. Baxter, P. (2000). Mediational learning: Empowering individuals and enterprises to take control of change and continuous innovation. STAC Unit, DETIR. Retrieved December 11, 2003, from
  8. Baxter, P., Lyndon, H., Dole, S., Cooper, T., Battistutta, D., & Blakeley, J. (1997). Skill correction and accelerated learning in the workplace: An experimental field trial of the conceptual mediation program and old way/new way (Report on Australian national training authority research advisory council grant No. 95026).Google Scholar
  9. Beasley, R. (2016). Dissonance and decision-making mistakes in the age of risk. Journal of European Public Policy, 23(5), 771–787.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Becker, K. (2005). Individual and organisational unlearning: Directions for future research. International Journal of Organisation Behaviour, 9(7), 659–670.Google Scholar
  11. Berthon, P., Pitt, L. F., & Ewing, M. T. (2001). Corollaries of the collective: The influence of organizational culture and memory development on perceived decision-making context. Academy of Marketing Science Journal, 29(2), 135–150.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Bessant, J., Öberg, C., & Trifilova, A. (2014). Framing problems in radical innovation. Industrial Marketing Management, 43(8), 1284–1292.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Bouton, M. E. (2000). A learning theory perspective on lapse, relapse, and the maintenance of behavior change. Health Psychology, 19(Suppl), 57–63.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Brett, J. F., & Atwater, L. E. (2001). 360° feedback: Accuracy, reactions, and perceptions of usefulness. Journal of Applied Psychology, 86(5), 930–942.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Bridges, W. (1991). Managing transitions: Making the most of change. Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley.Google Scholar
  16. Brook, C., Pedler, M., Abbott, C., & Burgoyne, J. (2016). On stopping doing those things that are not getting us to where we want to be: Unlearning, wicked problems and critical action learning. Human Relations, 69(2), 369–389.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Cameron, K. S., & Freeman, S. J. (1991). Cultural congruence, strength and type: Relationships to effectiveness. Research in Organizational Change and Development, 5(1), 23–58.Google Scholar
  18. Cegarra-Navarro, J. G., & Dewhurst, F. W. (2006). Linking shared organisational context and relational capital through unlearning: An initial empirical investigation in SMEs. The Learning Organization, 13(1), 49–62.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Chaudhuri, S., & Ghosh, R. (2012). Reverse mentoring: A social exchange tool for keeping the boomers engaged and millennials committed. Human resource development review, 11(1), 55–76.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. DeGrassi, S. W., Morgan, W. B., Walker, S. S., Wang, Y. I., & Sabat, I. (2012). Ethical decision-making: Group diversity holds the key. Journal of Leadership, Accountability and Ethics, 9(6), 51.Google Scholar
  21. Duffy, F. M. (2003). I think, therefore I am resistant to change. Journal of Staff Development, 24(1), 30–36.Google Scholar
  22. Easterby-Smith, M., & Lyles, M. A. (2011). In praise of organizational forgetting. Journal of Management Inquiry, 20(3), 311–316.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Farhi, P. (2009). A costly mistake? When the Associated Press decided a decade ago to sell its news content to online portals, it may have hastened the decline of the daily newspapers that own the wire service. American Journalism Review, 31(2), 36–42.Google Scholar
  24. Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Evanston: Row Peterson.Google Scholar
  25. Fiol, C. M., & Lyles, M. A. (1985). Organizational learning. The Academy of Management Review, 10(4), 803–813.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Fiol, M., & O’Connor, E. (2017). Unlearning established organizational routines-part I. The Learning Organization, 24(1), 13–29.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Foldy, E. G., & Creed, W. E. D. (1999). Action learning, fragmentation, and the interaction of single-, double-, and triple-loop change: A case of gay and lesbian workplace advocacy. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 35(2), 207–227.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Goodman, E. A., Zammuto, R. F., & Gifford, B. D. (2001). The competing values framework: Understanding the impact of organizational culture on the quality of work life. Organization Development Journal, 19(3), 58–68.Google Scholar
  29. Grant, R. M. (1996). Toward a knowledge-based theory of the firm. Strategic Management Journal, 17(Winter Special Issue), 109–122.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Greenhaus, J. H., & Powell, G. N. (2003). When work and family collide: Deciding between competing role demands. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 90(2), 291–303.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Hamel, G., & Prahalad, C. (1994). Competing for the future. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.Google Scholar
  32. Harvey, M., & Buckley, M. R. (2002). Assessing the “conventional wisdoms” of management for the 21st century organization. Organizational Dynamics, 30(4), 368–378.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Hedberg, B. (1981). How organizations learn and unlearn. In P. Nystrom & W. H. Starbuck (Eds.), Handbook of organizational design (Vol. 1). London: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  34. Hinojosa, A. S., Gardner, W. L., Walker, H. J., Cogliser, C., & Gullifor, D. (2017). A review of cognitive dissonance theory in management research. Journal of Management, 43(1), 170–199.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Hislop, D., Bosley, S., Coombs, C. R., & Holland, J. (2014). The process of individual unlearning: A neglected topic in an under-researched field. Management Learning, 45(5), 540–560.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Huber, G. P. (1991). Organizational learning: The contributing processes and the literatures. Organization Science, 2(1), 88–115.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Kim, D. H. (1993). The link between individual and organizational learning. Sloan Management Review, 35(1), 37–50.Google Scholar
  38. Klein, J. I. (1989). Parenthetic learning in organizations: Toward the unlearning of the unlearning model. The Journal of Management Studies, 26(3), 291–309.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Knowles, M. (1970). The modern practice of adult education: Andragogy versus pedagogy. New York: Association Press.Google Scholar
  40. Knowles, M. (1990). The adult learner: A neglected species (4th ed.). Houston: Gulf Publishing Company.Google Scholar
  41. Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall Inc.Google Scholar
  42. Lee, D. (2013). Nokia: The rise and fall of a mobile giant.
  43. Lei, D., Slocum, J. W., & Pitts, R. A. (1999). Designing organizations for competitive advantage: The power of learning and unlearning. Organizational Dynamics, 27(3), 24–38.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Levitt, B., & March, J. G. (1988). Organizational learning. Annual Review of Sociology, 14, 319–340.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Lyndon, H. (1989). I did it my way! An introduction to “old way/new way” methodology. Australasian Journal of Special Education, 13(1), 32–37.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Marcinkus Murphy, W. (2012). Reverse mentoring at work: Fostering cross-generational learning and developing millennial leaders. Human Resource Management, 51(4), 549–573.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Markoczy, L. (1994). Modes of organizational learning: Institutional change and Hungarian joint ventures. International Studies of Management & Organization, 24(4), 5–31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Martin de Holan, P. (2011). Agency in voluntary organizational forgetting. Journal of Management Inquiry, 20(3), 317–322.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Martin de Holan, P., & Phillips, N. (2004). Remembrance of things past? The dynamics of organizational forgetting. Management Science, 50(11), 1603.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Martin de Holan, P., Phillips, N., & Lawrence, T. B. (2004). Managing organizational forgetting. MIT Sloan Management Review, 45(2), 45–51.Google Scholar
  51. Meager, N. (2016). Foreword: JMO special issue on self-employment/freelancing. Journal of Management and Organization, 22(6), 756.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Melton, A. W., & Von Lackum, W. (1941). Retroactive and proactive inhibition in retention: Evidence for a two-factor theory of retroactive inhibition. The American Journal of Psychology, 54(2), 157–173.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Mezirow, J. (1990). How critical reflection triggers transformative learning. In J. Mezirow & Associates (Eds.), Fostering critical reflection in adulthood. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  54. Mezirow, J. (2000). Learning to think like an adult: Core concepts of adult learning theory. In J. Mezirow (Ed.), Learning as transformation: Critical perspectives on a theory in progress. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  55. Newstrom, J. W. (1983). The management of unlearning: Exploding the “clean slate” fallacy. Training and Development Journal, 37(8), 36–39.Google Scholar
  56. Nickerson, J. A., & Zenger, T. R. (2004). A knowledge-based theory of the firm: The problem-solving perspective. Organization Science, 15(6), 617–632.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Nielsen, R. K. (2015). Local journalism: The decline of newspapers and the rise of digital media. London/New York: I.B.Tauris.Google Scholar
  58. Nystrom, P. C., & Starbuck, W. H. (1984). To avoid organizational crises, unlearn. Organizational Dynamics, 12(4), 53–65.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Paoli, M., & Prencipe, A. (2003). Memory of the organisation and memories within the organisation. Journal of Management & Governance, 7(2), 145–162.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Peccei, R., Giangreco, A., & Sebastiano, A. (2011). The role of organisational commitment in the analysis of resistance to change: Co-predictor and moderator effects. Personnel Review, 40(2), 185–204.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Perlovsky, L. (2013). A challenge to human evolution—Cognitive dissonance. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 1–3.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Postman, L., & Underwood, B. J. (1973). Critical issues in interference theory. Memory & Cognition, 1(1), 19–40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Prahalad, C. K., & Bettis, R. A. (1986). The Dominant Logic: A new linkage between diversity and performance. Strategic Management Journal, 7(6), 485–501.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants Part 1. On the Horizon, 9(5), 1–6.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Revans, R. W. (1980). Action learning: New techniques for management. London: Blond and Briggs.Google Scholar
  66. Rink, F., & Ellemers, N. (2010). Benefiting from deep-level diversity: How congruence between knowledge and decision rules improves team decision making and team perceptions. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 13(3), 345–359.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Romme, G., & Witteloostuijn, A. v. (1999). Circular organizing and triple loop learning. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 12(5), 439–454.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Rushmer, R., & Davies, H. (2004). Unlearning in health care. Quality and Safety in Health Care, 13(suppl 2), ii10–ii15.Google Scholar
  69. Sadler-Smith, E. (1999). Intuition-analysis cognitive style and learning preferences of business and management students: A UK exploratory study. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 14(1), 26–38.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Sadowsky, S. J. (2016). Editorial: The case for unlearning. The International Journal of Prosthodontics, 29(6), 547–548.Google Scholar
  71. Schein, E. H. (1996). Culture: The missing concept in organization studies. Administrative Science Quarterly, 41(2), 229–240.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Schein, E. H. (2004). Organizational culture and leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  73. Schein, E. H. (2010). Organizational culture and leadership. New York: John Wiley & Sons.Google Scholar
  74. Sherwood, D. (2000). The unlearning organisation. Business Strategy Review, 11(3), 31–40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Sinkula, J. M. (2002). Market-based success, organizational routines, and unlearning. The Journal of Business & Industrial Marketing, 17(4), 253–269.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Snell, R., & Chak, A. M.-K. (1998). The learning organization: Learning and empowerment for whom? Management Learning, 29(3), 337–364.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Starbuck, W. H. (1996). Unlearning ineffective or obsolete technologies. International Journal of Technology Management, 11(7/8), 725–737.Google Scholar
  78. Starbuck, W. H. (2017). Organizational learning and unlearning. The Learning Organization, 24(1), 30–38.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Stein, E. (1995). Organizational memory: Review of concepts and recommendations for management. International Journal of Information Management, 15(2), 17–32.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. Sun, P. Y. T., & Scott, J. L. (2003). Exploring the divide – Organizational learning and learning organization. The Learning Organization, 10(4), 202–215.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  81. Tsang, E. W. (2017). How the concept of organizational unlearning contributes to studies of learning organizations: A personal reflection. The Learning Organization, 24(1), 39–48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  82. Tsang, E. W. K., & Zahra, S. A. (2008). Organizational unlearning. Human Relations, 61(10), 1435–1462.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. Visser, M. (2017). Learning and unlearning: A conceptual note. The Learning Organization, 24(1), 49–57.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  84. Walsh, J. P., & Ungson, G. R. (1991). Organizational memory. Academy of Management Review, 16(1), 57–91.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  85. Wang, Y.-D., & Hsieh, H.-H. (2014). Employees’ reactions to psychological contract breach: A moderated mediation analysis. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 85(1), 57–66.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  86. Wong, P. S., Cheung, S. O., Yiu, R. L., & Hardie, M. (2012). The unlearning dimension of organizational learning in construction projects. International Journal of Project Management, 30(1), 94–104.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  87. Zhao, Y., Lu, Y., & Wang, X. (2013). Organizational unlearning and organizational relearning: A dynamic process of knowledge management. Journal of Knowledge Management, 17(6), 902–912.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Karen L. Becker
    • 1
  1. 1.Faculty of Arts, Business and Law, University of the Sunshine CoastSippy DownsAustralia

Personalised recommendations