The role and relevance of an adaptive leadership style in the process of organisational unlearning in corporate organisations (extract)

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The pace and volume of change in today’s corporate world has never been greater and looks likely to continue to increase. One of the early researchers into the subject, Kurt Lewin, who has often been referred to as the father of social psychology (Burnes, 2004), introduced the notion of unfreezing, moving (or learning), and refreezing as a model of permanent change in organisations (Lewin, 1947). The concept still has significant validity today (Schein, 1996;, Cummings, Bridgman and Brown, 2016), although there are critics who maintain that to have a constant process of re-freezing is too slow for the dynamics of today (Child, 2015). In the context of organisational learning (“OL”), and organisational unlearning (“OU”) there is an important connection via the wording. In Lewin’s model, un-freezing is not seen as a negative process (as often the use of the prefix un- implies). It is a constructive and necessary process in order to prepare an organisation and its members for change – it creates a pre-condition or stimulus for change. In another context – for example the work of futurists – the concept has been expressed equally constructively, “Because as US writer and futurist Alvin Toffler says: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn” (Follows, 2016, p35).

OU itself has almost as many definitions as there are articles written on the subject and, whilst I have been tempted to produce a definition for discussion this is not the purpose of this literature review, it is more relevant to highlight many similarities in the definitions used in the literature. These include the discarding of routines and knowledge (de Holan and Phillips, 2004; de Holan and Phillips*, 2004), discarding obsolete knowledge (Hedberg, 1981; Argyris and Schön, 1978), reducing or eliminating knowledge (Akgun et al, 2007), or the substitution or creation of room for new knowledge or learning (Klein, 1989; Prahalad and Bettis, 1986). Therefore it can be seen as a process, of, at minimum, not using some existing knowledge and subsequently adding new knowledge in an organisational context. Similar to unfreezing as proposed by Lewin, OU is not a negative process, more it is a necessary part of OL, thus not an end in itself, more a necessary process for new learning particularly in an organisational context. As a consequence the subjects of OL and the learning organisation need to be contextualised and understood before OU can be separately discussed.

The learning organisation is a concept developed by Peter Senge (1990, 2006) in his work “The Fifth Discipline – The Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation”. It was identified by Easterby-Smith et al (2004) as one of 7 major contributions to the subject of OL between 1978 and 2004. The five disciplines identified by Senge are personal mastery, mental models, shared vision, team learning, and systems thinking (the fifth discipline).

Senge raises challenges in OL around defensive routines and reasoning – elements which prevent organisations from learning about the validity of our reasoning – which have been raised by several others as a barrier to unlearning and new learning (Gino and Pisano, 2011; Hedberg, 1981; Starbuck, 2017; Visser, 2017). Overcoming (or adapting to) these defensive routines is a key to both the initiation of unlearning and as a result a new learning phase.

OL is a much broader subject – but has been separated into concepts such as knowledge exploration and exploitation “In studies of organizational learning, the problem of balancing exploration and exploitation is exhibited in distinctions made between refinement of an existing technology and invention of a new one” (March, 1991, p72). Whether knowledge is being explored (new) or exploited (existing) can have a significant impact on whether and/or how the organisation then approaches unlearning other knowledge. This gives rise to an important framework for this review – being what it is that constitutes OL or knowledge,

Within such a framework, organizations are seen as learning by encoding inferences from history into routines that guide behavior. The generic term “routines” includes the forms, rules, procedures, conventions, strategies, and technologies around which organizations are constructed and through which they operate. It also includes the structure of beliefs, frameworks, paradigms, codes, cultures, and knowledge that buttress, elaborate, and contradict the formal routines. Routines are independent of the individual actors who execute them and are capable of surviving considerable turnover in individual actors. (Levitt and March, 1988, p320)

In his work on the learning organisation, Senge still refers to leaders more often than leadership – something that retains a focus on individuals rather than the broader concept of leadership, however Heifetz (2003) – one of the original authors on adaptive leadership refers more to the concept.

Whether people with formal, charismatic or otherwise informal authority actually practice leadership on any given issue at any moment in time ought to remain a separate question answered with wholly different criteria from those used to define a relationship of formal or informal authority. (Heifetz, 2003, p 72)

This furthers the discussion towards adaptation and adaptability and its implications in leading a learning and changing organisation and is something to be further explored in this paper.

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