Why it’s important for organisations to create an unlearning culture to survive


Revised ways of working, technology and proactive employee engagement will be key to enhancing internal mobility.

At an HR Indaba Conversation sponsored by Workday, Lameez Subaya, the company’s financial services and insurance lead, introduced the session with the observation that organisations need to cultivate a culture of continuous learning, because learning never stops.

Traditionally when we think of learning we tend to think of formal education and institutions. But in business as well as in life, learning happens all the time in many different contexts. The Covid-19 pandemic forced remote working on many organisations, and with it, new ways of communicating, doing business and attending meetings were introduced.

It is in this light that the conversation of creating an unlearning culture takes place. What have organisations had to learn to survive? What have they had to unlearn? How has this affected the company culture? And most importantly, how are leaders embracing the changes and providing comfortable environments for employees?

“I think one of the biggest lessons we have learnt is that organisations need to be an open living system, instead of a closed living system and that all people have an impact on how an organisation adapts over time, “said panellist Kim Skjoldhammer, learning and wellbeing lead at Investec.

Kim said the events of the last 18 months have challenged the notion that if it’s not broken don’t fix it, and that one size fits all. “What we have learnt is that there is an opportunity to find many different ways to do things: there is no one right way. Organisations are looking at different models of work that will work for them, so it’s no longer a one-size-fits-all scenario.”

Part of the journey of unlearning has also been that organisations and HR departments could no longer play the role of schoolmaster to employees but had to trust them to get their work done remotely. Trust has become an important element of company culture, as have experimentation, pushing boundaries and giving and receiving feedback.

“Self-organisation within an organisation requires trust. Working from home has set new level of trust because people are experimenting and learning new ways of working. With this comes the ability to experiment and push boundaries. For leaders, this has also meant that they must adapt and be open to being challenged and receiving feedback about what is working and what isn’t. We have to unlearn and relearn habits developed over the last 18 months, so it’s an ongoing cycle” she explained.

Brigitte Chetty, HR executive, Blue Label Telecoms said she had been unlearning when it came to those old paradigms about competence and experience. “I’ve needed to ask, are previous knowledge and experience a barrier to change? We have also been identifying future skills and determining where there are skills gaps.”

Brigitte said as part of their unlearning, organisations needed to look at how they measure success. “Goal-setting set once a year and reviewing twice a year need to be relooked. Where we are now, goals need to be constantly evaluated.” But before introducing these drastic changes, they needed to introduce change management systems and ensure that their environments were safe and conducive to employees failing fast.

“We need environments where trust is to allow people time to master new ways of thinking and working. Fostering psychological safety now an important soft skill for leaders going forward,” she explained.

Jon Foster-Pedley, dean and director, Henley Business School, concluded the discussion by saying that leaders needed to “let people feel uncomfortable with change. It is subtle and complex work getting people to unlearn. Leaders also to need to leave themselves in an uncomfortable space of never being completely right or not always knowing. Let go of always being right.”

In the breakaway rooms
The breakaway sessions provide attendees with the opportunity to engage in a more intimate setting with a member of the panel. The breakaway group facilitated by Joël Roerig, managing director of CHRO SA was lively, with lots of different issues around learning being brought to the fore.

Everyone who participated agreed that a learning culture is important and that organisations that will survive the upheavals of the Covid-19 pandemic are those that understand this. “Learning impacts the bottom line. Leaders need to ask themselves are we doing enough for existing employees? Are we agile? Leaders also need to provide a safe environment where people can express what is working and what is not working?” said Lameez Subaya.

A learning culture, the group agreed, involves embracing innovation and technology and not holding onto old ways of working. Thabiso Mabusela, human resources generalist at Universal Healthcare said her organisation was forced to take a leap into the digital age during the pandemic.

“There was a big shift in culture in our organisation,” she said “We spent some time wondering how the new ways of work will affect our learning and development programmes. We never thought we would be using online platforms in our development programmes.”

Panellist Kim Skjoldhammer said that part of learning has also been learning about the limitations of technology. “What has been difficult is deepening relationships because we are in a digital world. Small interactions like having lunch together or having a coffee are lost, so we need to look at how we are going to address that in our new hybrid working models. We don’t have all the answers and it’s okay: I am learning that you don’t have to.”

In the chat

Kim Skjoldhammer, Investec: “The ability to experiment and adapt, as well as take into account individual circumstances has been key.”

Sebaki Masilo, Auditor General of South Africa: “Have the rules of communicating changed in the hybrid and digital world?”

Jon Foster-Pedley, Henley Business School: “Sebaki – I think for sure there are new practices to learn – especially authenticity.

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