Forget Unlearning? How an Empirically Unwarranted Concept from Psychology was Imported to Flourish in Management and Organisation Studies

John Howells & Joachim Scholderer, 2016, Management Learning, vol 47, 4, pp. 443-463. DOI:10.1177/1350507615624079

Posted: 25 May 2010 Last revised: 24 Feb 2017

See all articles by John Howells

John Howells

Aarhus University

Joachim Scholderer

Arhus University; University of Zurich

Date Written: February 29, 2016

Abstract

We provide a critique of the development in organisation studies of the idea of ‘unlearning’ as allegedly imported from the psychology literature by Hedberg and understood to mean the manageable discard of knowledge precedent to and aiding later learning. We re-review the psychology literature and in contrast to Hedberg, find that this definition of unlearning is not empirically warranted. We re-examine a selection of highly cited articles in the organisational literature that claim to have conducted empirical research into the Hedberg model of unlearning. We find none provide evidence of its existence. Typically, under the label ‘unlearning’ evidence is provided of a conventional process of theory-change, the setting aside (not deletion) of an established understanding in favour of new understanding when presented with perceived new facts. In all cases that we examine, clear alternative and less problematic concepts should provide a better conceptual framework for the research, such as learning, theory-change, discard of practice and extinction. It follows that the unlearning literature is not in fact the independent, scholarly and scientific literature that many of its adherents believe it to be. We recommend that for concepts allegedly imported from other disciplines more frequent commissioning of cross-disciplinary reviews may encourage the critical works so obviously lacking in the unlearning literature.

Keywords: unlearning, organisational unlearning, learning, discard of practice, routines, extinction

JEL Classification: D23, D83, O32

Suggested Citation

Howells, John and Scholderer, Joachim, Forget Unlearning? How an Empirically Unwarranted Concept from Psychology was Imported to Flourish in Management and Organisation Studies (February 29, 2016). John Howells & Joachim Scholderer, 2016, Management Learning, vol 47, 4, pp. 443-463. DOI:10.1177/1350507615624079, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1309525

John Howells (Contact Author)

Aarhus University ( email )

Department of Management
Bartholins Alle, 10
Aarhus, 8000
Denmark
004587165102 (Phone)

HOME PAGE: http://pure.au.dk/portal/en/joh@asb.dk

Joachim Scholderer

Arhus University ( email )

Department of Economics and Business Economics
Fuglesangs Allé 4
Århus V, 8210
Denmark
+45 871 65019 (Phone)

HOME PAGE: http://person.au.dk/js@econ.au.dk

University of Zurich ( email )

CCRS
Zähringerstrasse 24
Zurich, 8001
Switzerland
+41 44 634 40 61 (Phone)

HOME PAGE: http://www.ccrs.uzh.ch

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