Consider this: Every second, the Web grows by 17 pages and, according to some sources, the world has generated more data in the past 30 years than it did in the preceding 5,000 years. The challenge then is not only to learn what you need to know but also to unlearn what you no longer need. That means eliminating the habits, practices, and assumptions that once worked — even those that may have accounted for past successes — to make room for new methods that better fit your new circumstances. So, in this Information Age, how do you keep up with all of that, well, information? We asked 12 experts to help us better understand the lessons of learning and unlearning. Read about their thoughts, and then draft your own lesson plan.
John Seely Brown
Palo Alto, California
The more success you achieve — either as an individual or as an organization — the more difficult it is to change. All of the learning that led to one kind of success becomes implicitly coded and works against your ability to unlearn. The challenge then becomes how to uncover those deeply ingrained assumptions. One way is to create what I call knowledge ecologies — to cultivate diverse opinions and skills. To do that, my senior team and I have a two-hour lunch every Friday where we reflect on what we did well, what we did wrong, and what we can learn from it all.
Some of what is said to me at those meetings isn't too pleasant to hear. As a leader, I could be the team's biggest obstacle in the unlearning process. Each of us can send out signals — by raising our voices, squinting our eyes, stiffening our bodies — that block open conversation and shut people down. To try to curb those signals, I started videotaping important meetings to see exactly how I acted and what subliminal cues I sent out.
But one of my most dramatic unlearning experiences had nothing to do with work. I used to be a fanatic about motorcycling: I've toured in more than 30 countries. But I had to give it up, because my reflexes started to go. Two years ago, however, I realized that the computer-driven brake systems of the new high-performance bikes actually could restore some of my lost reaction time.
But I promised my wife that I would take professional lessons before getting back on the road. At first, the thought of lessons appalled me, but then I assumed that I would breeze through them — no problem. The reality? I was reduced to a twitching heap because, at first, I simply could not unlearn the innate skills that I had always relied on — such as how you swerve or shift your weight. Once I relaxed, got rid of my ego, and accepted the fact that I was going to look profoundly foolish, my mind unfroze, and I learned how to ride again.
John Seely Brown (firstname.lastname@example.org) is director of Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) as well as the cofounder of the Institute for Research on Learning. He recently returned from a 7,500-mile motorcycle trip throughout the United States.
President and CEO
Doing business on the Internet has forced me to unlearn everything I knew about anything. During my years at Procter & Gamble, I learned a logical, process-oriented, methodical way of introducing and marketing new products. We were indoctrinated in the four "Ps" of marketing — product, packaging, price, promotion — and in product testing to the nth degree within a very hierarchical structure.
When I started Peapod, I took a very "P&G approach" to everything: We did a lot of testing, started in a small market, and expanded slowly. But what I thought I knew about bringing products to market, managing people, and making decisions in the brick-and-mortar world all fell apart in the Internet world. For instance, packaging is not nearly as important as the information about the product that's put on the screen. And as we adjusted to the Web's demands for quicker decision making and quicker implementation, we also found ourselves failing a lot. I've had to learn to become comfortable with a continual-improvement approach of doing business and to leave behind the perfect up-front approach I learned at P&G.
I also now realize that the processes — picking, packing, delivering groceries — that work today in one centralized distribution center, where we're doing $30 million worth of business, aren't going to work when we're doing $100 million worth of business. Our model will always be evolving. I'm a pretty anal guy, and learning how to evolve as our model evolves hasn't always been easy. But learning that lesson is vital.
Andrew Parkinson (email@example.com) and his brother Thomas founded Peapod in 1989. it is now the leading online grocer, serving 98,000 members in eight metropolitan markets. Previously, Parkinson held various positions at Kraft Foods and Procter & Gamble.
Dee W. Hock
Founder and CEO Emeritus
You can't unlearn anything. Most of what organizations call "unlearning" is superficial — just slapping a new label on an old can of beans. We are what we experience and learn. We learn how to view the world and make sense of it. What we learn makes us who we are. We can't unlearn that. That learning process helps us gradually, and usually unconsciously, compose an internal model of reality — our perspective. Unfortunately, perspective is a fun-house mirror: It distorts and discolors everything we see, learn, and experience. Perspective warps our perception and makes it difficult to view things accurately or conceive of them in new ways. It is the Achilles' heel of the mind.
When external events — the world around us — change and no longer fit our internal model, we start to blunder. Life gets messy. We become confused, stressed, and anxious. Rather than alter our perspective, we try to force others to conform to it.
We tend to fall in love with the things that we think are true. We treasure those truths. Gradually, they become old and shabby, and they lose their utility. But they are comfortable, and we can't bear to part with them. We clutter our mind with so much old stuff that there is no room for anything new. We can't discard mental "stuff." But we can create a mental attic and put a sign on the door that says, "Things I know that are no longer so." Call all those old, best-loved ideas into question. Until you understand your thinking about a certain thing, you'll never change. So question that habit of mind, and lug it into the attic if it's no longer useful. Don't try to get rid of it; just refuse to dwell within it any longer.
Change is not about understanding new things or having new ideas; it's about seeing old things with new eyes — from different perspectives. Change is not about reorganizing, reengineering, reinventing, recapitalizing. It's about reconceiving! When you reconceive something — a thought, a situation, a corporation, a product — you create a whole new order. Do that, and creativity will flood your mind.
Change can be exhilarating, joyous, liberating. But it can also be terrifying, because, in a deeper sense, you are questioning your very identity and sense of value. But take the risk. It's worth it.
Dee Hock (firstname.lastname@example.org) guided the Visa organization through several innovations. He also founded the Chaordic Alliance, a global enterprise that links people and organizations in an effort to develop, disseminate, and implement more effective and equitable models for commercial, political, and social institutions.
President and CEO
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania
I'm 29 years old, and I run a $100 million public company. What did I know walking into all of this? Not much.
I started CDnow with my twin brother, Matthew, in the basement of our parents' home. But the company's gangbuster growth has forced me to change my entrepreneurial mind-set and to unlearn a lot of habits and beliefs that were integral to its initial success. One such belief was the infamous entrepreneur's mantra: If you don't do it, it won't get done right. But now, as CEO, I've learned that my role is less about what I can do and more about what the organization can do. That fundamental change in my beliefs led to a fundamental change in my behavior. For instance, instead of going straight to the crisis of the moment, rolling up my sleeves, and telling everyone what to do, I now wait for the people involved to come tell me their solution.
My most telling moment happened about two years ago. My own brother forbade me to modify a piece of code that I'd written to resize the album-cover graphics on the company's Web site. As head of our technology group, he told me that I had no right to disturb his team's process. Of course, he was right. But it was a hard pill to swallow.
More recently, we completed a successful merger with N2K Inc. — CDnow's fiercest competitor for the past several years. There's nothing like a good M&A to force some serious reevaluation. I saw that most clearly in our decision-making processes. At N2K, decisions are made closer to the troops, which makes it a nimble organization — except when those decisions aren't integrated effectively at the top. In our process, decisions travel far up the chain of command, which sometimes slows us down — but that also means decisions are accepted throughout the whole organization. We've started the process of unlearning that either one of those ways is always the best. And that has allowed us to learn how to blend the best of both worlds.
Jason Olim (email@example.com) cofounded CDnow with his brother in 1994. CDnow, the Web's fourth-most-visited site, offers its 2 million customers more than 500,000 RealAudio sound samples and more than 500,000 music-related items, which make up a vast library of reviews, news, and features.
Founder and president
Henry Higgins of Hollywood Inc.
West Toluca Lake, California
There's one profession that requires an agility and proficiency in unlearning: That profession is acting. Actors are faced continually with the challenge of unlearning how they speak — and then learning new accents and dialects. But it's very difficult for the ear to hear a sound that the mouth is not in the habit of producing. And it's also very difficult for the mouth to produce a sound that the ear is not in the habit of hearing. After years of working with actors, I've formulated "Easton's First Law": People in every community feel certain that the way they act, think, walk, and talk is the "natural" way. Once people learn something, they're reluctant to let it go. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the way people speak.
When trying to unlearn a speech pattern, people tend to impose their own intonation patterns and permutations of sound on the target dialect. I blast them out of this by exposing them to a realm of sounds outside of the familiar ones that they know and cherish. Only then do those habits begin to disappear. But I never approach this process by telling them what they need to unlearn. Rather, I stress what they need to learn. It's a small distinction with huge ramifications.
People learn in three different ways. Some are very "ear minded," or auditory. They can hear something and repeat it with almost tape-recorder fidelity. Robin Williams is a great example of that. For his role in "Good Will Hunting," we worked on perfecting a very subtle Boston accent. All we did was to sit together and talk. He has a phenomenal ear.
Others rely on their visual competence. Charlton Heston is a wonderful example of what I call "eye mindedness." He would send me his scripts, and I'd respell his dialogue for him in a visual transliteration that we had agreed on — what we called "Easton's Half-Assed Respelling." He learned by seeing. And some people I teach kinesthetically: I tell them exactly what to do with their mouths, when to vibrate their vocal chords, how to move their jaws to produce a particular sound.
Everyone has a different style and approach to learning. But no matter how a person learns, it's important to remember what French physiologist Claude Bernard said: "It's what we think we know already that often prevents us from learning."
Robert Easton is known In Hollywood as the Dialect Doctor and as the Mr. Fix-it of Phonemes. He has cured accents and strengthened dialects for thousands of actors, including Bruce Willis, Denzel Washington, Natasha Richardson, Al Pacino, Jane Fonda, and Tom Hanks. Easton, one of radio's original "Quiz Kids," has also appeared in hundreds of films and television shows.
Consultant, Writer, and Speaker
Many organizations harbor an underlying assumption: Change is the province of some "official change group" that surely must exist in an obscure department somewhere in the company. In other words, it's someone else's task to create the "learning organization." But real learning and change require you to become a participant-observer in your own environment — that you stop what you're doing, step back, look, and then challenge every thought and practice that perpetuate outdated mind-sets, from training programs to Power-Point presentations.
Xerox had a horrible process for promotion. Each year, everyone in the organization had to fill out reams of paperwork about what they wanted to be when they grew up. You had to list your one-year, three-year, and five-year goals. And you had to name specific positions that you were shooting for. Well, whose life ever unfolds according to a five-year plan — or even a one-year plan? That practice was absurd — but one that we all completed like mules.
Finally, I said, "I'm not going to do this anymore. This process perpetuates the type of organization that I don't want to work for." So, for a few years, my boss, a good corporate soldier, filled out the paperwork for me. Other people soon caught on to the absurdity, and eventually everyone on my team quit doing it. Then I got a call from someone in HR who admitted that only 35% of all employees complied with the process. When that HR person asked me to start filling out the paperwork again, I told him that everyone knew that being promoted at Xerox had nothing to do with all that paper. To make a long story short, Xerox bagged the process.
Thinking creates the structures that create an organization's behavior. Learn how to rethink, and you start to change.
Chris Turner (firstname.lastname@example.org) was Xerox Business Services's "Learning Person" and a key player in its cultural transformation. Turner created the innovative and experimental "learning laboratories" and a summer-camp-like experience called "Camp Lur'ning." she has just completed a book, "All Hat & No Cattle" (Perseus Books), about the nature of institutions.
London Business School
The best learning takes place through play. I am not talking about playing with Nerf balls and hula hoops. Rather, I'm talking about playing with representations of reality. This approach to learning is not new, but it's underused in the management world.
Think about it: In product development, whenever the stakes are high — for instance, when human life is at risk — learning is done and decisions are made through play. Airplanes are never built, cars are never made, oil platforms are never constructed without first building and playing with models. And through that prototyping process, people learn how to do things.
Play is the best way to learn, because the learners do not fear the consequences of their thoughts and actions. In the end, they know that they are only playing with a representation of reality and not with reality itself. But that is the exact opposite of the way we managers normally make decisions. Instead, we sit around trying to construct reality itself while weighing the consequences. Fear of the consequences — or fear of one another — dominates the process. The result: reduced imagination and increased stagnation.
Arie de Geus worked at Royal Dutch/Shell for more than 30 years. He served as coordinator for Group Planning and in several other capacities. He is the author of "The Living Company: Habits for Survival in a Turbulent Business Environment" (Harvard Business School Press, 1997).
W.S. "Ozzie" Osborne
IBM Speech Systems
West Palm Beach, Florida
I've been at IBM for more than three decades. I was taught to believe that product development consisted of four ironclad, sequential steps: design, develop, test, and then enter the marketplace. That process had been deeply ingrained in me. But, obviously, the Internet has changed everything. Now you develop a product quickly, take it to market for customer testing and evaluation, and then get customer feedback to continue with development. That's a huge shift.
In 1997, I took over the speech group, which was doing things much faster than I was. I had just come from the hardware side of IBM, and my programming days had long since passed. But what allowed me to adjust to a new way of operating was trust — in my team and in my gut. When it comes to any learning process, trust is one of the most critical ingredients.
Ozzie Osborne (email@example.com) directs R&D, finance, marketing, and sales and strategy for IBM's human-interface technologies. He was an integral member of the team that developed the PC/AT and the PC LAN.
Jeffrey B. Swartz
President and CEO
Stratham, New Hampshire
People have enormous emotional and practical investments in what once worked. It's risky to admit that the processes that you've worked so hard to perfect may no longer be valid. But the most relevant thing about yesterday is not what you did, but how you did it. Long ago, I stopped trying to predict tomorrow's problems or the forces that may compel us to do things differently in the future. Instead, I've realized that success relies solely on our ability to learn.
As a leader, one of the biggest things I've learned is that I don't always have to be right. I used to feel that the only way to justify my egregious salary was to tell people what to do. I don't let myself do that anymore. Instead, I leave people alone and trust that they'll come up with a suitable solution — and, in turn, that process perpetuates a learning environment.
For instance, we've been trying to create a day-care program at Timberland. Several years ago, I commissioned outside people to design a program. They came back with a model that no one wanted. But at a company rally recently, a woman asked me what I was going to do about day care. I told her that I was not going to do anything about it. My kids are getting older, and they don't need day care. The place went silent. But then I said that if she needs day care and if it's relevant for the company, then she should let me know what she wants to do about it.
So what did she do? She organized a group that polled other employees, researched the cost of a day-care program, and identified where the funding would come from. Then she held a meeting to present the group's case to me. When I asked her why she had invited me to the meeting, she said, "To applaud." That meeting was spectacular! The group still has some issues to work out before the program is implemented, but the way the group tackled the problem was amazing. All I did was to move out of the way.
Jeffrey B. Swartz (firstname.lastname@example.org) has grown Timberland from a $156 million company to an $862 million global footwear and apparel company. Operating under the belief that a company can do well and do good, Swartz has also developed a social-enterprise department in the company and has created a program in which all employees receive 40 hours of paid leave to perform community service.
Senior VP and COO
National Public Radio
To learn anything, you have to question everything. For years, NPR functioned like a government agency, and, in 1983, it almost went bankrupt. Back then, leadership needed to drop anchor and to patch up all the holes. But over the past several years, we've started pulling up the anchors that have kept us from getting anywhere.
We've needed to start questioning what we do and how we do it: Why are we still distributing a certain program? Who's our audience? Why do we produce this program that way? All that might sound like a no-brainer; but for a business that often functions like an insular government agency, this is hard-core learning. We've also found that asking tons of questions leads us to an evolving set of answers.
For instance, one of our most popular news shows is "All Things Considered." The show used to start on the East Coast at 5 p.m. and end at 6:30 p.m. Then several stations asked a simple question: Why not start the show at 4 p.m.? Because, they argued, that's when drive time begins on the East Coast — and when listeners would tune in to hear the show. Altering the starting time of the show may sound like a minor change. But it had huge implications for the structure and processes that had been in place.
So, in our usual way, we hemmed and hawed about the issue. Some argued that, as a nonprofit company, we didn't have a heap of capital to invest in change. We had developed a mind-set of waiting — waiting for somebody to write us a check before we made a move. Finally, we told everyone to just do it: Plan for the change by a certain date, and we would make sure that the resources were in place. The process of unlearning traditional ways of approaching and solving problems takes time — and it's hard. I've lost a lot of hair over this. In fact, when I started this job I had a full head of hair, and now I'm going bald. Go figure.
Peter Jablow (email@example.com) joined NPR, a nonprofit radio network, in 1995. NPR has nearly 600 member stations and can be heard in all 50 states as well as in the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and Guam. From 1989 to 1991, Jablow was CEO of Ticketron.
Chairman and CEO
New York, New York
No school can teach you how to do business in today's world. Instead, companies have to rely on their own internal-learning practices to succeed. Everyone is capable of reinventing themselves and their businesses. And the one thing that people really want to be assured of is that it's all right to spend time thinking crazy thoughts — and that those thoughts will be taken seriously by their companies. Create this environment, and watch where imagination can lead you.
With such diverse media, our advertisers have changed what they want from us over the past year — which has forced our corporate sales team through some radical renovation. The sales group realized that, because of their traditional ways of operating, they were missing opportunities. So they started creating ad-hoc marketing teams that formed and dissolved around specific issues or opportunities.
We now call that method the "sales 360 approach." Everyone has at least two jobs: managing standard-issue accounts, and being ready to jump on an opportunity with people from various parts of the company. We're careful not to codify any of this. Basically, if you give people the space and the support to learn and to change, they will.
Eric Hippeau joined Ziff-Davis as the publisher of PC Magazine in 1989. Since then, he has built the Internet-media company into a powerhouse that includes the popular Web site ZDNet, as well as more than 100 magazine titles worldwide, an online university, and, most recently, Comdex, the leading computer trade show.
1998 National Teacher of the Year
Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology
Fairfax County, Virginia
You can't be an effective teacher unless you're a constant learner. One thing that was the most difficult for me to unlearn was how to teach. Teachers are no longer the sage on the stage, imparting knowledge to a group of passive kids. To be effective now, I don't have to be "the authority." Rather, I need to let kids explore learning themselves. I might see a quicker way of getting from point A to point B, but the knowledge that kids gain is fundamentally richer when they get there on their own.
I used to try to control my students' learning by insisting on certain processes. For instance, I would require students to show me note cards on their research papers. It was how I checked up on their work — and how I made sure that they were doing it my way. Then, one day, a group of students refused to do it my way; it just wasn't how they did things. I had failed to understand those kids' natural motivation and creativity. Now I can accept and appreciate that students' products are their answers, not their processes.
Philip Bigler (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches history and humanities at Thomas Jefferson High, a magnet school for science and technology. Bigler began teaching more than 20 years ago. He has also served as historian for Arlington National Cemetery, and he has written four books, including "Hostile Fire: The Life and Death of First Lieutenant Sharon Lane" (Vandamere Press, 1996).
A version of this article appeared in the JulyAugust 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.