Why Unlearning Matters? How to Unlearn?

Today we welcome Makoto Matsuo, a professor in the Graduate School of Economics and Business Administration at Hokkaido University and author of “Critical reflection, unlearning, and engagement,” which was published in Management Learning (Vol. 50 No. 4) . The abstract appears below.

Although individual unlearning is believed to play a critical role in promoting higher-order learning, there has been little quantitative research on this process. This article aimed to investigate the antecedents and consequences of individual unlearning based on transformative learning theory. A survey was conducted among 301 employees working in various occupations and organizations in the United States. The results of structural equation modeling indicated that unlearning mediated the relationship between critical reflection and work engagement and that critical reflection mediated reflection and unlearning. This study contributes to the literature by quantitatively demonstrating the direct and indirect influences of critical reflection on work engagement through individual unlearning, which has been discussed only conceptually and qualitatively in the extant transformative learning literature.

What motivated you to pursue this research?

The importance of unlearning, or abandoning obsolete beliefs, values, knowledge, and routines, for the growth of both organizations and individuals, is generally well-known in management learning and human resource fields. Although unlearning is believed to play a significant role in higher-order learning, prior studies have neglected the process at the individual level. Furthermore, I found most of the previous research has been carried out in qualitative perspectives on the antecedents and consequences of individual unlearning.

Flip open the textbook from a different approach, this study quantitatively investigated the effects of reflection, which focuses on problem solving, as well as critical reflection, which reassesses our taken-for-granted assumptions on individual unlearning. More interestingly, why unlearning matters? I made my ultimate research focus on work engagement. 

In what ways is your research innovate, and how do you think it will impact the field?

Makoto Matsuo

My research is based on a survey data with 301 employees working in various occupations and organizations in the U.S. First, I have double-confirmed the positive relationship between critical reflection and unlearning with a substantial value, plus another quantitatively positive results toward work engagement. On top of that, while (general) reflection has well been known but not being paid too much attention to, it does contribute a fundamental trigger toward critical reflection. Perhaps, it may be considered as a tiny breakthrough for HR professionals to further reinforce their training and development programs.

Besides, I extended the research on the relationship between unlearning and work engagement. Previous studies have found that unlearning could be stressful and frustrating, but by showing the outcome in terms of work engagement, I found a quite satisfactory value to prove that unlearning should not be worrisome.

What did not make it into your published manuscript that you would like to share with us?

The effect of critical reflection on unlearning was already confirmed in my previous paper with a different research model using a survey data of employees in Japanese firms (Matsuo, M. (2018) “Goal orientation, critical reflection, and unlearning: An individual-level study.” Human Resource Development Quarterly, 29, 49-66). This suggests that the critical reflection – unlearning relationship can be generalized across different countries as well as different working cultures. In addition, the above paper describes that critical reflection was promoted by learning goal orientation. By combining these two papers, we can say that learning goal orientation promotes critical reflection which leads to unlearning, resulting in higher work engagement.

Business & Management INK
Ed. Note: The blog Business and Management INK, which for years has presented insights drawn from academic papers appearing in SAGE Publishing’s top-flight journals on business and management, is re-locating to Social Science Space. All posts appear HERE.
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