Unlearning and Forgetting

As we discussed above, researchers have generally taken one of two approaches to knowledge loss. On the one hand, a number of writers have adopted Peters’ approach and point to the importance of unlearning (Hedberg, 1981; Lyles, 1988) in breaking the inertia of past learning in the face of environmental change (Hannan and Freeman, 1984; Miller, 1993, 1994; Miller and Friesen, 1980; Romanelli and Tushman, 1986; Rumelt, 1995). Unlearning from this perspective is understood as a voluntary effort to rid the organization of knowledge that is no longer needed. This argument highlights the fact that organizations must somehow unlearn old routines and practices in order to learn new and more appropriate ways of doing things.

On the other hand, writers have also argued that organizations may forget accidentally; that is, knowledge may be lost without any explicit desire to eliminate the knowledge from the organization. Authors have documented how an organization’s pool of knowledge may dissipate rapidly and unintentionally (Argote, Beckman, and Epple, 1990; Darr et al., 1995; Epple et al., 1991), and how this involuntary forgetting can have serious negative effects on productivity, profitability, and competitiveness (Argote, 1999: 60). We will consider these two views in the following subsections.


In discussions of unlearning, it is often argued that organizations must unlearn old practices in order to allow them to learn new ways of doing things. Learning ...

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