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The importance of unlearning and relearning in your HR Transformation


By Gianmatteo Masala, Alight Research and Advisory Center
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unlearning and relearning in your HR Transformation

At Alight, we work with many organisations on HR transformation projects. A major part of this is advising on how to manage the change management process. To remain relevant in the 21st-century workforce, we have to relearn how to work. The largely unconscious mind and motor skills we’ve applied until now need to be unlearned and replaced with new ones so we can continue to deliver value to our employers in the fast-evolving digital workplace.

This might sound like an impossible task for us, but it’s something we’ve been doing since the day we were born: unlearning and relearning as our dexterity increased and our environments changed.

They say change is a journey and I can vouch for this! When I first moved to the UK, 10 years ago, together with a group of friends we decided to drive up to Newcastle for a weekend.

Having held a full driving license for more than a decade and being a confident driver, I didn’t think twice about offering to drive. The problem was that I had never driven on the “wrong” side of the road before. Once behind the wheel of a hired car, I realised that very little of what I’d learned or experienced as a driver in Europe would help me in this new endeavor and suddenly my thoughts of a fun weekend were punctuated by a feeling of foreboding.

This is not dissimilar to the dilemma faced by many HR professionals when tasked with “HR Transformation.” Regardless of their commitment, the project failure rate is as high as 70%. The UK driving test pass rate is currently 49%, with a theory test pass rate of 70%, suggesting my road journey was far more of a challenge than many HR transformation projects I’ve been on!

There are several reasons why HR transformation projects have failed, or the pace and effectiveness of change efforts held back. The root causes have often been the failure or unwillingness to exploit innovative technologies, challenge informal processes, or the persistence to resurface old practices where unlearning and relearning should have been applied.

Further clear contenders as to why so many HR transformations fail to deliver on the promise are lack of alignment to the overall business strategy, low user adoption rates, poor choices made at the design stage, and flawed assumptions in the business case.

Look forward not back

The “we’ve always done it this way” story no longer holds up. Except whereas the main inference of the common business parlance is that HR and employees don’t want to behave in an unusual way, I would argue that they can’t. Ditching old behaviors in favor of new ones to ensure any HR transformation delivers to the expectation of all stakeholders is something organisations can’t just expect their people to have.

The ability to unlearn and relearn is still an underrated and overlooked skill in the workplace. More complex skills and experience continue to be considered a better predictor of the likelihood of being successful at an interview or achieving a promotion at work. Yet as the introduction of technology (and related working practices) reduces the lifespan of our expertise, the ability to unlearn and relearn will be increasingly critical for us as individuals and organisations.

Skills transformation

While there is no recipe book for facilitating unlearning and relearning, some steps can be taken to enable individuals to mark their path. That’s where my trip to Newcastle with my friends becomes relevant again.

The first thing you must do when you want to overcome a sticky situation is to realise you have a problem, which in my case, was pretty obvious and I was lucky. No one was forcing me to drive, and I personally relished the opportunity to take on the challenge and so found it easy to embrace. Yes, it was all new, but it was not a big deal because these changes come under conscious intentions to control skilled mental activity.

On the contrary, embracing discomfort when it’s not what you want to do is arguably a skill in itself. So, too, is getting into the habit of asking questions, being curious, and being open to learning and practicing. This does not demonstrate a lack of ability but rather initiative and the striving for personal growth, both attributes in the fast-changing world of work, especially as more technology automates traditional roles and human, soft skills become those sought after by employers.

Ready for the mental challenge ahead

I jump back again. With the rental contract signed and with renewed confidence I went straight to the parking lot to familiarise myself with the car and to rein in any psychological fears. Fear is a primary human response to change. My colleague, Joyce Clark, recently wrote an excellent blog about this, Digital transformation and psychology, in which she details why people resist change.

What I discovered required a good deal of unlearning. The position of the driver, the gear stick, the indicators…the complete act of driving was on the wrong side. In the UK, the left hand is dominant when driving. In the rest of the world, it’s the right. The real problem is from where actions occur automatically. For example, not being able to flick the indicator on and change gear at the same time because in UK you do both actions with your left hand. These must be unlearned.

Do you know your unconscious mind?

Identifying unconscious behaviors at work, particularly in digital transformation, can be trickier because not only don’t you yet know what unconscious mental models you have, but you also don’t yet necessarily know which ones you need moving forward, due to the future-focused nature of business process transformations.

This is where a consulting partner can bring that outside-in view – the psychologists – to identify what might otherwise be missed and to help you understand the impact of your transformation on current practices while assuring you of your battle against your psychological unsafety about the change.

Design away your transformation concerns

During the design phase, it is possible to identify and address any conscious or unconscious behaviors. It’s essential to include all stakeholders in this process and to fully understand their current challenges and understand what no-holds-barred, best-case scenarios would look like.

One particularly effective way to facilitate unlearning and relearning in a safe environment is to identify a focus group of HR professional across the function and then ask them to work through several real-life scenarios (from the most transactional ones, such as submitting an approval to a promotion to supporting a talent review for the business), and ask them to identify what difference practices and processes should be adopted to support the goals of the transformation. From here, everyone can agree that this is the way forward and the roadmap can be agreed upon – fears allayed.

Start off in the slow lane

After a less-than-smooth start to the journey, as I hit the dangers of the motorway it became glaringly apparent that my unconscious mind wanted to take me back to my safety zone, which in this case would be far from safe, but it was also at this point that I could really start to internalise all the newly learned behaviors. In the context of an HR or payroll transformation project, reverting would not achieve the outcomes the project team had set out and presented to those invested in the successful outcome.

It is for this reason that HR transformations go through a phase of hyper-care where there is a strong focus on making sure the technology keeps running and new practices start to embed.

During this period, the pace is slower than usual to allow for relearning. This is more efficient with the help of a project team and a carefully planned training and comms strategy. Knowledge has to trickle through to all users in the organisation, front and back office, user or end-user.

Change management holds the key to success

Running an HR transformation is like allowing your organisation to learn to drive a right-drive car for the first time in a rental company parking lot, as opposed to taking it for a ride on the passenger seat and swapping in a lay-by in the motorway.

HR transformations, when fully realised, can deliver company-wide value to organisations, provided the skills are available to unlock these. So far, HR has been left relatively unscathed from the skills mismatch driven by technology that has affected some sectors, but, with the rise of cloud HR processes, the business case for which became obvious during lockdowns, this situation is rapidly changing.

Central to the concept of change and transformation, and therefore of delivering value, is the capacity to come to terms with the uncomfortableness, unlearn old behaviors and mental schemes in favor of new ones.

There is a basic concept that has helped me explain many social situations ever since I attended Sociology at University. A culture, or custom, of any groups of individuals is driven by two basic concepts: a repetitive behavior, replicated over and over until it becomes the norm, as well as the belief that such behavior is the right thing to do. The culture of unlearning and relearning is no exception to this rule.

HR has a dual responsibility here – to make unlearning and relearning a central part of work-life and to set an example by affecting the changes so the rest of the organisation follows, hopefully achieving a Pavlovian response. As with the project planning stage of your HR transformation, it is often advisable to get outside help with change management.

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