Tuesday, March 26, 2019

When age is not just a number!

“Though it is not written in the job specifications, we have been asked by the client to look for a candidate below 45 years of age for the CHRO role”, said the executive search consultant who was asking for a reference.

“We decided to make the job offer to this particular candidate mainly because she was younger as compared to the other equally good candidates. We wanted to hire someone who can be developed into more senior level leadership roles. We want to be able to see the ‘next to next role’ for the candidate before we make a hiring decision.”, said the business leader.

These days, it not so rare to come across statements like ones above.  They make me wonder if they demonstrate some sort of ‘ageism’ at the workplace or if there are other more ‘rational’ reasons involved! Is age the issue or is it being used as a (convenient) ‘proxy’ for other factors?

The typical 'reasons' why someone comes up with a statement like the first one (the one made by the executive search consultant)  include things like ‘decision to bring in younger candidates at the CXO level as part of a business transformation exercise’ , ‘the other CXOs being in the same age bracket’ , ‘a workforce that is predominantly Gen Y’, ‘the need to bring in fresh thinking at senior levels’ etc.  It is true that the experience range specified for many roles is coming down. Now there is a greater emphasis on learning agility as opposed to experience. Also, knowledge can be acquired much faster these days.  It is also possible that the older (more experienced) candidates are more costly. Yes, there could also be cases where long years of experience is assumed to create some sort of rigidity and lack of flexibility/appetite for risk taking/creativity/tech-savviness.

One is more likely to come across statements similar to the second one (the one made by the business leader) in MNCs. Having greater runway left for the career is indeed valued especially in those cases where there is a fixed retirement age. Yes, there are still some traditional companies where higher number of years of experience is an advantage. This brings up an interesting question – Isn’t the very concept of a ‘mandatory retirement age’ (which is the norm in both private and government organizations in countries like India) a clear sign of ageism?

In domains like HR, there is an even more basic question that we need to look at – ‘’Do organizations have many HR jobs that would require a level of expertise which would take more than 20 years to develop?”. If the answer is “No”, then it creates a fundamental issue for the bulk of the HR professionals who are in the 20+ years’ experience range.  Of course, there would be many senior HR professionals would continue to grow in their career within business organizations. But, here we are talking about career options available to bulk of the population - HR professionals with 20+ years’ of experience  within business organizations. There is also the dimension of motivation and meaning, apart from that of just being employed (Please see ‘Truth and Beauty: Motivations and Elegance in HR’ and ‘If you hang around in HR for too long’ for more details).  

I do wonder what this means for mid-career professionals. There is always the risk that one can get replaced with someone who is more in line with the evolving requirement of the job and/or at a lower cost. The text book answer to this kind of a problem is that one constantly learns(keep the skill set relevant), takes up roles of increasing responsibility (where the experience adds value) and ensures that one’s contribution to the organization is much higher than one’s salary cost. This is a must especially in those  situations where the company can bill a person in particular role only at a particular rate and hence there is no economic sense in employing a person unless the loaded salary cost is significantly lower than the billing rate.  There is merit in the advice that one should try to revise one’s resume once in six months and if one is unable to make significant additions to the resume in two such cycles, one should look for a role change internally or externally. Of course, all these are easier said than done!

We do see an increasing number of mid-career professionals taking up consulting/freelancing kind of options. The trouble is just that majority of those mid-career professionals are unlikely to earn at least as much as they were earning in their regular job. Yes, there are a few who make it really big. There are also quite a few who use this opportunity to reinvent themselves and configure some sort of ‘portfolio life and career’ that is more aligned to their higher calling or more conducive to their self-actualization journey.

Any thoughts/comments?

Friday, March 8, 2019

The paradox of unlearning

"Repeated cycles of Learning, Unlearning and Relearning is a must for survival today!", thundered the sage on the stage at the HR conference. "Is it even possible to unlearn?", I wondered.

I am in complete agreement with the position that in an ever changing environment, we constantly need to learn new things. The question in my mind was only about the necessity and feasibility of unlearning. When I persisted with this question for a while, this entire matter of unlearning seemed to get increasingly paradoxical.  

So, what is paradoxical about unlearning? As we have seen earlier, a paradox occurs when there are multiple perspectives/opinions (doxa) that exist alongside (para)- each of which is true - but they appear to contradict/to be in conflict with one another. Now, let us look at some of the opinions about unlearning

  1. Unlearning is as natural as learning.
  1. Unlearning is simply impossible. You can't really remove something from your mind unless there is some sort of brain damage or extreme forms of mind control (like ‘brainwashing’)!
  1. New knowledge replaces old knowledge as individuals learn more; much like overwriting. It is not considered to be the same as forgetting, where information is lost regardless of its usefulness.
  1. Change in a particular behavior does not in fact remove the learning altogether; it simply reduces the likelihood of the behavior in certain contexts. Hence, the proposal that new learning ‘overwrites’ old learning is problematic.  
  1. Existing knowledge or behaviors interfere with learning and, therefore, unlearning  needs to happen before new learning can occur.
  1. Unlearning and learning occur simultaneously.
  1. The distinction between learning, unlearning and relearning is arbitrary. 
  1. Unlearning itself is very valuable. It allows us to see things as they really are. The essence of unlearning is about 'emptying' and not about 'emptying so that we can fill it up'.
  1. Unlearning should not be viewed as an end in itself. It is just an intermediate step in learning.
  1. Unlearning is not about forgetting. It’s about the ability to choose an alternative mental model or paradigm. When we unlearn, we step outside the current mental model in order to choose a different one.
  1. We are usually unconscious of our mental models and that makes unlearning difficult. Also, we tend to view the new model through the lens of the old and that makes switching models even more difficult.
  1. We don't have to worry about unlearning. Moving towards the new learning would automatically take us away from the old learning(and hence unlearning would happen automatically). Individuals learn new ways of choosing a response to a particular situation, rather than unlearning a particular response.
So, how do we resolve this?  

Even though there is quite a bit of discussion about unlearning these days, there are few theories confirmed by empirical evidence to identify how individuals unlearn and what factors may influence this unlearning. So we have to look at other options. One such option is to look at the underlying definition of 'learning' when we talk about unlearning.

If we define learning as 'acquiring knowledge', then unlearning is not possible (in the sense that it can't be forgotten) and also not even necessary (unless the existing knowledge was wrong or misleading, in which case it can be modified keeping in mind the new knowledge). When new knowledge is acquired,  the old knowledge is not erased, but maintained (‘in parentheses’) for situations where it is believed that the new knowledge does not apply.

If we look at learning as essentially a 'sense-making process' (where individuals interpret and create meaning of their experiences) and not as a 'fact gathering process', unlearning is about modifying the way we ‘make sense’ (see ‘architects of meaning’ for a related discussion).

If we define learning as 'sustainable change in behavior', then new behavior can just replace old behavior. The only case where  unlearning is required would be that of conditioned responses that interfere with learning new behaviors.  Some of these conditioned responses have roots in the underlying (unconscious) mental models. We are often operating with mental models that have grown outdated or obsolete.  It takes unlearning to see the model as only one if possibilities and not as the only possibility. So unlearning is not mainly about replacing one mental model with another; it is about having the ability to consciously chose from a range of mental models based on which is more appropriate in a given situation.

Unlearning is a process as opposed to a discrete event. The process of unlearning is about liberation from the conditioning. It involves intentional evaluation of self, task and the environment to determine if a change in the current behavior is necessary and possible. Mindfulness, ability to read contextual cues, openness to explore other possibilities and meta-cognitive ability are key enablers for this unlearning process.

It is also interesting to look at why there is so much interest in unlearning. It is probably because of the assumption that new learning can’t happen unless unlearning happens. As we saw earlier, this is not necessarily the case – except in the case of conditioned responses that create rigidity and impact 'learnability'.  Another key reason for the interest in unlearning is the belief that unlearning is essential for promoting innovation and for enabling organizations to respond more effectively to unanticipated change or crisis events (by to recognizing and modifying previous habits, approaches and behaviors that are no longer optimal).

Unlearning can happen at both the individual (assumptions, mental models, habits, response patterns etc.) and at the organization level (beliefs, paradigms, norms, rules, procedures, strategies etc.). While the unlearning at individual and organization levels can reinforce each other, they can also happen independently. For example, organizational unlearning can occur in the absence of individual unlearning through the removal of key influencers. Yes, it is important to look at the interface between individual and organizational learning in order to better understand and manage the interactions.

In a way, constant unlearning and relearning is a wasteful process. It is more efficient to modify or re-purpose old learning where possible(like a software 'update' as opposed to 'uninstall and reinstall'). Hence, relearning is better described as refocused learning (as opposed to replacing old learning with new learning). Individuals learn new ways of choosing a response to a particular situation, rather than unlearning a particular response. The focus is on modifying the response to be more effective and not on replacing one response with another (which might not necessarily lead to better outcomes). Hence, relearning is not antithetical to learning (it can happen without unlearning) and it is in fact more like learning that is made more appropriate to the current context! 

All adult learning involves relating new information with existing information and thereby modifying the existing understanding. Hence, there is no requirement for a ‘clean slate’ or ‘empty vessel’ (unlearning!) to enable new learning. Even in case of children, it seems a bit weird to suggest that a child has to unlearn 'crawling' before the child can learn 'walking'!

If we stick with the behavioral definition of 'learning' (as 'sustainable change in behavior'), adopting a new pattern of behavior is just 'learning' and hence we can even argue that the concepts of unlearning and relearning are not really required (except in the cases of brainwashing and cognitive impairment, respectively) and that they might be even misleading! Of course, we can examine and work on any possible impediments and enablers to learning in a particular context.

Any thoughts/suggestions?