The following post was written by guest blogger: Tracy Lowrance.

Whether it’s new or existing knowledge, the deliberate removal of information from an organization’s stocks of knowledge can create a competitive advantage. The first blog in this series, When Forgetting is Good, explored the concept of unlearning and how intentionally forgetting existing knowledge can provide a strategic advantage to organizations. In the second part of this series I will explore another aspect of organizational forgetting: avoiding bad habits. Avoiding bad habits is the intentional forgetting of new knowledge. Simply put it’s an organization’s ability to swiftly forget those behaviors considered counterproductive before they become embedded in the organization and thereby adversely impact competitiveness.


The Double Edged Sword of Learning

While learning in general is thought to be a good thing, there is a downside; routines, processes, and values can all be bad habits an organization learns. Organizations must be able to distinguish between the knowledge that is useful and would-be bad habits. Identifying and intentionally forgetting counterproductive knowledge before it becomes entrenched in the organization’s memory requires the ability to make this distinction and to be diligent regarding its removal. 

Collaboration and apprenticeship is commonly considered an essential process for transferring and enhancing knowledge throughout an organization. There is an inherent assumption the knowledge being shared is both useful and accurate. In fact, this may not be the case at all. 

For example, new employees in a call center spend time job shadowing existing agents. To prevent bad habits from taking hold in these new employees the facilitator does a robust debrief about their experiences, addresses any issues or anomalies and reinforces the correct way of doing things.

There is a fallacy in the assumption that collaboration only transfers expertise; with multiple touch points the likelihood of transferring unfavorable knowledge increases. Organizations must work tirelessly to reject bad habits before they become woven into the fabric of the organization.

Innovation and Forgetting

Innovation is defined as the introduction of something new or a new idea, method or device.  As part of the innovation process organizations need to be able to distinguish between the causes of success and failure. Success and failure are two sides of the same innovation coin. 

On one side of the coin organizations lacking insight as to why they failed may never truly identify their capabilities. On the other side of the coin, if the positive elements that led to success can’t be separated from those that impeded it, those negative elements become part of the organizational bad habits. 

The story of Kingfisher Beer led by Vijay Mallya is an example of an organization that was unable to make this distinction. Kingfisher is the flagship beer of United Breweries Limited; as a premium lager Kingfisher has won many international awards. Mallya wanted to run an airline and started Kingfisher Airlines in 2005. 

Similar to Kingfisher Beer, Kingfisher Airlines was a premium brand airline. The values associated with running a company of premium brands had become part of the organizational habits. A few years later Mallya’s troubles began when he acquired a low-cost airline that was on the ropes financially. Mallya tried to apply his premium brand philosophy to a low-cost carrier. Unable to separate the positive and negative causes of their prior success led Mallya to expand Kingfisher beyond its core business and dilute the brand. As a result of this brand extension the company was unable to pay employees for months and eventually went bankrupt.


Organizations that can become skilled at continuous learning also need to increase their capacity for forgetting. Successfully adapting to a changing environment requires an organization to move away from archaic technology, flawed corporate cultures, and outdated assumptions about the markets in which they work. They must work painstakingly to remove counterproductive knowledge from the organization in order to prevent bad habits from becoming the norm. Only by doing this can an organization create and maintain a competitive advantage.

About the Author

tracy-lowranceTracy Lowrance has spent over 15 years working with organizations in higher education, financial services, healthcare, retail and government on change management and leadership development initiatives. Tracy is currently working on her dissertation on Organizational Forgetting in The George Washington University’s Executive Leadership Program. Her passion for learning, coupled with her scholarly and professional interests drive her to help organizations continually and effectively adapt and change in a complex world. Tracy is the Manager of OD and Professional Development at Clarkston Consulting, a management and technology consulting firm located in Raleigh, NC. 

Axonify Team

Author: Axonify Team

Axonify is the world’s first Employee Knowledge Platform. It combines an award-winning approach to microlearning, with innovative knowledge-on-demand capabilities and the entire experience is gamified, driving high levels of participation.

One Comment

Add a Comment

  1. Michael Nelson

    Fabulous issue Tracy,

    An issue of deep relevance in the changing dynamics of our global economy and community. Glad you have linked the elements of remembering / forgetting knowledge in the context of organisational behaviour. Individually and collectively.

    There are two themes l would add to your comments.

    Firstly, it appears to me that you are placing heavy emphasis on the ‘organisational’ culture of knowledge. I would profer that any effective and efficient organisation recognises that an organisation’s culture is mostly a reflection of the collective cultural mindsets of the members of the organisation. This in turn is heavily influence by the industry or professional reputation of the leaders and philosophy of the organisation. In many cases, whether overt of subliminal, many aspiring professional are attracted to organisations that appeal to both their personal ideology and occupational prospects. Once imbedded, the development of any culture change then proceeds. It is vital to incorporate a high level of dynamism in this process as the inherent nature of professionals is for constant growth and opportunity. This, l feel, is reflected in the accepted principle of the modern worker (professional or otherwise) of having a multi-faceted career with many stages of change and decision making.

    My second response is that your comments remind me of the Pareto Principle, more commonly known as the 80/20 Principle or 80/20 Rule. The concept of the critical minority over the trivial majority partly explains why the important matters are always on our scope of practice and the really inconsequential ‘small stuff’ get left behind. Our natural instincts remind us of this vital trait when we need it. It just happens. We experience it many times, sometimes we are aware of something ‘just right’ or ‘not quite right’. As an example of a practical application of this stream of thinking, consider how much ‘mission critical’ work gets done when we deliberately prioritise our tasks and schedules when we have to. The affect makes the effect.

    Hope your reflections of my comments help you develop your professional ICT (Independent Critical Thinking).




    Reply November 30, 2014 at 12:27 pm

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Ready to Learn More?

If you’re ready to shake-up learning in your organization, and empower your people with the knowledge they need to drive measurable business results, let’s talk!

Speak with an Expert