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Business Schools Must Teach Unlearning

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After consuming $200,000 worth of business education in Wharton's undergraduate program and MIT Sloan's MBA program, I found a new mantra: Unlearn it all. Each year, thousands of MBAs funnel through institutes like Wharton, MIT Sloan, and Harvard Business School ready to storm the corporate boardrooms... Yet, these MBAs are trained to focus on what they learn rather than how or why they learn. I believe the most important thing business leaders can do is reflect on their learning processes to unlearn the old patterns that stand in the way of authentic leadership.

I research and consult on generational gaps in today's companies and I believe this gap also exists in business schools. MBAs are being taught by adults who have lived in a different era of business. Some of these adults are now at the cutting edge of the future such as in places like Stanford's Design School or the MIT Media Lab, while others are leaving students with memorization techniques. Most of the time, there is not a real dialogue across generations. It's a transfer of "old" data that doesn't relate or apply in the same way to today's future.

This is because business schools often stick with a more familiar terrain. In order to meet the new conversation about leadership, business schools must view the classroom as not the place where content is delivered, but rather as the place where the content is analyzed and discussed. Business schools must learn to value process over programs, questions over answers, and influence over control.

There are obviously some business basics to be delivered in business school. Yet, as I watch more and more of my colleagues from MIT Sloan and Wharton, the most successful have bucked the norm of traditional business. They are joining new small organizations or building their own. So let's teach the basics in business school, and then lets teach how to unlearn when we need to.

What does it mean to unlearn? Unlearning is not exactly letting go of our knowledge or perceptions, but rather stepping outside our perceptions to stand apart from our world views and open up new lenses to interpret and learn about the world.

For example, a challenge in business school environments is that the same standardized core curriculum is prescribed for every student. These curricula -- packed with classes like operations, accounting, statistics, and management -- fail to account for students' individual needs. While we need to have learning of business education before we have unlearning, we must understand the underlying theories we make about finance and economics in these courses to see what applies today. Unlearning occurs when we shift our understanding of the assumptions we use when learning theories in business schools. We must continue to adapt our own theories about how to operate and work together rather than hold defined truths in the workplace that may no longer apply.

This was particularly true for me entering the world of entrepreneurship when I worked on an agricultural business venture targeted to India during my first year at MIT Sloan back in 2009. My business education training made me risk-averse and structure-obsessed -- both of which were assets in my prior banking career, but detriments in my start-up business in the agriculture space that demanded quick decisions and high productivity.

For example, one of my first entrepreneurial tasks while at MIT Sloan was to build a business plan to raise funding. Our team spent literally days on grant proposals and the fundraising plan outlining the market opportunity, making it to the MIT 100K competition. We should have been focused on prototyping the concept, but instead kept focusing on correcting typos and inserting new paragraphs in our proposal. While the business plan seemed perfect to me, it was all for show and later that month I realized we had wasted time that we could have spent prototyping the product rather than writing a fancy plan. If I had unlearned my habits of perfection, I may have been able to drive greater success in this endeavor.

Luckily there is some support for unlearning in business school settings, but it is still the exception rather than the norm. "When we unlearn, we generate anew rather than reformulate the same old stuff," writes Indian School of Business Professor Prasad Kaipa on his blog. "Creativity and innovation bubble up during the process of unlearning." Professor Kaipa emphasizes that creativity is facilitated when we suspend judgment from our past ways of working.

We need to embrace ambiguity and uncertainty more in business school. So I'm calling on business school deans, faculty, administration, and students to start the process of unlearning. In order to prepare the next generation of leaders, how about we design courses on new age communities? How do we build content (like The Huffington Post) converse (like Facebook) and curate in business (like Pinterest)? How about we understand culture and co-create (like Threadless) compete (like Zynga) and buy (like Groupon)? How about we focus on who is my constituency rather than customer since we know that the best businesses build like movements now?

So, how can MBAs unlearn? Unlearning takes a fundamentally different kind of awareness and attention than a statistics exam. We need to begin to map time and spaces for students to explore our narratives, histories, failures and successes. Perhaps the business school of the future isn't so much about technical knowledge but rather about educating ourselves on the process of learning. To build a new generation of innovative business leaders, unlearning curriculum is a business imperative.

This post first appeared at Forbes.com.

As a Harvard & MIT-trained Leadership Consultant & Generational Alchemist, Erica Dhawan inspires organizations to harness & profit from generational, cultural & gender diversity and coaches talented young leaders into their next-level careers. She is also the co-founder of TheGalahads.com for women innovators.

Learn more at EricaDhawan.com and follow her on Facebook or Twitter @edhawan.