Learning in International Organizations

Nächster Teil unserer Serie zum 4. UN-Forschungskolloquium.


Natalia Dalmer
Leibniz Universität Hannover
Institut für Politische Wissenschaft

Change is part of everyone’s life, and just as it shapes our personal biographies, it characterizes developments within collective entities, such as private or public organizations at local, national and international levels. Change can proceed along different trajectories and it can either be exogenous or endogenous to an entity. For example, organizations need to change when they have ceased to perform their tasks properly or lag behind the times. Organizations may strive to expand their activities and compete for financial resources. Beyond that, organizational development might be based on a knowledge-based evolution of organizational perceptions of problems and, accordingly, appropriate strategies towards their solution. In other words, it might be due to a learning process.

Admittedly, organizational learning (OL) has not been a traditional focus within International Relations (IR) – unlike in sociology and management studies – and it has only been relatively recently that it has garnered increased attention. For instance, the World Bank’s and the UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP) environmental management activities (Haas & Haas 1995; Siebenhüner 2008) and developments within UN peacekeeping (Benner et al. 2013; Howard 2008) were found to be based on internal learning processes (although findings with respect to peacekeeping paint a heterogeneous picture). This development is promising, since researching learning within international organizations (IOs) helps to further enhance our understanding of the role and relevance of IOs in this day and age, as well as the nature of institutional innovation: apart from directing attention towards IO influence, it also sheds light on how they are tackling current problems. With a focus on UN agencies, this short contribution is intended to illustrate the nature of organizational learning and why it might be a worthwhile research endeavor for International Relations.

What is organizational learning and why do IOs learn?

As many international problems are becoming more complex and interrelated, international organizations are increasingly adopting knowledge-generating and –managing approaches in order to understand and tackle them. In this context, learning is becoming an important change trajectory within IOs. For UNDP, for instance, knowledge management has become necessary, because the nature of requested services has changed over the last years (UNDP 2014: 5). Among other things, the goal to reduce poverty is, in most areas of the developing world, closely linked to halting environmental degradation and to establishing sustainability. However, defining organizational learning is somewhat of a challenge. Although learning seems to be an intuitively obvious and familiar concept to everyone, imagining collective learning entities is more difficult. In fact, organizational learning is a rather ambitious concept and has been defined in various different ways. It is generally agreed, though, that it involves a rather profound knowledge-based process entailing a “reexamination of [organizational] purposes” (Haas 1990: 4), which leads to a subsequent change of organizational policies, strategies or structures (Siebenhüner 2008: 96). Knowledge here is understood as interpreted information, based on scientific evaluation and/or experience (cf. Haas & Haas 1995; cf. Argote & Miron-Spektor 2011). A changing perception of a certain problem influences the strategies towards tackling it. Thus, knowledge is always embedded in interpretative frames and is, to some extent, normative. Organizational learning is therefore broadly located within the constructivist tradition, which recognizes the mutual constitution of actors and structure; it enables us to understand how actors’ interests develop by focusing on the transformative influence of mutual beliefs and ideas.

Although connected to individual learning, the concepts are not synonymous: organizational learning is more than just the sum of learning individuals. Rather, structures need to be built that strengthen institutional capacity, preserve knowledge and enable lesson sharing. For instance, a number of UN agencies have established and systemized knowledge management systems to promote organizational learning (see for example UNDP 2014; OCHA 2011; DPKO/DFS 2009). However, challenges still remain in this area. But organizational learning also depends on individual leadership and an entity’s permeability towards its environment. Organizations do not exist in isolation and their relationship with the outside world allows for understanding where stimuli come from (cf. Haas 1990: 27). For example, the adoption of gender related issues and climate change cannot be understood without taking into account the influence of international civil society actors.

IOs, Organizational Learning, and organizational development

Learning as a non-coercive social process of organizational change enables us to further elaborate on IOs’ role and their opportunities as actors in international politics – in particular how they make use of their influence. IOs as bureaucratic creatures, amongst others gain authority from expertise (cf. Barnett & Finnemore 2004). And while “the authority of IOs creates a basis for their autonomous action” (ibid: 27), learning represents a particular development path that many organizations choose to take – namely one aimed at enabling themselves to better tap into oftentimes overlooked knowledge and to “decrease ‘information silos’” (UNDP 2014: 2). Thus, learning describes a process that is not externally imposed by states, but rather defined by a self-initiated and purposeful evolution of organizational expertise. Given the complex nature of today’s issues, it stands to reason that this trajectory is considered to be particularly appropriate and legitimate. For example, UNEP’s learning-based development towards a more active role in environmental matters has led to a revival of previously dwindling state acceptance (Siebenhüner 2008: 101).


Organizational learning is a worthwhile endeavor in International Relations, as it can deepen our understanding of organizational autonomy and how they choose to make use of it in order to tackle current problems. Moreover, we can draw conclusions about the legitimacy of this particular approach given the nature of current problems. Although challenges remain, more organizations are striving to become learning organizations. However, organizational learning is still understudied in International Relations. An increased focus on learning and knowledge-based change within IOs might be a fruitful exercise for future research, as problems become more complex and issues are increasingly interlinked. Research on learning within international organizations might contribute to understanding how emerging problems can be dealt with and what role IOs play. This is important, because the more IOs are able to adapt to a changing environment and react to increasingly interconnected and multifaceted problems, the more they will gain legitimacy in an increasingly complex world.


Argote, Linda and Ella Miron-Spektor (2011): Organizational Learning: From Experience to Knowledge, Organizational Science 22 (5): 1123-1137.

Barnett, Michael and Martha Finnemore (2004): Rules for the World: International Organizations in Global Politics, Ithaka: Cornell University Press.

Benner, Thorsten, Stephan Mergenthaler and Philipp Rothmann (2013): The New World of UN Peace Operations: Learning to Build Peace?, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

DPKO/DFS (2009): DPKO/DFS Policy on Knowledge Sharing, Ref. 2009.4, 1 May, United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations, United Nations Department of Field Support.

Haas, Ernst B. (1990): When Knowledge is Power: Three Models of Change in International Organizations, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Haas, Peter M. and Ernst B. Haas (1995): Learning to Learn: Improving International Governance, Global Governance 1: 255-285.

Howard, Lise Morjé (2008): UN Peacekeeping in Civil Wars, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

OCHA (2011): Organizational Learning for Results, Objective 3.3, OCHA Annual Report 2011, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, http://www.unocha.org/annualreport/2011/strategic-plan/objective-3_3 [viewed 20 August 2014].

Siebenhüner, Bernd (2008): Learning in International Organizations in Global Environmental Governance, Global Environmental Politics 8(4): 92-116.

UNDP (2014): UNDP Knowledge Management Strategy Framework 2014-2017, New York: United Nations Development Programme.