Three ways to maximise organisational learning in crisis contexts

Published on 3 May 2022

Rosemary McGee

Research Fellow

Carol Smithyes

Senior Communications and Marketing Officer

Peter Taylor

Acting Director

It has become a truism: we live in times of intense climate, geopolitical and social change, defined by uncertainty and complex, fast-changing relationships between government, civil society, business, and communities.

Truism or not, challenges like these demand appropriate responses from actors such as IDS and our partners. These uncertain times require development to be done differently – drawing on multiple sources and kinds of knowledge in adapting to complexities and fast-evolving challenges, to respond to people’s dynamic realities.

Effective learning processes within development programmes that actually promote and support behaviour change and rapid adaptation have never been so important. More than ever, these learning processes need to be reflexive – they need to help organisations committed to supporting development and change to become self-aware about their roles and their power as they intervene at this messy and uncertain juncture. Yet, many organisations are not as successful at learning themselves as they are in supporting the learning of others.

Through equitable and sustainable partnerships, IDS has been working with governments, UN agencies, philanthropic organisations, non-governmental and civil society organisations, universities, and independent consultants to support professional development and learning as a key route towards positive changes in people’s lives. Our professional development and learning portfolio falls into three broad categories: specialist short courses for development professionals and practitioners, facilitated learning opportunities for individuals and organisations, and learning processes embedded within development programmes.

IDS has employed facilitated learning processes from the day it was founded in 1966 as Britain’s first institution that focused specifically on development studies. Reflexivity became more central to our research and teaching over several decades and has been increasingly embedded within our own approach to organisational learning and change.  Learning as a route to social change became an explicit part of our strategy in 2005 with the advent of a project that sought to address the gap between the need for reflective social change practice and the existing understanding and range of approaches for assessment and learning. Since then, our collaborative learning activities have covered a wide range of international development themes and geographies – from policy responses to Covid-19 in Latin America, to accountable governance in Asia, to educational reform in Africa.

Here are our top three takeaways for what makes organisational learning truly effective in helping development programmes and actors respond to these challenging times:

1. Collaborative learning processes, involving learners from different sectors, disciplines and communities, bring together multiple perspectives, varied experience and diverse sources of knowledge and evidence.

They can be made even more powerful when linkages are made intentionally between participants and relevant professional networks and communities of practice through which learning can be diffused and change can be encouraged. This significantly enriches the learning, increases the likelihood of it being applied within the organisational context and helps ensure it generates positive change. These approaches can be particularly important in development and change endeavours that combine ‘unusual suspects’ who are not used to working together.

Our experience of offering learning experiences such as these at IDS has shown that being together with people from a range of disciplines in a series of structured learning spaces interspersed with their normal activities over a period of time proves very valuable to participants in our learning programmes. Carving the time out of busy schedules to discuss emerging issues, learn from peers, and deliberate over actions and recommendations, in carefully designed and well-facilitated spaces, can have positive individual, organisational and development outcomes.

2. Rapid adaptation in crises involves learning a particular set of skills and relational dynamics.

In a crisis, everyone has to think on their feet and act fast. An organisation that conducts a real-time or retrospective learning process in the context of a crisis enhances its response by building in opportunities to reflect efficiently and strategically, strengthening the relevant skillset for agile leadership, adaptative management and learning to recognise and manage the effect of crisis and stress on its partnerships and power dynamics.

This makes the organisation better placed to manage the strains any given crisis places on its operating capacity, more effective in its response, and better-equipped to face future crises or contexts of uncertainty.

3. Getting the most out of evidence by putting it at the heart of decision-making processes means systematically building all relevant actors’ capacity to interrogate the quality and relevance of the evidence and apply it appropriately.

Decision-makers facing new options – for instance in terms of digital technologies – can make better choices and spend public money better when equipped with the skills to evaluate the quality of research evidence on these options.

Those who work at the interface of research and policy can operate more effectively when they develop deeper understandings of theories of change and the roles that communication and influencing strategies can play in these.


Our approaches at IDS to facilitating organisational learning have provided us with many lessons and insights, and although these three stand out for us, there are many others. Just as we aim to support the learning of others, we continue to reflect on our experiences, catalysing our own organisational learning and adaptation.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


Related content