Bonn: German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE)
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Development cooperation has spent decades wrangling over the merits, evidence, and implications of what we may term “the learning hypothesis”: the idea that increased knowledge by development organisations must logically lead to increased effectiveness in the performance of their development activities. Organisations of all stripes have built research and monitoring and evaluation (M&E) departments, adopted a multitude of knowledge management systems and tools, and tinkered with different ways to structure their organograms to stimulate knowledge sharing and learning. The topic of organisational learning is particularly significant as the global development community grapples with increasingly complex problems and the aspiration of evidence-based policymaking.
This paper presents an analytical framework for interrogating “the learning hypothesis”, breaking it down into causal steps: knowledge causes learning, learning causes organisational change, change causes effectiveness. The framework focuses on the first two sub-hypotheses, mapping out the conceptual space around them by outlining potential relationships between different types of knowledge – tacit and explicit, internal and external – and between different types of learning – operational and strategic. This map provides a foundation for three key research questions: What impact has the rising knowledge agenda had on development organisations? Which factors appear to enable or inhibit organisational learning? What is the relationship between operational and strategic learning and organisational change?
A review of available evaluations and studies, including two cases from former UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the World Bank, reveals that there is insufficient evidence to support the causal claim that knowledge leads to learning and thereby to organisational change in development agencies. Sources point to tacit learning prevailing while explicit knowledge management systems flounder, and external advocacy agendas appear more compelling than internal research and evaluation products. It is not entirely clear how, or indeed, whether operational and strategic learning intersect, with delivery-level lessons hardly aggregating into structural or policy shifts. Organisational change – even that aimed at enhancing learning – is rarely based on lessons learned from practice.
More research is necessary to fully unpack the learning hypothesis, but what limited evidence is available disproves rather than confirms its central claim. This has significant implications for the future of learning in development agencies as advocated by thought leaders, researchers, and reformers. In particular, the latter should consider an evidence-based reassessment of the function and value-for-money of research and M&E in development practice, and a more critical examination of the politics of external advocacy efforts around innovative aid approaches like thinking and working politically, adaptive management, or results-based management.