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date: 25 July 2021

Learning and Crisisfree

Learning and Crisisfree

  • Edward DeverellEdward DeverellDepartment of Security, Strategy, and Leadership, Swedish Defense University


Crises shake societies and organizations to their foundation. Public authorities, private companies, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and members of the general public all have a role to play in managing crises. From a public administration perspective, however, responsibility clearly falls on politicians and strategic decision makers in public authorities. The task to manage crises is getting increasingly challenging, with more actors and sectors involved, unclear lines of accountability, and close connections between risks, organizations, networks, and interests. This means that the fundamental opportunity to improve structures for crisis management and preparedness, which requires learning from previous experiences, is increasing in salience. Previous research into the political dimensions of crisis management holds that learning is a key part of crisis management and a fundamental challenge to crisis leadership. The criteria that set crises apart from day-to-day work—that is, core values at stake, time pressure, and substantial uncertainty—also challenge the learning parts of crisis management. Learning in relation to crisis is essential for earnest investigation into what went wrong and why the crisis occurred, and, moreover, to make sure that it does not happen again. As organizations play a key role in crisis management, organizational learning is a useful concept to explore learning in relation to crises. Furthermore, the concept of crisis-induced learning has proven salient in bridging the literatures of crisis management and learning. Crisis-induced learning is understood as purposeful efforts, triggered by a perceived crisis and carried out by members of an organization working within a community of inquiry. These efforts, in turn, lead to new understanding and behavior on the basis of that understanding. The concept of crisis-induced learning can help add clarity to what learning is in relation to crises and who the learning agents are in these processes. Other important theorizing efforts in bridging crisis and learning include categorizing learning into its cognitive and behavioral aspects as well as its temporal aspects including inter- and intra-crisis learning. Finally, relating to issues of methodology, it is useful to distil ways to measure and analyze learning and to explain how crisis-induced learning is distinguished from other types of experiential learning.


  • Governance/Political Change
  • Policy, Administration, and Bureaucracy

Defining Crisis From an Organizational Perspective

States, societies, organizations, and individuals are increasingly challenged by crises that defy geographical, sectoral, and administrative boundaries (Ansell et al., 2010). The way that the Covid-19 pandemic spread initially from Wuhan in China to the rest of the world in 2020 is only one of many examples of an ambiguous and transboundary threat that moves fast, affects various parts of a society, and leads to a situation that deviates considerably from what is considered to be the norm. Other examples are the many wildfires in Europe in 2018 and in Australia in 2019–2020, the 2015 European Union (EU) migration crisis, the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, and the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. These devastating events have in common that they were unwanted situations that interrupted normality (Topper & Lagadec, 2013) and pushed decision makers at various levels to make timely decisions (Boin et al., 2016). Crises occur and change rapidly by unexpected interactions between different factors (Perrow, 1999). A crisis is thus a highly unpredictable course of events characterized by deep uncertainty, a threat to core values, and a perceived time pressure (Rosenthal et al., 1989). A crisis cannot be solved by adding more resources alone; instead everyday organizations, routines, and working ways need to be adapted. Adaptation requires flexibility and creative improvisation among organizations tasked to manage the crisis (Deverell & Stiglund, 2015). As such, crises signify trying times for organizations and their members. Crises challenge organizational behavior, structures, and cultures, as day-to-day procedures and operations are pushed to the limit and dilemmas are brought to a head, while resources are scarce and general working ways are deemed insufficient.

Scholarly interest in crisis and crisis management in political science and public administration has been steadily growing since the late 1980s. With the decline of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the security concept was widened in scholarly writings as well as in practice to include societal, economic, and ecological threats (Buzan, 1991). This debate paved the way for an increased interest in, attention to, and resources invested in the practice of mitigating social risk, and preparing for and managing societal crises. Consequently, scholars also began to pay interest to issues of crisis and crisis management. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 and the 2005 Katrina disaster, research in the field increased even more (Boin et al., 2016; Pursiainen, 2018; Spector, 2019). Thus, in the 21st century, crisis management studies advanced into a scholarly field of its own (Deverell, 2010; Smith & Elliott, 2006). An intuitive assumption would be to expect that this increase in scholarly attention would affect crisis response in a positive way. However, despite costly, time-consuming, and resource-intensive efforts, governmental and organizational real-life experiences of crises as well as research findings suggest that politicians, officials, and the organizations they represent repeatedly fail to meet public demands when crisis strikes (Boin, 2019). This calls for a deeper exploration of the relation between crisis response and learning.

So, why do leaders fail in making sense of ambiguous threats and signals as they appear? The problems emanating from learning from previous crisis experiences are likely to be one reason. So far research on crisis and learning holds that preservation trumps reform in the wake of crisis (Bannink & Resodihardjo, 2006; Boin et al., 2008; Dekker & Hansén, 2004). Moreover, most organizations that learn in the wake of a crisis do so slowly, in a fragmented manner, and with limited success (Boin & ‘t Hart, 2003). This is unfortunate as learning from major failures and crisis experiences is essential for creating robust, safe, and reliable organizations and societies as well as for preventing a repeat of the crisis. Learning from crisis episodes is particularly important when crises are analyzed from an organizational perspective. Organizational crises are clear and loud signals indicating serious flaws or deficiencies in the organization that need to be dealt with. Such flaws may relate to internal factors in an organization such as the structure, leadership, culture, or organizational working processes, or a lack of fit between the organization and its environment (Deverell & Olsson, 2010; Mitroff et al., 1989). Organizational crises shed light on weaknesses and failures that become evident against the backdrop of the crisis. Learning from crisis is thus necessary to unearth and explain the causal linkages that led to the crisis as well as to make sure that future precautions are taken to avoid that the crisis is repeated. Drawing lessons from crises is therefore something that the general public expects from policymakers and authorities. Yet learning from crisis is not a linear process, and it does not come easy for policymakers.

Departing from the assumption that organizations are key to societal crisis management, the main focus of this article is on the public organizational setting, although much of the reasoning can also be applied to other contexts. The concept of crisis-induced learning was developed in an effort to bridge the concepts of crisis and learning in organizations. Crisis-induced learning is defined as purposeful efforts, triggered by a crisis event and carried out by members of an organization working within a community of inquiry, that lead to new understanding and behavior on the basis of that understanding (Boin et al., 2008; Broekema, 2018; Deverell, 2010).

Learning in Crisis Management Studies

Crisis management studies deal with how societies, authorities, organizations, and leaders take on the seemingly impossible challenge to control processes and phenomena that cannot be easily controlled. How societies and organizations deal with, absorb, and counter unknown threats is at the heart of this scholarly tradition. Many models are based on a linear idea of the phases of before, during, and after the perceived crisis (Boin et al., 2016; Pursiainen, 2018). Undoubtedly, however, most efforts in crisis research have been on the temporal “during” phase, focusing on causes, consequences, and management of crises, while risk studies and disaster studies tend to deal with the “before” stage by applying concepts such as risk reduction, preparedness, or resilience. Learning in relation to crisis tends to be discussed in relation to the temporal phase of the crisis aftermath. As such, studies on learning and crises are still relatively neglected within the field (Broekema, 2018; Smith & Elliott, 2007), and on a theoretical level, the field is not as developed as other subfields of crisis management studies such as, for instance, collaborative crisis management (Bynander & Nohrstedt, 2020) or crisis decision making (Pursiainen, 2018, p. 146). Most studies of learning in relation to crisis are of a conceptual nature, identifying salient factors and proposing models (Drupsteen & Guldenmund, 2014). Empirical studies of crisis and learning that aim at developing theory are still unusual (Broekema et al., 2017). However, there are a few examples of studies of how crises affect the potential for learning in the wake of a crisis as demonstrated by empirical case data (Birkland, 2006; Boin et al., 2008; Broekema, 2018; Elliott & McPhearson, 2010; Dekker & Hansén, 2004). Some additional studies have reviewed literature on crisis and learning from a public administration perspective (Drupsteen & Guldenmund, 2014; Nathan & Kovoor-Mistra, 2002; Smith & Elliott, 2006; Stern, 1997).

What, then, has this research bordering public administration, organization theory, and crisis management studies taught us about the relation between crises and learning? This issue will be dealt with in the following by raising a number of challenges confronting scholars interested in crisis-induced learning. These challenges deal with the issue of what learning is and who the learning agents are. Moreover, there are a number of ways of categorizing learning. Lastly, on a methodological level, this article distils ways to measure and analyze learning and it discusses how crisis-induced learning is distinguished from other types of experiential learning.

Learning and Crisis-Induced Learning

Learning and crisis relate clearly to experiential learning. Experiences lead to increased knowledge and adjusted future actions and behavior. This learning can then take place on the individual, collective, or organizational level (Crossan et al., 1999). How individuals working together make sense of their experiences and use this in an effort to increase their collective knowledge is vital for all experiential learning. Crisis-induced learning is a special form of experiential learning that requires that lessons are drawn from the experiences of a specific crisis and from experiences of managing that crisis. Crisis-induced learning can thus be either learning from crisis or learning in crisis.

Crisis-induced learning is the key concept of this article as it merges the concepts of crisis and learning. Crisis-induced learning is understood as conscious actions, triggered by a crisis, carried out by organizational members, that lead to fresh and durable understandings and behavior carried out on the basis of that understanding (Deverell, 2010; Schwab, 2007). This definition can be used to distinguish a few basic tenets of the crisis-induced learning process. First, crisis-induced learning needs to be initiated by a crisis. Second, it must be driven by the conscious and goal-oriented actions of individuals. This marker presupposes that individuals are understood as boundedly rational, that is, that they are goal oriented and aim at solving problems, although they are at the same time limited by cognitive blinders and institutional boundaries. These limitations, in turn, make optimized outcomes improbable and lead actors to satisficing, rather than maximizing, outcomes (Jones, 2002). Tying the learning process to collective goals in this way distinguishes crisis-induced learning from more basic forms of tacit adaptation. Unlike most adaptation, crisis-induced learning does not implicitly just “happen” due to fortunate circumstances. Crisis-induced learning requires conscious and preferably also strategic thinking, where novel ways of looking at a problem and possible solutions to that problem are coupled and derived to prior errors or shortcomings that led to the crisis. The learning agents who are driving the process need to work in and act on the account of an environment, ideals, or goals likely to benefit a larger entity than the individual agent. In this way, crisis-induced learning can be understood as a goal-oriented process aimed at improving collective performance (Argyris & Schön, 1996; Dodgson, 1993; Heikkila & Gerlack, 2013). This means that it is fruitful to apply a functional and boundedly rational ontology to the study of crisis-induced learning. Whether or not the learning processes actually lead to an improved outcome, however, is an empirical question. In terms of the learning outcomes, it is imperative that the learning processes lead to durable alterations in the state of knowledge and in organizational behavior. The durability aspect separates crisis-induced learning from intuitive cognitive execution, such as, for instance, improvisation (Frykmer et al., 2018; Moorman & Miner, 1998). Further, durability in regard to learning means that the lessons learned lead to change on two levels First, on the cognitive level regarding how the learning agents think about, create, and diffuse knowledge about a certain problem. Second, on the behavioral level, regarding what actions the learning agents actually carry out.

Crisis-induced learning is, moreover, distinguished from other experiential learning by the rarity of the experience that lessons are drawn upon. As “ordinary” experiential learning happens cumulatively over lifelong periods, crisis-induced learning happens under intensive and compressed temporal dimensions in a context characterized by time pressure, uncertainty, and multiple and conflicting core values at play. Rather than looking at learning as an end product, it is more appropriate to understand crisis-induced learning as a process that produces learning products in the form of, for example, lessons learned, reforms, or novel ways of approaching a certain threat.

How then are these processes separated from more generic experiential learning processes and from everyday experiences? The most important aspect here is how the crisis-induced learning process is triggered by the crisis. But there are also more subtle differences. One such difference is the frequency of the event triggering the learning process. Experiences of crisis are more unusual than experiences of more mundane incidents. While traditional experiential learning happens cumulatively over time, crisis-induced learning happens without any form of regularity according to a “one-event-at-a-time-model” (Carley & Harrald, 1997). Crisis-induced learning then is distinguished from ordinary experiential learning in both frequency and prerequisites for a progressive increase in knowledge.

Contextual factors make for another difference between learning from everyday processes and crisis-induced learning. Learning from crisis is more challenging than learning from normal operations and everyday incidents. Crisis-induced learning occurs when the need to learn is at its greatest, while at the same time it is the most difficult to achieve (Dekker & Hansén, 2004). The criteria that characterize a crisis and which make behavior in times of crisis complicated, such as threats to fundamental values, lack of time, and widespread uncertainties, are also characteristics of crisis-induced learning. Learning from situations characterized by challenges that differ from challenges during “regular” work is difficult. Crises give rise to higher stress levels. Consequences of decisions, actions, dilemmas, and tragic choices can be hard to absorb, evaluate, and learn from. This becomes especially clear in the crisis aftermath, when politically motivated conflict increases and commissions and investigations are launched to distribute blame (Hood, 2002; Resodiharjdo, 2020). In this phase, actors who are expected to learn from the crisis may be subjected to increased scrutiny from the public and from news media, which may hinder their propensity for learning. This contextual factor also differentiates crisis-induced learning from ordinary experience-based learning. Crisis-induced learning requires reflection and an open questioning of previously agreed upon norms and working ways (Broekema, 2018). For that to occur, there needs to be an environment characterized by calmness, trust, and non-conflict. While critical media scrutiny is imperative from a democratic and accountability perspective, it can slow down or even derail learning processes (Birkland, 2006).

Crises are unwanted events and also dynamic processes that can rarely be handled by a single organization. Collaboration over organizational boundaries is required in the acute crisis response as well as in the learning process (Ansell & Ghash, 2008; Nilsson & Eriksson, 2008; Nohrstedt et al., 2018). This leads to another challenge concerning crisis-induced learning, and more specifically how crisis-induced learning relates to collaboration in the crisis aftermath when lessons are to be drawn. Just as there is a collaboration challenge in the phase of crisis management proper in, for instance, satisfying different views, bridging asymmetries in power and trust, and working together with previously unknown responders formed by different cultures and working ways, there may also be challenges in collaborative learning from crises (Deverell & Hansén, 2020). For instance, narratives about how different factors interacted in the crisis incubation phase tend to lead to disagreements, effectively delimiting potential learning. Suggested solutions need to be good enough to satisfy several collaborating organizations that need to join forces and work together to solve problems at hand in the collective learning process, which may lead to communication challenges between different organizations. Moreover, as crises introduce organizations to new and previously unidentified stakeholders (Deverell & Olsson, 2009), learning in the crisis aftermath can lead to new organizational collaborations where people lack experiences of working together and therefore have avoided building systems of trust between involved parties (Ansell & Gash, 2008; Emerson et al., 2012). Such circumstances affect crisis-induced learning in a negative way (Boin & ‘t Hart, 2003).

Central Debates in the Field

Now that the concept of crisis-induced learning has been defined and elaborated upon and the major distinctions between crisis-induced learning and other types of experiential learning have been outlined, a more detailed discussion on a few central debates in the field is warranted.

Learning Agents: Individuals or Organizations

Researchers in the broader field of learning theory have long dealt with the development of individual learning and the capacity of individuals to learn. With a firm base in the assumption that organizational development is dependent on its employees’ learning, management and organizational researchers in the 1960s and 1970s began pondering on the idea of collective learning processes in organizations (Argyris & Schön, 1978; Cyert & March, 1963; March & Olsen, 1976). A significant outcome of these functional perspectives was the establishment of the organizational learning concept. It also led to led to the birth of a new field within management research in which scholars discussed questions about whether an organization can actually learn or not. One side of this scholarly debate stressed, somewhat formalistically, that only agents who actually are equipped with a brain can learn, while the other side looked upon the phenomena from a more philosophical point of view and emphasized that organizations surely can learn, as long as a satisfactory number of their members learn. Both these perspectives were critiqued. Supporters of the individually centered perspective accused the organizational perspective of attributing human qualities to organizations (Sabatier, 1987). Advocates of the individual perspective were critiqued for diminishing organizational learning into a metaphor for how individuals in organizations learn instead of how organizations actually draw lessons from experience (Örtenblad, 2009). Several critics suggested that individual learning alone cannot explain how shared and collective knowledge can be developed and disseminated in organizations (Levitt & March, 1998; Örtenblad, 2002). The fact that scholarly debate on organizational learning has dried out in later decades (Pedler & Burgoyne, 2017) has not helped in clarifying the relation between organizational and individual learning (Huysman, 2000). Who then are understood as the learning agents when scholars address crisis-induced learning in organizations? The simple answer is that it is an empirical question depending on issues tied to the scope of the study in question and what level of analysis and object of study the researcher actually deals with. For instance, by applying the perspective of crisis management and crisis preparedness, the primary concern will be related to processes of how public organizations with important societal tasks function and learn. For this reason, it becomes especially rewarding to discuss learning from an organizational perspective.

In general, organizational learning is understood as being based on the knowledge of individual members, which in turn is shared and disseminated through formal and structural organizational tools such as standards, routines, and policies, or cultural aspects such as symbols, rites, or ceremonies. Moreover, more abstract and informal organizational arrangements, such as underlying norms and organizational stories and narration, can be part of the knowledge dissemination (Argyris & Schön, 1978; Czarniawska, 1997; Lawson & Ventriss, 1992). From this perspective, organizational learning is often about individuals learning within their organizations and for the greater good of their organizations insofar as they are striving to change at least parts of the organization for which they work. They do this by interacting with other individuals and organizational members to get their lessons noticed, disseminated, and heeded (Weick & Ashford, 2001). This approach means that individuals in the form of organizational representatives learn in order to change their organization. Individuals’ thoughts on organizational problems, in line also with Argyris and Schön’s (1996) ideas, become organizational learning when individuals question, reflect, and investigate on behalf of the organization, within a community governed by the organization’s rules and norms. For the learning loop to come full circle, organizational lessons must take root in the common and shared processes, forums, artifacts, or symbols of the organization (Argyris & Schön, 1978; Nicolini & Meznar, 1995). However, it is important to keep in mind that even in studies of organizational learning, individuals remain in focus. Individual learning is a necessary but not sufficient factor for organizational learning. Further, organizational learning is a process driven by individuals. Although analytical focus and the object of study is learning that takes place on a collective level, it is individuals that make up these collectives and individuals are the drivers of these processes. Still, the organization plays important roles in the learning process. It provides a storage base for knowledge through its archives, systems, meeting places, and so on. It also forms the boundaries for individual learning by acting as a hub for explicit and tacit norms and rules, in effect creating the organizational culture (Schein, 2010). Rules and norms enable as well as delimit knowledge and action. Research on safety cultures has highlighted norms such as openness and trust as essential when it comes to cultivating a safe and learning culture in organizations. More specifically, such environments are characterized by an inclination to reward the search for and reporting of errors, flaws, and problems rather than sweeping them under the carpet (Gherardi & Nicolini, 2000; Guldenmund, 2000; Haukelid, 2008). An organization where incident reporting takes place within a culture of reward rather than a culture of punishment will find it easier to learn from its mistakes. However, for such questioning and reporting to work, it is essential that there is trust between employees as well as between employees and management. Clarity is also required about what is accepted and not within the organization. An organization with effective incident reporting, clearly communicated boundaries between what is considered as right and wrong behavior, and extensive information sharing is known in the literature as a just culture organization. A just culture is supportive of reflection and learning (Reason, 1997). However, a just culture may also be harder to achieve in some organizations. One such example is police organizations. Structural and systemic issues play a role here. Due to the complexity of the mission of the police and the right to use justified violence, consequences of errors committed by individual officers may be serious. Criminal offences such as involuntary manslaughter could be an outcome leading to harsh punishment in the form of dismissal and legal proceedings. According to safety culture research such a punishing culture also has a negative impact on the possibilities of openly reflecting on behavior and admitting to mistakes, which are two cornerstones of a learning culture (Drupsteen & Guldenmund, 2014). Now, arguing for open incident reporting and acknowledging of errors and shortcomings without automatic retribution should not be seen as an argument against stopping negligence in the workplace. On the one hand, neither negligence nor planned intent regarding errors can be accepted in any organization, especially not in an organization such as the police where such actions can have significant consequences. On the other hand, in complex systems and value-laden and risky operations, factors may interact in unforeseen ways and even seemingly banal incidents may lead to accidents or crises (Perrow, 1999; Turner, 1976). To find out how such factors interact, a learning culture is required. In order for an organization to establish a learning culture, it needs structural information systems such as a functioning incident reporting system and interpersonal factors such as high levels of trust between personnel and knowledge of what is accepted and not in the organization.

The fact that the individual is a primary agent in organizational learning does not mean that organizations and other collectives cannot learn. Indeed, learning can be relatively isolated. For example, learning can take the form of a single individual reading a book and thus gaining new knowledge. Such an individual cognitive process, however, does not equate to organizational learning. Learning in an organizational setting is a shared and social process carried out by people interacting, discussing, and socializing with each other. After all, interaction and socialization are fundamental features of all forms of organizing. Similarly, learning in an organization is a social activity. Organizational learning is not limited to processes in individuals’ minds, but must be seen as a process of participation and interaction that occurs among and through people (Crossan et al., 1999; Elkjaer, 2003; Landrum et al., 2015).

Three concepts are especially important for this process. First, organizational learning, like learning in general, needs to be conscious. The activity becomes organizational when it is carried out with a deliberate intent to meet an organizational objective. This means that the learning agents are also mindful agents who are aware of what they are trying to achieve and who can explain their intentions (Gioia et al., 2012). Second, individual learning becomes organizational when it is transferred from individuals through social interaction and shared by organizational members. The third aspect is a durable organizational memory. Learning becomes organizational when the results of the learning processes are gathered, embedded, and maintained in a shared and durable place in an organization, such as organizational structures or other collective spaces (Cook & Yanow, 1993; Örtenblad, 2002). In other words, social interaction and institutionalization of knowledge are what differs organizational learning from individual learning. Individual experiences are processed through social interaction into lessons learned and reinforced in a reasonably lasting way into rules, routines, symbols, forums, information systems, or other forms of behavioral patterns embedded in the organization (Argyris & Schön, 1978; Crossan et al., 1999; Huber, 1991; Levy, 1994). This means that new knowledge is stored in the organizational memory.

Cognition and Behavior

The causal relationship between information and knowledge, on the one hand, and organizational behavior and change, on the other, lies at the heart of the organizational learning concept (Dekker & Hansén, 2004). When applying the organizational learning concept to crises, the following process occurs, albeit somewhat simplified for theoretical purposes: A crisis unfolds. A previously given order is questioned by one or more individuals within an organization. A problem or error is linked to the crisis, or to the management of the crisis. New information is collected about the nature of the problem and how it can be solved. This information is then mulled over in mutual and shared reflection, discussion, and analysis to the degree that it is formed into new and collective knowledge. This change of the sense of knowledge is spread throughout the organization to the extent that it takes root in formal and informal organizational depositories. The dissemination of the new knowledge means that learning can influence organizational behavior. Dissemination of information is thus the key feature of the organizational learning process.

On a theoretical level, this means that learning contains a cognitive and a behavioral dimension (Argote, 2011; Dekker & Hansén, 2004; Fiol & Lyles, 1985). Psychologists have long been interested in the cognitive ability of individuals, which includes all that has to do with human reasoning, such as knowledge, thinking, understanding, and memorizing taking place on the inside of minds (Illeris, 2015). Where to draw the boundaries between cognitive and behavioral change is a complicated question. A lesson does not hold significant value as long as it does not lead to a change in behavior in line with newly acquired knowledge. It is only then that it is fair to say with some certainty that the learning has come full circle. Moreover, new knowledge and behavior per se is not enough to talk about “real” crisis-induced learning. Both factors (changes in knowledge and in action) must be linked to a crisis and to each other. For this reason, it is essential to distinguish between the cognitive and the behavioral parts of the learning process. By supporting this claim, the scholar ends up with a twofold description of the learning process. First, the cognitive process, which involves questioning and gathering information, analyzing and reflecting on the information and turning it into new knowledge that makes it possible to draw conclusions and learn lessons. Second, the behavioral process, which is about acting on the basis of new knowledge, disseminating lessons learned, and implementing proposed changes in the organization.

It is beneficial to include behavior in the learning definition for at least two reasons. Drawing the line at cognition and thought processes makes it more difficult to measure learning as large parts of cognitive learning cannot be observed. Thus, when analyzing learning empirically, the scholar is basically referred to self-assessments of learning. Behavioral changes, on the other hand, are easier to observe empirically. Previous research on crisis management differentiates between lessons observed and lessons learned, where the former are noticed and the latter are acted upon (Birkland, 2009). This distinction is related to the difference between cognition and behavior. Learning in the form of altered knowledge that leads to real change in implemented and lasting processes is essential from a practical perspective. The actual duration of new knowledge and new behavior cannot be overemphasized. In addition to the knowledge-generating cognitive process and noticed and measured outcomes in the form of behavior, it is necessary that the learning actor can retain the newly acquired knowledge in a reasonably lasting way (Argote, 2011). Even though most researchers agree that behavior is part of organizational learning, it is still debated whether this behavior should by definition be a change from a formerly lasting order. Must all learning really lead to change? Or can agents learn that everything works as it should and was intended and thus not change a thing? It is probably possible to find empirical examples of such experiences, even in regard to a crisis, but the question is whether it is in fact learning. Development and progress are usually associated with learning (Illeris, 2015). Thus, it is reasonable to assume that earnest learning processes in relation to crises end up in at least modest suggestions of improvement. New knowledge needs to emerge, replace previous knowledge, and lead to a novel course of action. At the same time, it is important not to equate learning with change. All change does not presuppose learning. Learning requires a particularly reflective way of thinking and acting, while change may take the form of blind and unreflecting adaptation to a new reality (Mahler, 1997). Thus, responding to the common call in the wake of crises to “do something” does not necessarily equate to learning (Birkland, 2006).

Learning Typologies

The American public policy scholar Thomas Birkland has written several influential texts on the preconditions for government to learn from crisis. In his book Lessons of Disaster (Birkland, 2006), he designed a causal model of the relationship between crises and learning. He assumed that crises and disasters are important “focusing events” that can assist in getting new issues on to the political agenda as long as some preconditions are in play. If only groups mobilize resources and discuss ideas and proposals, new policies may be adopted. Then different forms of learning can be adopted in the public sphere. In the book, Birkland identifies, with a firm base in the prior research of Peter May among others, three types of learning: instrumental policy learning, social policy learning, and political learning. Instrumental policy learning is about smaller and technical changes of policy programs and policy implementation. Social policy learning is about questioning the social construction of a policy problem by inquiring into the fundamental basics of the problem that has been identified. Political learning is learning about how political and rhetorical strategies and tactics are designed and adapted to achieve political goals. Political learning occurs when political actors change their political or rhetorical strategies to adapt to changes in their environment. The basic ideas behind the policy learning typology can be traced back to Chris Argyris’ and Donald Schön’s ideas about learning loops, which is probably the most influential learning typology in the field. Their distinctions between single-loop learning, double-loop learning, and deutero-learning was not entirely novel when it was introduced in the mid-1970s. In terms of content, Argyris and Schön based their typology on British anthropologist Gregory Bateson’s learning levels (0–IV). Conceptually they borrowed from psychiatrist Ross Ashby. However, the concepts gained widespread approval after Argyris and Schön started using them, and even though other scholars have suggested similar typologies, none have been cited to the same extent as Argyris and Schön’s conceptualizations (Dodgson, 1993; Fiol & Lyles, 1985; Lipshitz, 2000; Rose, 1993).

Single-loop learning is a form of adaptation that is achieved when organizational members detect and correct deviations and deficiencies in the organization and its operations, without examining basic organizational premises and norms (Argyris & Schön, 1996). The single loop occurs when an investigation links an experienced error with a proposed solution. The organization corrects the error, but essentially continues to perform its tasks in the same way as before, with similar strategies and without questioning the underlying premises. Single-loop learning takes place within existing frameworks and practices. Such learning aims to preserve a particular order through small changes in an incremental process. The organization adapts to a new reality after a crisis while keeping its goals, policies, and standards intact. Single-loop learning works best when the environment changes slowly or when the organization’s premises and surroundings are not in conflict. However, single-loop learning is not enough for organizations to develop and flourish, at least not in times of crisis with rapid change or when the organization’s premises and environment are in conflict. Then it is not enough to solve problems by doing what the organization has always done in the past. In the event of a crisis, organizational members feel an urge to question broader underlying assumptions tied to organizational goals, premises, norms, and working ways. Such double-loop learning can take the form of a restructuring of organizational norms, strategies, and assumptions associated with these norms. This deeper form of learning requires that trial and error investigations are not only linked through a simple loop to strategies and assumptions for effective action (single-loop learning), but also to questioning the norms that define that effective action (double-loop learning). In order to learn as a double-loop learner, actors need to detect and correct errors by examining and, if necessary, changing underlying norms, policies, and goals in the organization (Argyris & Schön, 1978). This radical approach means that old agreements and previous understanding are discarded when new knowledge is added. In practice it means that reasons for failures, errors, or crises are traced to problems with organizational cultures, structures, or other basic and taken-for-granted overarching organizational tenets.

Argyris and Schön also developed a third type of learning, which they named deutero-learning (meta-learning). Deutero-learning is about learning how to learn. To engage in deutero-learning is to question past experiences of learning processes. Deutero-learning processes emerge when learning actors reflect on and question their past experiences and develop new learning strategies. When organizations deutero learn, they develop new working ways in order to increase their capacity to learn in a variety of situations. For such learning to be organizational, it must be embedded in maps, symbols, images, and stories that influence the organization’s decision making, governance, and instructions (Argyris & Schön, 1978).

In summing up the discussion on learning loops: (a) single-loop learning intends improving doing what one does; (b) double-loop learning means asking yourself if you are doing the right things; and (c) deutero-learning is about institutionalizing learning by learning how to learn. This may sound simple, but operationalizing these concepts is not as easy as it may seem at first glance. For example, a learning process may begin as a single-loop learning process, but with the passing of time it may transition into a double-loop learning process and vice versa. Furthermore, experience-based learning does not, by definition, lead to improvement. To some extent this can be explained by the fact that experiences are characterized by ambiguity (March, 2010).

Experiences take place at different levels in organizations. Furthermore, experiences are interpreted by those who experience them and by other actors who interact in complex ways. Thus, an objectively held synthesis of experiences established by consensus between different actors is unusual. After a crisis, there are often differing perceptions in key debates, such as why the crisis occurred, how it was handled, and what should be changed to make sure that it does not happen again. Contradictory beliefs may be based on personal beliefs (Sabatier & Weible, 2007), but also on organizational or political beliefs and loyalties (Allison & Zelikow, 1999). Such conflict and politicized infighting thus tends to hinder learning, making the learning environment more difficult to navigate for the learning agents (Broekema, 2018). To learn in the wake of the crisis requires patience, organizational memory, and a low degree of conflict (Boin & ‘t Hart, 2003).

Furthermore, cause and effect relationships are problematic. Solving a problem can easily create a new and even more strenuous challenge (Deverell, 2012; Senge, 1990). In the worst case, even lessons based on experience can lead to disasters. One such example has been highlighted in the literature by James Chiles. In his book Inviting Disaster, Chiles describes how a test pilot at the U.S. Federal Space Agency (NASA) nearly suffocated in a vacuum chamber in 1960. After that incident, NASA drew the lesson to allow astronauts to breathe pure oxygen. During a simulation on Cape Canaveral seven years later, the Apollo capsule, which was filled with pure oxygen, caught fire and three astronauts perished because of past and ill-fated learning (James Chiles, quoted in Boin, 2008). The example emphasizes that it is fruitful to look at learning as a neutral process that can lead to both good and bad results and therefore needs to be continually reviewed. In addition, although there are ample examples of learning being misleading or leading to increased risk or even disaster, there is still a normative assumption in most studies of crisis learning that learning is for the good (Broekema et al., 2017) or that “one should learn from previous crises” (Pursiainen, 2018, p. 149).

Inter- and Intra-Crisis Learning

Crisis-induced learning is not only a post-crisis activity. Crises challenge organizations’ capacities and competencies to such an extent that the day-to-day organization and working ways will in many cases not be sufficient to manage the crisis. This means that organizations need to learn during crises in order to manage challenges in the heat of a crisis situation. However, empirical studies that unearth examples of innovation and learning not only after crisis, but also during crises, are limited (see, e.g., Moynihan, 2008, 2009). To really understand the relation between crisis and learning, then, it is necessary to bring crisis response into the crisis learning equation. Moynihan distinguished between inter-crisis learning and intra-crisis learning, where the former is “learning from one crisis to prepare for another,” while the latter refers to “learning that seeks to improve response during a single crisis episode” (Moynihan, 2009, p. 189). Studying how organizations respond to crises and how they learn during and from such episodes, raises a number of issues pertaining to the difficulties of applying the concept of organizational learning empirically. As Moynihan (2009) underlines, intra-crisis learning is more challenging than inter-crisis learning as it is subject to time pressure and ambiguity as the meaning making of the processes are not set as the learning processes are being played out.

Methodology: Empirical Case Research

Learning processes are abstract phenomena that are best studied through time-consuming and resource-demanding methods. On a general note, a researcher can use ethnographic methods such as participant observation (Hammersly & Atkinson, 2003) or process tracking (George & Bennett, 2004) to study objects in their natural environment. These approaches can help researchers access the everyday life of their study objects, and gain insight into internal and tacit processes that outsiders would likely miss. In the long-lasting research program Crisis Management Europe, established around the millennium shift, process tracing was the method of choice in a number of research reports and articles that merged the fields of crisis management and learning (Dekker & Hansen, 2004; Deverell, 2010; Koraeus & Stern, 2013; Stern, 1999; Stern & Sundelius, 2002). These studies were based on a wide collection of material covering mass media sources, public investigations, crisis plans, and regulations, as well as other forms of organizational documents, and interviews with key decision makers and staff. A common methodology in many of these case studies was to construct a detailed chronological narrative of the crisis management and learning processes of highly noticed and mediatized cases of crisis management and then closely scrutinize the decision occasions from the narratives.

Deverell (2010) used the process tracing approach to unearth causal links between the phenomena of crisis and learning. In this case, the narrative was examined in search of examples when lessons had been drawn in the form of decision making occasions when experience had altered knowledge or behavior. This examination led to the identification of more than 50 crisis-induced lessons, which then were categorized according to an operationalization of three key queries for crisis-induced learning: (a) What is the content of the learning? This question was operationalized by distinguishing single-loop lessons that investigate into organizational failures and shortcomings and double-loop lessons that explore broader issues of organizational goals, norms, cultures, and working procedures; (b) What is the focus of learning? This issue was operationalized by distinguishing learning aimed at prevention—when lessons are aimed at improving crisis preparedness and minimizing the risks of a new crisis—and learning focused on increasing capacity—when learning was about using crisis response to minimize the consequences of a crisis or by improving future crisis management capacities; and (c) How is learning implemented? This issue was operationalized by distinguishing between lessons observed by actors but not implemented, and lessons observed and learned through agents noticing and also correcting flaws and errors in their organizational environment.

Some Lessons from Previous Research on Crisis and Learning

Previous research and deep qualitative case studies of how public organizations managed crises and learned from these experiences, show that organizations with more up-to-date experience of crisis management are more inclined to engage in crisis-induced learning than organizations lacking such experience. Deverell (2010) used six case studies of crisis management and learning in Swedish public organizations to demonstrate how most lessons learned related to the operational level, thus indicating that crisis management was framed from an operational rather than a strategic management perspective. If this reasoning is broadened to a more general level regarding crisis and learning, learning seems to be influenced by the interpretations of the actors involved in the situation. If a crisis is seen as an isolated event, a policy response is rarely authorized (Deverell, 2010; Kingdon, 2014). In the case of repeated crisis events, this means that the first crisis does not lead to more advanced double-loop learning, while the second crisis gets framed as more of a challenge. Thus, awareness of a problem is not established with the first crisis. Instead it takes a second crisis to mobilize attention to the underlying problems. This pattern has been noted previously in the literature as it is much more difficult to dismiss the second crisis as an isolated event (Kingdon, 2014).

Previous research has also shown that incidents often lead to lessons that are easy to observe and that relate to the causes of the crisis, or to what is found to be its initial trigger, rather than underlying and hidden norms and procedures (Toft & Reynolds, 1997). With this knowledge in mind, it is hardly surprising that there is much theory about double-loop learning processes, but that empirical studies of such advanced learning processes are limited. Since these processes are hard to trace and empirical data thus is difficult to access, it may be beneficial to empirically investigate more commonly occurring single-loop learning processes in order to systematically build knowledge of learning on reliable grounds. On that note, double-loop learning has also been found to come out of the implementation of a series of single-loop lessons (Sydnes et al., 2021), which also implies that researchers should pay more attention to empirical evidence of single-loop learning.

One of the more thorough empirical accounts of crisis-induced learning was conducted by the Dutch scholar Menno van Duin (1992). As it was written in Dutch, this research of post-crisis learning is unfortunately relatively unknown outside of the Netherlands. Van Duin conducted a thorough comparative case study of the politics of learning and reform in the wake of seven catastrophic accidents in the Netherlands in the 1960s and 1970s. His cases included major accidents and large consequence events such as hotel fires, railroad accidents, and industrial accidents. An overall finding of this research was that governmental learning is a slow and incremental process. Another important finding of theoretical value for the relation between crises and learning was that deeper double-loop learning may be impeded by less significant single-loop learning. Similarly, when the cause of the accident was traced to and blamed on human error, deeper analysis into organizational causes and factors were thwarted (van Duin, 1992, pp. 321–322). This scenario was most common in the railroad accident cases that van Duin studied. Further accidents were understood as “unwanted events with no history” in all three sectors studied by van Duin (1992, p. 325). However, his analysis also indicated that when policy learning induced structural change, it was not in response to a single and specific accident. Instead, learning and reform in response to major fires were more often than not influenced by a string of previous similar accidents (van Duin, 1992, p. 325). Thus, van Duin’s findings were in line with prior findings from research on policy reform following disasters, which has found that such reforms are only rarely linked directly to a previous disaster. Rather, structural reform in the wake of disasters tends to be manifest in policy networks before the actual disaster occurs (Quarantelli & Dynes, 1977, p. 34). This means that an imperative part of crisis-induced lesson drawing consists of the linking of old solutions to new problems. Another important implication of these findings is the value of connecting crisis-induced learning to the past as well as to the future.

Another important piece of research regarding the political dimensions of crisis and learning is Dekker and Hansén (2004). They compared a Swedish and a Dutch case of politicization of the police and prosecution services in the crisis aftermath. Their study investigated the effects of politicization in the wake of crises and how such processes may affect public organizations’ capacity to learn from their crisis experiences. Interestingly enough, the Swedish case in their study presented barely any evidence of learning on a structural level. The Dutch case, conversely, demonstrated a high learning curve. From a meticulous analysis of official documents and commissions, the authors demonstrated how politicization may facilitate public sector learning under certain conditions. Specific conditions conducive to learning from crises, according to Dekker and Hansén (2004), include politicians committed to structural solutions that carefully monitor the institutionalization of lessons learned. The authors, moreover, underlined the importance of context and the extent to which problems and solutions are discussed and reflected upon. For instance, in the Dutch case presented in the study, a window of opportunity to couple post-crisis reform suggestions with ongoing social and political trends presented itself (cf. Kingdon, 2014). Another contextual factor that was emphasized was the value of political consensus regarding the aims and scope of crisis-induced reform.

Hansén (2007) also conducted an empirically grounded study aimed at developing theory on crisis-induced learning and policy reform in the wake of crises. This longitudinal study of policymaking effects after crises looked specifically at intraorganizational political learning in the Swedish law and order sector. Hansén’s cases included a 1972 hijacking of a commercial aircraft, the terrorist seizure of the West German embassy in Stockholm in 1975, and the 1986 killing of the Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, which has remained unsolved. His study demonstrated how the first crisis led to swift policy reform and judicial acts, while the second and far more violent crisis led to policy stability and status quo. Finally, the third policy crisis paved the way for extensive reform of the counterterrorism sector. This is interesting as, according to most official records, the Palme assassination was not an act of terrorism. From these three deep case studies, Hansén concluded that policy change after crisis is enabled by the persistent and hard work of policy entrepreneurs and that such change and reform occurs without challenging the dominating policy beliefs of policy networks.

Broekema et al. (2017) found, by studying four veterinary crises in the Netherlands, that post-crisis evaluation reports, leadership, and a shared sense-making of what lessons to be learnt were not significant variables in explaining why learning came about or not. Kamkhaji and Radaelli (2017) studied intra-crisis learning in the case of the EU’s response and learning to attacks on the single currency in 2009–2010 which led to policy change and a new governance system for the euro. Their core claim, based on their case study but with generic explanatory value, is that crises and the surprise effect within these phenomena led to behavioral change. The policy learning then followed in a temporal order after behavior, not before, as mainstream crisis learning theory posits. Learning instead was developed after action when decision makers had more room to reflect on what they had done (Kamkhaji & Radaelli, 2017, p. 716). These findings thus question the causal relationship between cognition and behavior suggested in previous studies on crisis-induced learning as the two are merged into crisis sense-making and behavior as a single process (Kamkhaji & Radaelli, 2017, p. 723). Behavior, then, can occur before learning, as it takes place as a reflection grounded on feedback.

This brief selection of studies that specifically apply learning in regard to crises and in relation to empirical cases gives at least a partial picture of where the field of knowledge on the relation between crisis and learning is in the early 2020s. There are, however, many more studies that on a more theoretical level deal with organizational learning on a more general note and not specifically in relation to crisis. Indeed, organizational learning theory has delivered many fruitful and exploratory assumptions on the relation between information and knowledge and organizational behavior and change (Dekker & Hansén, 2004). For instance, Crossan et al. (1999) presented a 4I framework where intuiting and interpreting among individuals set off the organizational learning process, while integrating and creating shared understandings on the group level play an important role in bridging the individual and organization divide before the last step of institutionalizing knowledge. Moreover, Janowicz-Panjaitan and Noorderhaven (2008) added theoretical insights to the study of organizational learning by showing how informal learning behaviors have a positive effect on learning outcomes and that formalizing these processes may obstruct learning.

Nonetheless, conceptual confusion still characterizes organizational learning research (Berends et al., 2003; Popper & Lipshitz, 1998) and as long as abstract reasoning and conceptual work dominates the field rather than empirical applications and real-world cases, this confusion is likely to remain (Broekema, 2018; Dekker & Hansén, 2004).


This article relies on previous research and most notably the study Crisis-Induced Learning in Public Sector Organizations (Deverell, 2010), where the author developed theory on the relation between crises and learning by putting the concept of crisis-induced learning to work on empirical cases.

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