Ph.D Project description – please comment/deadline 11/2

Lessons Learned 2.0

Technology-assisted organizational learning in disaster relief and humanitarian aid

“Only 2% of information gets written down – the rest is in people’s heads.”

(David Owens, VP of KM at Unisys Corp.)

“Ex-post evaluations have always tried to fulfil two functions: learning and accountability. These have often not fitted comfortably together, and have even involved a trade-off.”

Maurice Herson and John Mitchell, ALNAP


Real Time and Ex-Post Evaluations are supposed to address the need for “lessons learned” in complex humanitarian aid organizations but often these exercises serve primarily as means of accountability for donors. Herson and Mitchell 2005 notice that the growth of the “evaluation industry” has “led to a disproportionate emphasis on accountability and a focus on longer-term outcomes and impacts” at the expense of monitoring.

It is the hypothesis of this study that such loss is not due to lack of knowledge – rather the opposite: massive amounts of fragmented information, insights and experience float around in complex humanitarian aid organizations. Effective organizational learning requires that only the useful bits of information are presented to those who need them at the right moment in an easily accessible form. The real challenge, thus, lies in collecting and filtering the available knowledge, both explicit and tacit, structuring it in a database, mining this data and disseminating the most relevant stories to targeted users effectively and timely.

Application of Knowledge Management (KM) in humanitarian affairs combined with the use of new technology such as Smartphone applications and Social Media may offer new insights on how efficient learning organizations are created and maintained. This study aims to analyze how organizations within the field of disaster relief and humanitarian aid learn – or don’t – and to present new approaches to technology-assisted organizational learning.

Problem statement

  • How can organizational learning within the field of disaster relief and humanitarian aid be improved using new technology?

Main objective


  • On the basis of an analysis and evaluation of established practices for learning and evaluation in disaster relief and humanitarian aid organizations to design and test workable designs for collecting, structuring and disseminating knowledge in such systems.

Specific objectives

  1. Mapping, analysis and assessment of established practices for collecting, structuring and disseminating knowledge in humanitarian affairs organizations.
  2. Development of a framework for application of Knowledge Management theory to the field.
  3. Design and testing of Smartphone and Social Media applications that enhance organizational learning.

Theories and methods

With regard to Specific Objective 1 a combination of quantitative and qualitative approaches will be used (surveys and semi-structured interviews with key informants) as well as reviews of written evaluations, reports and general literature on the subject. The organizational learning practices within the field of humanitarian aid will be compared to and analyzed using theories and models applied in the private sector as well as Health and Patient Safety and other areas. The work of James Reason, Andrew Hopkins, Trevor Kletz and other authorities in the field will be used as reference points.

The main theoretical framework for Specific Objective 2 is Knowledge Management, a multi-disciplinary approach to organizational learning that, based on the works of Peter Drucker and others in the 1970’s, was widely incorporated as a tool by the private sector in the 1990’s through the writings of Ikujiru Nonaka and others (Nonaka & von Krogh 2009). Both as an academic research field and as applied organizational theory KM has recently been reinforced by the rapid developments in Web 2.0, Smartphone technology and Social Media.

KM addresses the processes by which an organization creates, captures and uses knowledge to improve its overall performance. The notion “tacit knowledge” (defined as the “know-how” that is not easily taught or learned but none the less essential in complex organizations) as opposed to “explicit knowledge” (the factual “know-what”) will be applied to humanitarian aid work through an in-depth analysis of one ore more complex organizations. The cases examined will cover long-term humanitarian programs focusing on the critical transformation of tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge (noted by Hurley & Green 2005 as an obvious area of interest for NGOs) as well as shorter-term processes such as emergency responses and innovation projects in developing countries.

On the basis of the analysis the theoretical framework will be used to design and test applications that will assist organizational learning in humanitarian affairs (Specific Objective 3). Advanced theories on data mining, information structuring and Social Media will be used in combination with fieldwork and on-site testing of designs.

Ethics and limitations

When working with organizational learning it is important to acknowledge that a number of factors threaten to influence one’s endeavors in a negative way. The organization itself may be politically or structurally biased against learning because of tradition or economic issues. And the human factor also needs to be taken into account by acknowledging the individual’s reluctance to point out his or her own weaknesses or mistakes even in a learning perspective.

Drawing on the author’s extensive experience with Human Error Management in large private organizations these ethical issues will be analyzed in depth. On this basis recommendations will be made as to how humanitarian aid organizations my approach and deal with such issues as part of the study.

To limit the scope of the study only organizations using English as their primary language will be selected for further analysis.

Dissemination of findings

The scientific results of this study will be published as articles in international peer-reviewed periodicals and gathered in a single academic publication with an introduction and index.

The practical applications of the findings will be offered to the international humanitarian society as ready-to-use tools for improving organizational learning.

The findings of this study will also be published in a non-scientific book aimed at field-level humanitarian aid workers as well as in lectures and seminars.

Institutional integration

This research project will be anchored at the Master of Disaster Management program at the University of Copenhagen Faculty of Health. Main supervisor will be associate professor Peter Kjær Mackie Jensen. Aalborg University / access2innovation, represented by PhD student Jacob Ravn and professor Arne Remmen, will be integrated as a project participant with special regard to the technological aspects of the study.

Co-operation with institutions such as OCHA (the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs), UNOSAT (the United Nations Operational Satellite Applications Program) and ALNAP (Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action) as well as major NGOs will be established from the outset of the project to ensure tight integration with the needs and realities of the relevant organizations.

Research profile

I hold a candidate’s degree in History from the University of Southern Denmark (graduation year: 2003). Member of the Editorial Board of the peer-reviewed journal on history and theory Den jyske historiker 2002-2008. Author of several books on popular history. Main work: Den menneskelige factor: Historiens svageste led (transl. The Human Factor: History’s Weakest Links, 2004) in which I analyzed a number of major international technological disasters of the 20th century using Charles Perrow’s Normal Accident Theory as my approach. Regular work as a consultant and lecturer on safety awareness and culture and organizational “learning from the past” with companies such as A.P. Moeller-Maersk, Statoil and Novo Nordisk 2005-. I have extensive experience with teaching and lecturing as well as coaching and supervision: For the last year and a half I have been employed at Ryslinge Folk High School teaching Project Management (in English).


Cahill, Kevin (ed.): Technology for Humanitarian Action, The Center for International Health and Cooperation, 2005

Herson, Maurice and Mitchell, John: “Real-Time Evaluation: where does its value lie?”, Humanitarian Exchange Magazine, Issue 32, December 2005

Hurley, Tracy A & Green, Carolyn W.: “Knowledge Management And The Nonprofit Industry: A Within And Between Approach”, Journal of Knowledge Management Practice, January 2005

Nonaka, Ikujiru & von Krogh, Georg: “Tacit Knowledge and Knowledge Conversion: Controversy and Advancement in Organizational Knowledge Creation Theory”, in: Organization Science, Vol. 20, No. 3, May-June 2009, pp. 635-652

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