NATO's learning crisis

UCI poli sci professor Heidi Hardt draws on interviews with political officials and top military brass to highlight need for NATO reforms to strengthen military operations

Heidi Hardt
 Heidi Hardt

Informal networks are critical for organizations to learn from past mistakes - particularly in large, multi-national settings like NATO, says UCI political science assistant professor Heidi Hardt. In her book, NATO’s Lessons in Crisis: Institutional Memory in International Organizations, Hardt draws on her 120 interviews with NATO’s high-level elites. Ensured anonymity, ambassadors and high-level political and military officials opened up about the behemoth organization’s culture of addressing strategic failures in military operations. Elites use an extensive, private network - rather than NATO’s learning offices - to capture many of the important but difficult lessons. As described below and detailed in her book with direct quotes from NATO’s top brass, Hardt identifies several ways that organizations, whether businesses, universities, or alliances, can do a better job at learning from past mistakes to ensure future success.

Q: What is institutional memory and why does it matter for organizations like NATO?

Institutional memory is a collection of knowledge that exists among the individuals within an organization and that concern past strategies and decisions. While there are takeaways for many types of organizations, this book specifically makes an argument about the development of institutional memory in international organizations (IOs). These IOs are groups of states committed to a common set of goals, and examples of IOs include NATO, the United Nations, the European Union. Importantly, the book also identifies what NATO elites consider to be the most important strategic lessons from NATO’s responses to crises in Afghanistan, Libya, and Ukraine. At NATO, institutional memory encompasses the collection of knowledge among senior IO “elite” officials, and this knowledge can have a direct impact on the organization’s performance. Accountable to their member states (like the U.S.), IOs strive to be effective at what they do so they need to have the capacity to learn from their mistakes. Institutional memory is also critical because IOs experience constant turnover. If individuals are rotating out and not able to pass on knowledge about their biggest mistakes, history risks repeating itself. And in the context of military planning, repeated failures can be deadly. So institutional memory really matters not only for organizational effectiveness but also for preventing future loss of life.

Q: What do past failures mean for these organizations?

I became really focused on past failures because in military operations, failures often involve civilian casualties. These can threaten the success of the organization depending on the scope of the incidences, the response of IO member states and the local government and the international media attention. The good news is that my research indicates that institutional memory about strategic failures does exist at IOs like NATO. The bad news is that knowledge about past failures is heavily dependent upon informal networks that are vulnerable to knowledge loss. Many of the individuals central to these networks are retiring since NATO officials are required to do so at age 65. The WTO is facing the same wave of retirements. When these key individuals leave the organization, knowledge loss is inevitable.

Q: What can an organization like NATO or the UN take from your study to ensure important institutional knowledge is passed through to new office holders?

The first thing formally is to ensure that reporting systems guarantee anonymity. NATO should reform its lessons learned office (i.e. the JALLC) so that if people do want to pass on strategic level lessons, they can feel relatively safe doing so. Expanding training about NATO’s existing lessons learned process would also help spread the understanding that learning is not the job of the lessons learned office; rather, each person at NATO has a responsibility to contribute lessons. Such training could be easily wrapped in as part of the security induction that all NATO officials already receive upon arrival. A lot of elites did not understand that they were obligated by NATO’s formal process to contribute lessons. Rather, some argued that the existence of a lessons learned office presented ‘an excuse’ for not passing on knowledge in this way.  

Read the full Q&A at


connect with us


© UC Irvine School of Social Sciences - 3151 Social Sciences Plaza, Irvine, CA 92697-5100 - 949.824.2766