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Report: The Impact of Organizational Culture on Innovation at the United Nations

Report: The Impact of Organizational Culture on Innovation at the United Nations

How might we more deeply understand the role of organizational culture on the innovation within UN, both in fostering and impeding innovation?


Our innovation unit inside of UN Secretariat worked with the New School researcher Ardra Manasi to understand how organizational culture impacts innovation across the UN system. The following is an excerpt from Mrs. Manasi’s report.

An introduction from the author, Ardra Manasi -

The manner in which the UN's mandate of issues of international security, development and human rights is pursued has undergone a shift over the decades in response to the emergent nature of transnational challenges (“problems without passports” as the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan called them) and global nature of risks. This has resulted in the UN having to critically assess these issues and seeks to address them, often through novel ways. The pursuit of innovation as an organizational 'good' and the still-in-progress institutionalization of ‘innovation’ has been an almost decade long journey for the UN.

  • The institutionalization of innovation within the UN has been achieved through innovation spaces / units / labs, which exist as both physical and virtual entities.

  • By serving as units that encourage creative thinking, these independent innovation spaces have succeeded in their mission to stand out as unique and different.

But what about the larger system? The response to new demands of the 21st century entails an evolution in the way we interpret and embody the UN’s values for peace, justice, equality, human dignity, and environmental sustainability calls for innovation in the culture of the system.

Research Problem and Objective

These networks of labs increasingly cooperate with academia, civil society and member state governments to formulate bottom-up solutions for pertinent social issues and development challenges. In addition, the end users often influence the location and objectives of the lab and they greatly vary from agency to agency. As opined by some researchers, this sense of greater autonomy from the parental organization has had a positive impact on the nature of innovation that these units pursue. They make more room for innovation through “prioritization of flexibility” and by creating a “failure friendly environment.”  

This research claims that organizational culture has an impact on the innovation adopted by the UN, in some cases fostering and in other cases, impeding innovation.

Drawing upon the study by Romy Faulkner and Louise Bloom (2015) and informed by the literature on public sector innovations which establish a strong causal relational between organizational culture and technological innovation , this research claims that organizational culture has an impact on the innovation adopted by the UN, in some cases fostering and in other cases, impeding innovation.

Thus, more specifically, my research sought to address the following two questions:

  1. How does one understand the innovation within the UN?

  2. What are the aspects within the organizational culture of the UN that impede or foster the adoption of innovation?

Relevance of the study

This study was conducted in partnership with the”Unite Labs,” the Innovation Unit inside of the Office of Information and Communications Technology (OICT) division of the UN Secretariat. ‘Unite Labs’ is currently in the process of scaling up its innovation capacity and extending its outreach to other partners within and outside the UN system. My hope remains that the recommendations from the study can assist the lab, and future UN innovation projects, in pursuing a more robust innovation strategy in the near future. 

This study is an attempt to address this gap by bringing together actors from both the specialized agencies of the UN and the Secretariat in exploring the underlying common premises, which either drive or impede innovation policies pursued by the UN.

Though there have been studies which focus on humanitarian innovation at the UN, there is still a dearth of literature when it comes to providing an in-depth and panoramic view of the innovation scene at the UN.

  • Are the innovation vocabulary and the frame of reference which guides UN innovation strategies different from those followed by private sector or other philanthropic institutions?

  • What are the the underlying common premises, which either drive or impede innovation policies pursued by the UN?

  • How effective are the existing innovation units within the UN?

Automated UN Document Summaries

Automated UN Document Summaries

Accelerating Humanitarian Aid Planning with UN-OCHA & Microsoft

Accelerating Humanitarian Aid Planning with UN-OCHA & Microsoft