This paper is a systematic review of the literature on organizational learning and knowledge with relevance to public service organizations. Organizational learning and knowledge are important to public sector organizations, which share complex external challenges with private organizations, but have different drivers and goals for knowledge. The evidence shows that the concepts of organizational learning and knowledge are under-researched in relation to the public sector and, importantly, this raises wider questions about the extent to which context is taken into consideration in terms of learning and knowledge more generally across all sectors. A dynamic model of organizational learning within and across organizational boundaries is developed that depends on four sets of factors: features of the source organization; features of the recipient organization; the characteristics of the relationship between organizations; and the environmental context. The review concludes, first, that defining 'organization' is an important element of understanding organizational learning and knowledge. Second, public organizations constitute an important, distinctive context for the study of organizational learning and knowledge. Third, there continues to be an over-reliance on the private sector as the principal source of theoretical understanding and empirical research and this is conceptually limiting for the understanding of organizational learning and knowledge. Fourth, differences as well as similarities between organizational sectors require conceptualization and research that acknowledge sector-specific aims, values and structures. Finally, it is concluded that frameworks for explaining processes of organizational learning at different levels need to be sufficiently dynamic and complex to accommodate public organizations. © 2009 Blackwell Publishing Ltd and British Academy of Management.