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A background to the learning example approach

by Kate Lonsdale

The overall aim of the A1.4 & A1.5 learning examples was to better understand how successful adaptation is managed by different organisations and within different institutional settings. By engaging with key actors (through interviews, questionnaires and workshops) the research team was able to uncover valuable information on some of the key drivers for change, identifying what supports effective adaptation decision making in different institutional settings (as well as what barriers to learning and information sharing exist), and how individuals and organisations interact in ways that either enhance or impede this. Through this investigative process aspects that support effective action on adaptation to climate change, including how best to facilitate the building of adaptive capacity, have been collated and analysed. Of special interest was how organisations move beyond the development of practical guidelines to the 'messy' business of trying to implement them in practice i.e. a process of enabling adaptation to take place. As this involves interactions between people; communication and power issues are highly significant.

Some of the key concepts that informed our work plan were:

Adaptation as a learning process

Ojha et al (2004) proposed that a requirement of adaptive management was that learning through experience occurs in a more conscious way, specifically by incorporating explicit learning into management plans and action. Assuming that policies and plans for adaptation to climate change are based on incomplete knowledge (as expressed through decision-making under conditions of uncertainty for example) then an investigation into appropriate responses requires a process of inquiry, experimentation, and ultimately reflection, in order to test out ideas and consider their application in different contexts.  

Accepting that learning from experience is an important component of being able to adapt effectively, it therefore becomes critical to understand what supports such learning in different institutional settings. Sifting through the large amount of literature on 'learning' it is possible to identify a number of supportive conditions - these in turn influenced the focus of questions put to the original round of interviewees.  Indeed, learning from experience requires those involved reflecting on that experience, particularly what worked well and what did not, in order to verify underlying assumptions and inform adaptation responses, changes to management practice, etc. The quality of this process of reflection depends on a number of factors such as how much time is allowed for it, how it is facilitated, who takes part and what sort of changes are considered possible (variables defining the 'space to learn').

The depth of this reflection process depends on what is noticed and which questions are being asked. Are people reflecting on the content or the process? Do they feel able to challenge the underlying assumptions or are these accepted without question? How safe people feel in doing so affects the level of honesty surrounding the process, as well as how open they are to new ideas (in contrast to being defensive and closed to potential change). This sense of 'safety' can also depend on the environment in which the conversations take place, as well as the level of trust between different actors. For example, challenging traditional practice in an unsupportive environment can increase the risk that people will become defensive and disengage from negotiation, or that the interaction is conflictual, with the two sides becoming more rather than less entrenched in their positions.

Within this context of 'learning to adapt', it is important to understand what spaces for reflection exist in relevant organisations. Some questions that need to be considered include: What is the environment in which decision-making takes place? How much time is factored in to allow for reflection (and even how much priority is it given)? How is the time managed? What sorts of questions are asked (are they mostly content or process questions, or are the underlying assumptions challenged)? Who takes part in these conversations, and who (or perhaps more importantly who does not) take part? 

Barriers to effective learning

In her 2006 paper on 'Working with barriers to organisational learning', Goold focuses on the work of development NGOs, concluding that although the organisations place value on 'learning from experience' there are many aspects of organisational life that can actually act to prevent this occurring. If the organisation has a bias towards action there may be a tendency for 'quick fixes' that fail to address the core problems. Issues include poorly planned / facilitated meetings which may be unproductive or result in poor decision-making, or if staff are overworked or always have a number of 'urgent' tasks to deal with (hence negating the ability to be reflective). This can become apparent when people have a tendency to generalise rather than go deeper into the subject matter e.g. reducing complex data to a one-side page of bullet points or creating tight agendas for meetings with no time allocated for adequate exploration of the issues. Such practice can miss the deeper learning that helps to identify and clarify the core issues and areas for change. 

In reality, there can often be a reluctance to discuss complex issues of risk because they can appear overwhelmingly complicated to organisations already stretched operationally, with problem structures such as that associated with adaptation not fitting neatly into existing organisational structures. Furthermore, organisations uncomfortable with innovation (or learning) are likely to be less keen to take risks due to a fear of getting it 'wrong', with staff reluctant to share their concerns honestly in such environments. Exacerbating influences may include funding procedures which focus on outputs that have to be predicted at the beginning of the project rather than a more emergent process that accepts that outputs and outcomes may change over the life of the project.

A further consideration is informal versus informal space. Pelling & High (2005) emphasise the importance of informal spaces for developing the capacity for adaptation, believing them to have more potential for creative and effective responses than more formal processes. To support opportunities for people to meet requires the building of strong relationships, and needs to be invested in. What do organisations do to support this and can this be identified through the research process? Pelling & High also noted that working on a common task was a good way of making links between actors, both internally and externally, through which information and examples of good practice could be shared. Crucially, it was concluded that attempting to 'formalise' these informal connections can render them too rigid and thus reduce their creativity and effectiveness.

Decision-making in complex systems

'Organised efforts to direct change more than partially confront the impossibility of ever understanding the totality of a system that is in constant flux. We cannot predict all the effects that any of our actions have on the wider system or indeed on ourselves as initiators of the action'.

    Eyben (2005)

'Complex systems' literature addresses the dynamic nature of systems which are poorly understood, yet which are subject to important decisions and require the consideration of many different perspectives in order to achieve sustainable outcomes. Importantly, new possibilities emerge not only from the individual parts of the system but also from the connections made between them. For any approach to be successful it should recognise and give due weight to all perspectives - ignoring disagreements or uncertainty can actually result in problems over the long term. In any system where there are multiple perspectives the issue of power becomes important as it affects how people communicate and relate to each other, how agreements about the purpose of an engagement are made, and who has access to the relevant information. This re-emphasises the importance of investing in relationships and the process of building shared perspectives on multi-dimensional issues. If well facilitated, these new institutions can enable new possibilities to emerge.

From these key concepts from theory we drew out the following research questions that we used to directly inform our development of the learning examples:

What are the driving forces for adaptation?

It is important to understand the contextual background for adaptation, and the key drivers for change, if effective responses are to be developed. Indeed, at a general level, interviews carried out to date have indicated that the climate change issue is no longer questioned as it was in the past. Across all sectors, there is a common acknowledgement that climate change is happening and that we need to be preparing for future change (or even present day extreme events). That said, how sectors, institutions and individuals perceive the risks associated with climate change ultimately influences their type of response. For example, the insurance industry already has considerable experience of managing risks, and this has resulted in a proactive approach to dealing with climate change, to the extent that the sector is now seen as one of the main 'agents' of change, with considerable power to influence adaptation activity. On the other side of the coin, more traditional (conservative) sectors such as architecture 'tend to favour a cautious approach to adopting new policies as a result of needing to preserve their long-established reputation'. In this latter case, climate change is 'seen as one risk amongst many', emphasising the need to take multiple stressors (not just climate change) into account.

How do decisions about adaptation to climate change get made?

Following on from this, a focus on decision-making processes is also valuable. In this regard, it is important to consider how organisations formulate adaptation responses, how climate risks are conceptualised, where the issue 'sits' in the organisation (and thus how much of a priority it is considered to be). Is it an add-on item, something to be 'mainstreamed' (if so, what is meant by this and how would it be achieved) or a core / corporate risk that requires considerable investment? What influences this?

What resources are needed to support this?

Adequate resourcing is more than just financing, important though it is. It can also be reflected by who takes part in the decision-making process and the types of roles that people have? Research questions therefore need to consider: what formal or informal processes exist to provide support for decision-making? How much time is allocated to this? How much time is allowed for people from different parts of the organisation or from external organisations to meet to consider this? How are such interactions facilitated? What can we learn about good communication on adaptation from the interviews? Where have we found spaces for networking in and between organisations? What key messages can we distil concerning support for the learning process?

What information sources are useful?

What makes information useful for decision makers, and hence more likely to be used in practice? Haas (2004) frames this as 'usable knowledge', focusing on how policy makers exploit scientific knowledge to underpin their decisions (the categories of legitimacy, salience, credibility, could apply to any form or learning - see fig 1). In what format should information be provided to enable busy decision-makers to absorb the detail and use it to influence decision-making? What are the 'real-world' examples where this works well?

What is working well in terms of adaptation to climate change?

Although climate change adaptation information is available, in reality there remains a disconnection between theory and practice. Therefore, what examples highlight the translating of awareness of the issue to actual adaptation action on the ground? What examples of good practice are there? What are the key factors that result in it's labelling of best practice? What lessons of learning are potentially transferable to other situations and contexts?

What are the barriers to adaptation?

What do key experts think might hinder progress in adapting to climate change and comparing / assessing different options? What assumptions are being made? What can be done to overcome these barriers?



Goold, E. (2006) Working with Barriers to Organisational Learning, BOND, available at

Haas, P.M. (2004) 'When does power listen to truth? A constructivist approach to the policy process'  Journal of European Public Policy, Volume 11, No. 4, April 2004.

Ojha, H.R., Paudel, K, Pokharel, B., McDougall, C. (2004) Social Learning at Work: A case study of community forestry in Nepal, Forest Action.

Pelling, M. & High C. (2005) Social Learning and Adaptation to Climate Change, Benfield Hazard Research Centre, Working Paper 11.

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