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How do networks and 'communities of practice' support the process of getting action on adaptation?

by Kate Lonsdale

This was a common theme in the learning examples.  There is wide recognition that adaptation to climate change is not something that can be tackled in 'silos'.  With this recognition of the interdependence of the different players in addressing adaptation comes an awareness of different agendas and biases and the potential for conflict.

'There is also a fundamental lack of consensus among key players on the very need for adaptation, on the choice of specific measures, and on the criteria which should be used to assess and prioritise potential adaptation measures....even those who recognise the urgent need for action disagree on what should be done; some, particularly those in government, favour supply-side measures, while scientists advocate for demand-side options.

Cape Town Learning Example

'Adaptation of the built environment to climate change (including variability and extremes) is not only the responsibility of urban planners, but also needs to involve other key stakeholders. In policy terms, responses need to be cross-departmental and not remain in policy 'silos''

Urban planning, UK learning example

Health issues related to heat wave are also affected by other influences, such as transport or even by the form of the built environment (influences mental health) therefore an integrated approach would ultimately be necessary to address these interlinked issues. Existing mechanisms for monitoring and assessment, for instance Health Impact Assessments, are seen as limited when dealing with the complexity of climate change and related environmental/social problems.

Health learning example


Importance of improved understanding between scientists, policy makers and stakeholders

Two clear messages about data come out from the learning examples:

Raw scientific data is difficult for the non specialist to use as it takes too much time to understand and people are busy.  There is a risk that you might make the investment of time and find that the information is not relevant after all or that it conflicts with information from elsewhere. 

There is often a poor relationship between scientists and end users with scientists second guessing the needs of the end user in the development of tools, sometimes showing a lack of interest in getting feedback and frustration with end users 'impossible' requests for step by step guidance and greater certainty.  Some quotes from the learning examples:

'There is some evidence that data is being translated into knowledge (in academia) and is being disseminated (from academia to politicians and practitioners). Begs 2 questions:

    1. why isn't the knowledge on climate change reaching more politicians and practitioners and/or raising awareness of the importance of adaptation among them?
    2. why isn't awareness being translated into action?'

Cape Town learning example


 'Much of the scientific information being produced and disseminated is felt to be inaccessible, incomprehensible, and unhelpful to policy-makers, professionals and the public; it requires 'translation' into non-scientific language specifically-geared to each type of target audience. And it needs to be combined and packaged with 'lay' knowledge and experience.'

Berlin learning example

'Access to better scientific data and knowledge would help banks to deal with the uncertainty inherent to climate change and adapt their decision-making style from retrospective (based on past experience) to proactive; for this to happen, the financial sector needs to develop greater appreciation for the role of scientists, and scientists need to make their findings more comprehensible and useful to users.'

Financial learning example

What would it take to improve this relationship?  Interviewees gave us examples of what they saw as good principles of collaboration:

  • opportunities for more time listening to each others expectations and needs and an openness for both the academics and end users to learning e.g. through joint tasks and working groups and work placements
  • developing an understanding amongst the research community that the motivations and constraints of different end users are many and varied rather than seeing all stakeholder as needing the same kind of information
  • the development of integrated work programmes that engage end users at all stages of the project cycle from inception stages to evaluation,
  • investment in boundary organisations that can translate the science into usable information for different end users and create spaces to make sense of the information for specific stakeholders.
  • Attention to who has power in these relationships e.g. who is ultimately answerable to the funders and how does this impact how the work is undertaken

Without testing in the 'real world', more concepts, tools, and methods and better scientific solutions will only be of academic interest unless these solutions make sense 'on the ground' and can be absorbed and implemented. This highlights the need for 'co-production' of knowledge through collaborative learning between experts and users through processes of action research (Reason and Bradbury, 2008, Heron, 1999, Revens, 1982).  This sounds deceptively simple but working in collaboration is not easy and issues around power such as who receives the funding in any collaboration (and who has ultimate responsibility for delivery of outputs), who designs and runs meetings and workshops, how are stakeholders engaged in each stage of the project cycle (is it more 'consultation' or real 'co-learning'?) can have a significant impact on how effective the collaboration is in building effective learning rather than reproducing (or even reinforcing) previously held and unhelpful perceptions 1.  Collaboration in which both sides can address such issues openly requires an investment in building relationships and breaking down previously held perceptions of the other (Harvey, 2007).

Another 'missing link' was brought up between policy makers and those making decisions about adaptation:  

'In many instances policy makers are unaware of what is actually happening at the 'coal-face', a result of liaising predominantly with other policy makers. The ADAM project could make a difference by highlighting this current limitation'.

Many mentioned the dearth of 'case studies' or examples of adaptation in practice from which to gain ideas for what works and what might be considered 'best practice'.  Having such examples of what adaptation might look like are an important communication tool when trying to persuade others to consider adaptation.  It is useful to have examples of what it might mean in different situations to prevent it seeming too overwhelming or too vague.  One reason for the dearth og stories about adaptation action is that there is still relatively little happening and, as is often the case, the people who put thing into action (the practitioners) are often not the people who write things up as they are busy with more action. The weADAPT platform provides a way to capture such stories, for example, through the Google Earth interface.  There is also a clear link here to the Adaptation Catalogue produced in A2 of the ADAM project.


The importance of networks

Much has been said in the academic literature about the importance of networks and 'communities of practice' as ways to share experiences with peers in the same field, talk through areas of 'stuckness' and bring in new information through organisations and individuals who act as bridges between different areas of practice or academic disciplines (Pelling and High, 2005).

Some government officials have shown awareness of the value of informal networks for dialogue, information-sharing and exchange of experiences, helping them to gain access to important information on vulnerabilities from public and private stakeholders, while also acting as communication platforms to spread information and knowledge about adaptation ideas and actions.

Public participation and public-private cooperation need to be built into urban planning and development processes in order to increase awareness, knowledge and commitment to adaptive action, and to build sustained adaptive capacity. It suggests that this can be done principally through the social learning which happens in informal relationships and networks for sharing information and experience and facilitating dialogue and engagement. 

Berlin learning example


Why do people need to talk to each other?  Some reflections on theory

When uncertainty is high organisations need to interact more not less, with other parties in order to access knowledge and resources (Powell, 1998).

We need find a way to move from information to knowledge.  If knowledge is seen as something that is co-created it cannot be acquired simply by learning from others.  Co-creation is usually much more complex process than that requiring interaction, shaking mental models, dissonance, to create a shared understanding or meaning.  And, as far as possible, in the making tacit knowledge (about how things are done, internalised and made sense of) that was mentioned in the previous section, explicit (Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995) leading to new insights and new knowledge in the group (Kimble et al., 2001). 

Brown and Duguid (1996) argue that tacit knowledge can only be externalized and spread through social interaction. Several authors describe the role of story telling or narratives for converting tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge (for example, Linde, 2001; Simons and Ruijters, 2001; Brown and Duguid, 1996) especially where the hearers are able to interact and contribute their opinion and knowledge to the story told (Linde, 2001). Another essential aspect of effective co creation of knowledge, is an opportunity for collective reflection (Simons and Ruijters, 2001; Nonaka and Takeuchi, 1995; Van Woerkum, 2003).

The development of 'communities of practice' were developed, initially in business communities, in order to keep ahead in a quickly changing and competitive environment.   The continuous 'creation and dissemination of knowledge and its ability to embed this within the firm' began to be seen as 'a firms only 'true' source of sustainable competitive advantage'  (Drucker,1991; Spender and Grant, 1996).  Communities of practice are defined as more or less formal groupings that can be said to share three fundamental elements (Wenger, 1998):

  • a domain of knowledge, which defines a set of issues, creates a common ground and a sense of common identity;
  • a community of people who foster interactions and relationships based on mutual respect and trust, and who care about this domain;
  • and a shared practice they are developing with a set of frameworks, ideas, tools, information, styles, language, stories, and documents that community members share, and with that they can be effective in their domain.

When functioning well together, a CoP is an ideal structure for developing and sharing knowledge (Wenger et al, 2002).  CoPs can act in the creation, exchange, interpretation, accumulation, and diffusion of knowledge in an organization (Wenger et al., 2002). Because members have a shared understanding, they know what is relevant to communicate and how to present information in useful ways and unlike a database or manual they can retain knowledge in "living" ways, by preserving the tacit aspects of knowledge (Mittendorff et al, 2006). However, a strong CoP can be conservative and slow to respond to outside influences and thus not useful in stimulating innovative practice or change. 

The real value of networks is often from the informal rather than the formal interactions that occur and the development of trust between individuals than creates openness an opportunities to go beyond 'defensive' routines and enquire. The issues brought up are likely to be salient and of value (two of Haas's criteria for usable information(Haas, 2004)) as they are what is on people's minds at that moment. For many people the support gained through talking, sharing stories and collaborating with people who are struggling with the same problem helps enormously not only in building knowledge but also motivating and encouraging you to take action  'you need the personal relationship to go the extra half mile').  Having shared documents that record this shared learning can be a powerful way to build confidence and a sense that 'I am not alone'.

The case for networks is clear but, as in all human systems, there can be limitations.  To develop strong relationships, trust building and opportunities for sharing tacit information often requires frequent interaction in relatively small groups or working on a joint task (Kogut and Zander, 1992). Also, such groups may not lead to better performance as they can also slow change, preserve outdated modes of thinking and be exclusive of new ideas and people.  



Brown, J. and Duguid, P., (1996), Organizational Learning and Communities-of-Practice, in Cohen, M. and Sproull, L., (Eds), Organisational Learning, London, Sage

Drucker, P. (1991), Post-capitalist Society, Butterworth-Heinemann, Oxford.

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.

Heron, J. (1999) The Complete Facilitator's Handbook, Kogan Page.

Kimble, C., Hildreth, P. and Wright, P. (2001). "Communities of practice: going virtual," in: Knowledge management and business innovation, edited by  Y. Malhotra, pp. 216-230.  Hershey, PA: Idea Group. Retrieved 26th September, 2002 from:

Kogut, B. and Zander, U. 1992 'Knowledge of the firm, combinative capabilities, and the replication of technology', Organization Science 3: 383-397.

Linde, C. (2001) Narrative and social tacit knowledge. Journal of Knowledge Management, 5(2), 160-170.

Mittendorff, K., Geijsel, F., Hoeve, A., de Laat, M., Nieuwenhuis, L. (2006), Communities of practice as stimulating forces for collective learning, Journal of Workplace Learning, Vol. 18 No. 5,pp. 298-312

Nonaka, I., & Takeuchi, H. (1995). The Knowledge-Creating Company: How Japanese Companies Create the Dynamics of Innovation. New York: Oxford University Press.

Powell, W.W. (1998), "Learning from collaboration: knowledge and networks in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries", California Management Review, Vol. 40 No. 3, pp. 228-40.

Reason, P. and Bradbury, H. (2008), The SAGE book of Action Research: Participative Enquiry and Practice, 2nd Edition.

Revans, R.W. (1982) The Origins and Growth of Action Learning, Bromley, UK Chartwell-Bratt.

Roux, D.J., Rogers, K.H., Biggs, H.C., Ashton, P.J., Sergeant, A. (2006), "Bridging the Science-Management Divide: Moving from Unidirectional Knowledge Transfer to Knowledge Interfacing and Sharing", Ecology and Society, 11(1): 4

Simons, P. R. J., & Ruijters, M. C. P. (2001). Work related learning: elaborate, expand, externalise. In L. Nieuwenhuis (Ed.), Dynamics and stability in VET and HRD. Enschede: Twente University Press.

Spender, J.C. and Grant, R.M. (1996), ''Knowledge and the firm: overview'', Strategic Management Journal, Vol. 17, pp. 5-9.

van Woerkum, C.M.J.,  Aarts, M.N.C. and de Grip, K. (2007), Creativity, planning and organisational change, Journal of Organisational Change, Vol 20, No. 6, pp 847-865.

Wenger, E. (1998), Communities of Practice. Learning, Meaning and Identity, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Wenger, E., McDermott, R. and Snyder, W.M. (2002), Cultivating Communities of Practice.  A Guide to Managing Knowledge, Harvard Business School Press, Boston, MA



1 For a discussion of how 'managers' view 'scientists' see: Roux et al, 2006

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