Social learning in climate change – Of buckets, loops and social LSD?


Participants grappling with the thorns of social learning in the CCAFS workshop

Participants grappling with the thorns of social learning in the CCAFS workshop

Last week, I had to facilitate one of the most challenging and interesting workshops in a long time: A very diverse group of researchers, practitioners and donors came together for the workshop organised by the CGIAR program Climate Change Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS). The workshop focused on ‘communication and social learning: supporting local decision making on climate change, agriculture and food security‘.

The main topic was thus social learning and how it can be mobilised for more effective engagement strategies in the climate change sphere – a highly volatile and complex sphere.

Although I was facilitating and thus not really joining the rich conversations that braided the workshop, I heard the insightful gems from this fascinating collective of people in plenary feedback sessions.

Hereby, my selection of insights from the conversation:

  • There is still very little evidence of the value of social learning – how does it compare with other approaches to carry out research and implement development work, why do we tend to believe and sense this is so effective but fail to justify our intuition?
  • Cynefin framework (Credits: Cognitive Edge)

    Cynefin framework                             (Credits: Cognitive Edge)

    Because we may not know much about the value of social learning and perhaps even what it means, it might be better to just throw ourselves in the battle – as we would do in the ‘chaos’ block of the Cynefin framework (see graph on the right). This means we would be well informed to just throw many approaches and initiatives in a bucket (or basket) and then see how the bucket itself reacts;

  • The cost of social learning remains very high: face-to-face interactions with multiple actors is time-consuming and pricy. This puts all the more pressure on assessing the value of social learning;
  • Social learning brings us back to the single, double and triple learning loops. Another reason to put them into practice. What was interesting here was that applied to communication it was introduced as a) simple dissemination of information (single loop), b) reflection about what activities allow us to be more effective (double loop) and c) real transformative change through social learning among multiple stakeholders (triple loop);
  • Social learning in itself is not really worth pursuing on its own if not for action. For this to happen, there must also be an agenda of action, of social change, that actors negotiate among them and keep in mind at all times. Social learning for the sake of it is a useless academic exercise for development issues;
  • Social learning is also a philosophy, at least an approach that can only thrive in an environment that properly supports it. Institutionalising social learning remains a difficult agenda – this has a ‘deja-vu’ feel of the organisational learning era though, doesn’t it?
  • The case for civic-driven initiatives (actually referred to as ‘endogenous social learning’ initiatives here) was made again: don’t build up from scratch, embed where the soil is fertile, where the energy and capacity is already mobilised;
  • Social learning has a twisted relation with power dynamics as it invites people to join decision-making but bears with it the devils of hidden power (who instils the social learning dynamics?), token representation (who is credibly sent to represent a given group?) and of false transparency (how clear is the decision-making process for those involved in the social learning activity and outside it?).
  • Particularly when applied to complex problems such as climate change, social learning thrives on the participation of very diverse groups of people. This, combined with the issue of power dynamics, means we need to consciously make room for social differentiation – accepting the diversity of perspectives, languages and seeing to an inviting process that creates room for groups of people (ostracised indigenous groups, women, youths etc.) to engage in the conversation and decision-making process. That social learning and social differentiation makes a perfect ‘social LSD’ combination that can get us very high (errrr, far);
  • The importance of ‘process facilitators’ is recognised: we need process guidance, a knack for and wits to convene and catalyze social learning;

We need many, many more creative participatory facilitators. Without them, much of what we hope for will not happen. Who, where, in what ways, needs to do what to generate and support them? What needs to change?” (Chambers, personal communication March 2012)

  • That engagement process should be indeed very interactive, continuous or at least iterative, if it is to reflect genuine social learning. Otherwise it risks falling on the side of ‘token participation’ again;
  • Social learning processes need to address the diverse time frames that motivate different people: farmers look at the next harvest, policy-makers at the next election, a community at the next 25 years, climate change scientists at the next 100 years. Incentives and engagement depend on the time frame of reference for each group – as beautifully explained in this post.
  • As ever, trust is the cement of all success. Particularly in large interactive processes such as wide scale social learning initiatives. This is one of the underlying themes in a recent and excellent (but long) post from Nancy Dixon, when pondering why knowledge management didn’t save General Motors.
  • The documentation of the very process of social learning is equally adamant to the success of our social learning enterprises – one of the external reviewers from the final presentation in the workshop mentioned: “the best pilots cannot be scaled up because they are the best (i.e. they are the result of a symbiotic set of factors related to one particular context), scale up the process not the pilots”. Hear hear!!


Social learning is indeed one of the talks of town – and for good reason – so this workshop was very timely, and could be only the beginning of a much longer engagement process, starting with this emerging community of interest.

This also tells me that it’s time I resumed my blogging on multi-stakeholder processes.

Related blog posts:

External blog posts written about this workshop:

About these ads

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s