Stakeholder engagement, dialogue and modes of learning

Submitted by Michael Rastall 26th June 2013 12:41
5245b281b3c86stakeholder-engagement 1 - climate adaptation.

The process of stakeholder engagement and creating dialogue aims to generate a concrete understanding that empowers, builds capacity and facilitates different modes of learning.

The sections below provide summaries of some methods for stakeholder engagement, dialogue and different modes of learning.

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Stakeholder processes

Stakeholder engagement

This refers to the processes through which an organisation involves those individuals or networks who may be affected by the decisions it makes. Engagement techniques include focus groups, participatory modelling, and visioning exercises.

Stakeholder analysis

In some of the broader definitions of stakeholders a great many groups and individuals are identified as having an interest in a given issue. Given limited resources, however, it may not be possible for them all to be included in a process of engagement. Some way of distinguishing between stakeholders thus has to be found.

Social Network Analysis

Social network analysis is the mapping and measuring of relationships and flows of information between people, groups and organizations. This approach can be used to show the bottlenecks in information and knowledge flows for decision-making and how can these be improved to support social learning and build adaptive capacity (see weADAPT's SNA Review).

Participatory processes

A set of immersive techniques where the researcher takes ideas of power dynamics into account, and accordingly tries to include the feelings and understanding of all the key players (not just those who have the most prominent voice) as well as take account of his/her biases. Done well, a participatory process is a rigorous, ethical and inclusionary method that can also be empowering and highly beneficial to all involved.

Modes of learning

Social Learning

'Social' learning is thought to occur through the sharing of knowledge between individuals, groups and organisations in society through interactions, particularly in novel environments and situations where new opportunities and spaces of possibility can be explored. Social learning processes are particulalrly important in building adaptive capacity. .

  • Social Learning for Adaptation

    This handbook presents the experience of a participatory social learning process that evolved to support individual and community level adaptation to the myriad of stressors affecting rural people. While the social learning process is presented as a ‘package,’ this is more out of convenience than attempting to represent a perfect model. In other words, genuinely responsive social learning processes may well vary in content, but possibly not in core features from what is presented here. This handbook should therefore be considered as a framework to guide thinking and reflection around how such processes might unfold, and further provide guidance towards possible approaches and activities that may be appropriate in some circumstances.

  • SLIM definitions of social learning

  • Adaptation as a Socio-Institutional Learning Process 

    We see adaptation a process of socio-institutional learning relevant for specific contexts, and producing adaptation outcomes and processes that are robust against a wide range of future situations. It recognizes often competing stakeholder goals and processes and uses information at various levels and in many ways. Information and approaches relevant to adaptation are evolving all the time, so we need an iterative approach to adaptation where we act, learn and then take a further decision based on the best available information. See methods for joint learning for case studies in Nepal, Belize and Tanzania.

Transformative Learning

Transformative learning (TL) theory offers a theoretical framework to understand adult learning brought by  critical discourse and reflection. TL theory describes a socially nested process through which a person’s frames of reference are changed, with potential consequences on a person’s behavior. TL theory considers two domains of learning that can be used to measure stakeholder engagement. Instrumental learning encompasses a change in the cognitive understanding, which takes forms in the acquisition and employment of factually correct knowledge about a certain issue. Enhanced engagement with climate change can also result from communicative learning, that is, how knowledge is perceived and contextualized based on deeply-rooted beliefs, worldviews, personal objectives, pre-existing knowledge and previous experiences.

Adaptive Management and Learning Processes

A semi-structured, iterative process of decision making to reduce uncertainty over time via system monitoring. Adaptive management treats policies as experiments; evaluating and learning from past management actions to improve future planning and management.

Learning by example

An umbrella phrase that can include several learning techniques, for example; experiential learning, learning from practice, ‘trial and error; ‘adaptive management’; ‘unmonitored experience’.

Organisational Learning

A theoretical lens that views “routines” as the basis of organisational behaviour. These routines can be viewed as institutions in a wide sense that include rules, procedures, technologies frameworks, cultures, and knowledge that guide the behaviour of the organisation and are independent of the individual actors that execute them. Organizational learning occurs when there is a modification of the routines of an organization as a response to a changed environment.

Action Learning (particularly for capacity building)

Action learning sets are one approach that can be used to foster learning in the workplace. They have been used by a number of organisations in the NGO sector in recent years. The emphasis is on learning from experience and then acting on that learning. Simply put, the Action Learning Set approach provides a structured way of working in small groups which can provide the discipline we often need to help us learn from what we do, and improve our practice as a result.

Stakeholder dialogue tools

Mapping and modelling tools have been effectively used to facilitate multi-stakeholder participation in decision-making processes. A substantive 'mixed-method' approach is also becoming more common, for example in the linking of WEAP to KnETs (Kemp-Benedict et al. 2010), and at a more local level through the combination of vignettes (story narratives), Q-methodology and participatory mapping. These combinations have been used successfully to widen participation in research investigating inequalities in environmental, social and economic conditions (Cinderby et al 2012). Multi- and nested-scale participatory mapping approaches are also useful when linking them to scenario development (Cinderby et al 2010; de Bruin et al 2011) as this allows the approach to be used across levels of governance.


This method supports traditional participatory fieldwork methods and can also provide input for agent based models. Thus, it aims to provide a formalised link between qualitative and quantitative representations of knowledge and their interaction (Bharwani, 2006).

Q Methodology

The Stockholm Environment Institute uses the 'structured subjectivity' of Q-methodology and the quantitative output of Q, along with social network mapped data, as short-hand inputs to describe characteristics of agents in social-simulation models. These models are then used to talk through issues and options with stakeholders. 

Water Evaluation and Planning System (WEAP)

Freshwater management challenges are increasingly common. Allocation of limited water resources between agricultural, municipal and environmental uses now requires the full integration of supply, demand, water quality and ecological considerations. The Water Evaluation and Planning system, or WEAP, aims to incorporate these issues into a practical yet robust tool for integrated water resources planning. WEAP was developed by the Stockholm Environment Institute's Boston Center at the Tellus Institute.

Climate Risk Communication

Communicating information on potential climate change impacts in terms of societal risks helps to create awareness and shared understandings, support adaptation decisions, and build capacity for action. Communicating climate risks starts with understanding the local context and know-how, as well as the priorities of the stakeholders you engage in the process. It also involves using terms that are relevant and familiar to different stakeholder groups; addressing climate risks and adaptation in an integrated, multidisciplinary way; conducting contextualized analysis through a process of negotiating perceptions, meanings and understandings; engaging stakeholders substantively through participatory and innovative approaches; and partnering institutions operating within the scientific and policy spheres to better understand and manage climate risks.

A learning module for climate risk communication is available on weADAPT here

This guidance will continue to grow and evolve based on feedback. If you have new methods, tools or applications to add, please create a new article so it can be linked to the guidance pages. 

Photography © CPWF

Further resources

Learning resources

VSO Facilitator Guide to Participatory approaches

Relevant projects

  • OPAL- Open Air Laboratories (Brings scientists, amateur-experts, local interest groups and the public together on environmental issues)
  • REAP Petite (measures your carbon footprint and allows you to compare with others in your community)


References and further reading

André, K., Simonsson, L., Gerger Swartling, Å., Linnér, B., 2012. Method Development for Identifying and Analysing Stakeholders in Climate Change Adaptation Processes. J. Environ. Policy Plan. 14, 243–261.

Bharwani, S. (2006). "Understanding Complex Behavior and Decision Making Using Ethnographic Knowledge Elicitation Tools (KnETs)." Social Science Computer Review. 24(1): 78-105.

Bharwani, S., Bithell, M., Downing, T., New, M., Washington, R., Ziervogel, G., 2005. Multi-agent modelling of climate outlooks and food security on a community garden scheme in Limpopo, South Africa. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B- Biological Sciences 360 (1463): 2183-9194.

Carner, S., Whitmarsh, L., Nicholson-Cole, S.., Shackley, S., 2009. A Dynamic Typology of Stakeholder Engagement within Climate Change Research. Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

Cinderby, C., de Bruin, A., White, P. & Huby, M. 2012. Analyzing Perceptions of Inequalities in Rural Areas of England Using a Mixed-methods Approach. Journal of the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association Vol.24.2: 33-42.

Conde, C., Lonsdale., 2004. Engaging Stakeholders in the Adaptation Process. In: Lim, B., Spanger-Siegfried, E. ed. Adaptation Policy Frameworks for Climate Change: Developing Strategies, Policies and Measures.  UNDP. Cambridge University Press.

De Bruin, A. White, P.C.L. Cinderby, S. & Huby, M. 2011. Social and environmental inequalities and injustice in the rural uplands of England. Critical Social Policy, May 2011 31: 266-284. 

Edmonds, B., Rouchier, J., Lucas, P., and Taylor, R. Forthcoming 2013. “Human societies – Understanding observed social phenomena, in B. Edmonds, and R. Meyer, eds. Handbook on Simulating Social Complexity. Springer

Forrester, J., Taylor, R., Greaves, R. and Noble, H. forthcoming. A transdisciplinary approach to modelling complex social-ecological problems in coastal ecosystems, in a special issue of Complexity edited by Prof Nigel Gilbert.

Forrester, J., K. Hicks, J. Kuylenstierna, J. Simon, C. Snell, M.J. Chadwick, D. Schwela, & L. Emberson 2011 Governance of Air Quality and Stakeholder Engagement. Lessons and Experience from International Cases”, in R. Lidskog & G. Sundqvist (eds) Governing the Air: Science-Policy-Citizens Dynamics in International Environmental Governance (MIT Press): 558-607.

Forrester, J., Swartling, Å., Lonsdale, K., 2008. Stakeholder engagement and the work of SEI: An empirical study. Working Paper. Stockholm Environment Institute.

Forrester, J., Swartling, Å (eds.). 2010. Overcoming the Challenges of 'Doing Participation' in Environment and Development: Workshop Summary of Lessons Learned and Ways Forwards. SEI. Working paper.

Forrester, J., Cinderby, S., ND. A guide to using Community Mapping and Participatory-GIS. 

Gardner, J., Dowd, A., Mason, C., Ashworth, P., 2009.  A framework for stakeholder engagement on climate adaptation. CSIRO Climate Adaptation Flagship Working paper No.3.

Groot, A., K. Hollaender, and R. Swart (2014). Productive Science-practice Interactions in Climate Change Adaptation. Lessons from practice. A CIRCLE-2 research policy brief. Foundation of the Faculty of Sciences, Lisbon, Portugal.

Kemp-Benedict, E., Bharwani, S., Fischer, M., 2010. Using Matching Methods to Link Social and Physical Analyses for Sustainability Planning. Ecology and Society 15 (3): 4

Lambe, F. & A. Atteridge, 2012. Putting the cook before the stove: A user-centred approach to understanding household energy decision-making. A case study of Haryana State, northern India. SEI Working Paper.

Mitchell, R., Agle B., Wood, D., 1997. Toward a Theory of Stakeholder Identification and Salience: Defining the Principle of Who and What Really Counts. Academy of Management Review. Vol 22, No.4, pp-853-886

Noble, H. 2012 a & b. “Agent-based modelling and field research” (29Jun12) and “ESPA end-of-project meeting” (18Oct12)

Padgham, J., et al. 2013. Building Shared Understanding and Capacity for Action: Insights on Climate Risk Communication from India, Ghana, Malawi and Mongolia. International Journal of Communication. 7, 970-983

Scenario-based stakeholder engagement: Incorporating stakeholders preferences into coastal planning for climate change

Schmitt, L. & Brugere, C. (under review in Ecological Economics) Incorporating ecosystem services values, preferences and trade-offs in decision support systems: an application to coastal resource management and aquaculture development in Thailand.

Sorisi, C., 2006. Public Participation and Institutional Analysis Assessing the role of System Dynamic Models in the Case Study of the Upper Guadiana Basin in Spain, Dissertation, MSc Water Science, Policy and Management.

Swart, R., J. Alberth, B. Kuna, M. Lillieskold, M. Hanzlickova, B. Horstmann and A. Rovisco (2014). 
Learning through collaboration – Knowledge Transfer and Sharing in Climate Change Adaptation Research between European and developing countries. A CIRCLE-2 research policy brief. Foundation of the Faculty of Sciences, University of Lisbon, Portugal.

Taylor, R., Devisscher, T. and Bharwani, S., 2012. On weADAPT, the Collaborative Platform on Climate Adaptation. 

weADAPT Learning across locales, organisations and networks: The weADAPT experience.

Yearley, S., Cinderby, S., Forrester, J., Bailey, P. & Rosen, P., 2003. Participatory modelling and the local governance of the politics of UK air pollution: a three-city case study. Environmental Values, 12(2): 247-262.