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Building capacity through knowledge management

John James

Centre for Rural and Regional Innovation – Queensland (CRRI-Q), Email

Theme 3: Linking social processes to on-ground change and how to accelerate outcomes


If only we were as effective at managing our knowledge as we were at talking about doing it! There are some simple strategies we can use to increase the exchange of knowledge that in turn will build our capacity to undertake on-ground change for natural resource management.

Communities of practice have been around for many centuries, but we often overlook the benefits these simple activities can bring to our work. This paper describes what communities of practice are, their benefits and how we can practically create them. It considers the factors that hinder them and those that encourage them. As a result, you will better understand how communities of practice can assist you with your natural resource management (NRM) activities.

Media summary

Communities of practice can help NRM groups be more effective, by creating a positive environment to facilitate knowledge sharing.

Key words

Knowledge management, communities of practice.


How frustrating it must be for community members when their local catchment coordinator is once again replaced. There is a high turnover in these positions, for various reasons. The favoured scapegoat is the federal government and its short funding cycles. There are also tremendous demands on the individuals in these roles, in what is becoming a more and more complex environment. Regardless of the cause, the result is that community groups often need to revisit old ground with the new employees. What we need is a better way to bring new employees up to speed quicker and more effectively. Communities of practice can help this to happen.

Communities of practice

Communities of practice have been around for hundreds, if not thousands of years. In ancient Greece, groups of potters, stonemasons and other craftsmen were essentially communities of practice. They shared social pursuits, such as celebrating similar holidays together and worshipping similar gods. They also shared similar business functions, such as training apprentices and sharing innovations. In Europe in the Middle Ages, we saw guilds playing a similar role. These were communities of practice, where skilled tradesmen shared and honed their skills. The primary difference that has occurred over time is that instead of people mainly working on their own, they now work mainly within large organisations (Wenger and Snyder, 2000).

Communities of practice can be described as “groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis” (Wenger, McDermott and Snyder, 2001). A comparison to other organisational forms is provided in Table 1.

Communities of practice surround us in everyday life, and are an integral part of our daily lives (Wenger, 1998). They can be tennis clubs, mothers play groups, speech clubs, craft groups or Bible study groups. Whether it be at home, at work, on the sports field or in our hobbies, we associate with other people who share a similar interest or concern.

So in our situation, we could have communities of practice for roles that people undertake (e.g. CEOs of regional NRM bodies, communication officers or waterwatch coordinators), or those interested in a particular management technique (e.g. riparian management, controlled traffic farming or organic production).

Table 1. Comparison of different organisational forms

From Wenger and Snyder, 2000


What is the purpose?

Who belongs?

What holds it together?

How long does it last?

Community of practice

To develop the capabilities of its members; to build and exchange knowledge

Self-selecting members

Passion, commitment, and identification with the group's expertise

As long as there is interest

Formal work group

To deliver a product or service

Those who report to the manager of the workgroup

Job requirements and common goals

Until the next reorganisation

Project team

To accomplish a specified task

Employees assigned by their manager

The project's milestones and goals

Until the project is completed

Informal network

To collect and pass on business information

Friends and business acquaintances

Mutual needs

As long as people have a reason to connect

In my mind, one of the most important aspects of a community of practice is that membership is voluntary. This means that the members all want to be there and potentially collaborate. Work teams on the other hand, often have members who resent being told to be there, and who then exude negativity, which lowers the performance of the whole group.

How are they useful?

Communities of practice benefit the organisation and the individuals involved in several ways.

1. They develop best practice
It is through the interaction of people sharing a common passion for a discipline or solving a particular problem, that innovation can flourish. They like to continually improve their practices, and gain intrinsic motivation and reward from doing so.

2. They disseminate best practice
A community of practice is the ideal forum for disseminating best practices within an organisation and between organisations. It allows people to freely share what they have found to be effective, so others learn from their experiences.

3. They enable rapid problem solving
Most problems are solved by asking another person. Communities of practice allow you to know the right person to ask, and for you to have an existing relationship with that person that encourages them to share that information with you.

4. They allow professional skills to be honed
Apprentices learn as much from their peers and their experiences, as from their teachers. Life’s more important lessons seem best learnt from our mistakes, so surely we can learn from others mistakes too. Even skilled neurosurgeons learn from their peers at conferences and peer reviewed journals. Even small talk around the office lunch table allows us to share ideas and learning that improve our profession.

But as Alastair Rylatt (2003) says, “We can never fully anticipate what will happen when we ask people to interact and share knowledge.”

How do you cultivate them?

Wenger and Snyder (2000) make the comment that “as communities of practice generate knowledge, they renew themselves. They give you both the golden eggs and the goose that lays them.” So if organisations become too focused on production and lose sight of the productivity factor, they can be like the greedy farmer who killed the goose to get the gold, and lost both.

Management needs to firstly identify potential communities of practice that may improve their productivity and profitability. The focus of the community needs to be tight enough to attract the right people and keep it on track, and not too broad as participants may lose interest.

You then need a community champion or mayor, to coordinate the efforts of the group. This can be on a long-term basis, or on a rolling basis where various members take turns in undertaking the role. This person will often encourage others to ask questions, or nudge some other people to provide possible solutions to un-answered questions. They tend to focus more on the process than the content, but are often acknowledged as leaders in the content (and so have the technical respect of their fellow members).

A certain amount of infrastructure needs to be provided to give them the legitimacy and finances required to operate. A member of the management team can act as a sponsor for the community. This can then provide the legitimacy and access to the resources required.

There appears to be a natural limit to the number of people we are able to form relationships with, so that we know the people and the relationship they have with us (Gladwell, 2000). This number seems to be around 150 (147.8 to be precise!) so some companies have used this as the upper limit of their operational or manufacturing units. Above this point they create a new unit some distance away from the former one. This could have interesting ramifications for communities of practice, but it would be interesting to explore the effect of lurkers in this equation.

There also needs to be a balance between the online interaction and the face-to-face interaction. Communities of practice seem to work best when an initial face-to-face meeting occurs, which allows the participants to get to know each other and build trust and rapport. Then, when they interact online, this trust facilitates meaningful communication. An annual event seems to be the minimum frequency for maintaining this relationship.

There is a simple mnemonic to help people keep in mind some of the key Community of Practice principles. It's called TIPPING after Malcolm Gladwell's book, The Tipping Point, which is all about how small things can have big impacts.

Technology does not make a community but it is an important enabler.

Insiders must decide on what happens within the community.

Peers and practitioners form the membership. This is no place for managers.

Passion provides the energy. Find passionate people and connect them.

Importance of the community comes from increase responsiveness, innovation, ability to bring new employees up to speed faster, and avoiding reinventing the wheel.

Nurturing a community requires resources. Companies need to invest in their support.

Growth takes time. Communities are an organic entity.


Communities of practice play an important role in allowing knowledge to be created and shared within organisations and between them. They also help with the corporate memory store, so that when personnel move on, the memory stays behind. This is becoming an important issue for many organisations, not just those involved with NRM.

Communities of practice are an important element of managing an organisation, as organisations are made up of people. And people are social creatures who thrive in a positive environment. Communities of practice help create that environment, so all can benefit. By further studying the elements that contribute to their effectiveness, we can further improve our NRM efforts.


Collison, C and Parcell, G 2001, Learning to fly, Capstone, UK.

Gladwell, M 2000, The tipping point, Abacus, USA.

Rylatt, A 2003 Winning the knowledge game, McGraw-Hill, Australia.

Wenger, E.C 1998 Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity, Cambridge University Press, UK.

Wenger, E.C and Snyder, W.M 2000, 'Communities of practice: the organisational frontier', Harvard Business Review, Jan-Feb 2000, pp. 139-145.

Wenger, E.C, Snyder, W.M and McDermott, R 2001, Cultivating communities of practice, Harvard Business School Press, USA.

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