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Adopting knowledge management into our extension practices

John James

1 Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries, 203 Tor Street, Toowoomba Qld 4350,, Email


It is timely for us to broaden our working definition of extension to include knowledge management. There are a number of practices that could significantly increase our effectiveness in enabling change in the communities with which we work. This paper will focus on Communities of Practice and what they can offer the extension discipline. We often overlook the benefits these simple activities can bring to our work, to our disadvantage and sometimes the frustration of the communities with whom we work. This paper describes communities of practice, 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 you can implement these practices in your extension program to improve its effectiveness.

Three key learnings: (1) the extension discipline is dynamic and we need to be looking out for the next significant change; (2) many principles from knowledge management may be useful in extension; (3) Communities of practice play an important role in many areas of our lives and we need to learn more about actively cultivating them in our extension work.

Key words

Knowledge management, communities of practice


Extension is a dynamic discipline that continues to change over time, responding to factors in the broader environment. In the 1950s and 60s, the emphasis in the farming community was production and the Transfer of Technology model was used to disseminate information from scientists to farmers. In the 1970’s the emphasis became productivity, and the Farming Systems Research approach evolved, engaging farmers in the decision making processes. In the 1980’s there was a move to Systems Thinking, where all players in the system were identified and involved. In the 1990’s, there was an emphasis on social learning processes and participatory processes. The current emphasis is one of pluralism where it is acknowledged that a variety of strategies is required for effective change management programs.

While all of these approaches have involved information to some degree, the collective integration of information into meaningful knowledge is becoming an increasing imperative. There are many disparate funders investing in a wide variety of projects, being undertaken by a diverse group of providers. We need to embrace the principles of knowledge management to help tame the avalanche of information and integrate the often unconnected bits of information to give a holistic view. As the title of Carla O’Dell’s book says “If only we knew what we know”.

Knowledge management principles

There are two types of knowledge: codified and tacit. Codified knowledge is formal and is able to be easily communicated and shared. Tacit is uncodified, informal and highly personal. A craftsman often has a wealth of tacit knowledge that is “inside their head” which they struggle to communicate to a young apprentice. It is often only by watching and trying to copy that this ethereal knowledge is captured.

The classic example given by Nonaka (1991) is about a Japanese company trying to make a new bread making machine for home-use. No matter what they tried, the crust kept burning while the inside dough was uncooked. It was only when one of their employees went to work alongside one of the best bakers in the city that they observed a special way to stretch the dough. They then incorporated special ribs inside their machine which reproduced the baker’s stretching technique. When the bread machine was later released on the market, it set a sales record. However, if you had asked the chef their secret of success, they probably wouldn’t have been able to tell you. It took an outsider to interact with them to discover the tacit knowledge.

So working with knowledge isn’t straightforward. It also involves working with people, which is often difficult in its own right. But when we have people working together we can see some of the best outcomes of knowledge management, such as with Communities of Practice.

Communities of Practice

Communities of Practice (CoPs) have been around for a long time. In ancient Greece, groups of potters, stonemasons and other craftsmen were essentially communities of practice. They shared social activities, such as celebrating similar holy days 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 et al, 2001). A comparison with other organisational forms is provided in Table 1.

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

CoPs surround us all 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 at home, at work, or in our leisure activities; we associate with other people who share a similar interest or concern.

In my mind, one of the most important aspects of a CoP 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?

CoPs benefit the organisation and the individuals involved in several ways.

1. They can help 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 strive to continually improve their practices, and gain intrinsic motivation and reward from doing so.

2. They disseminate best practice
A CoP 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. CoPs 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 own experiences, as from their teachers. We seem to best learn from our mistakes, so similarly we can learn from others’ mistakes too. Of course we also learn from our colleagues at conferences and peer reviewed journals, where often it is only the good stories that are shared. Even small talk around the office lunch table allows us to share ideas that improve our profession. The beauty of communities of practice is that they provide a deliberate forum for such discussion.

How can they be cultivated?

Wenger and Snyder (2000) 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 the company’s productivity and profitability. Sometimes though the community will develop without any stimulus from management, and be equally effective. Either way, 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 useful to explore the effect of “lurkers” (typically those who belong to an email discussion group but don’t actively contribute) in this equation.

There also needs to be a balance between the online interaction and the face-to-face interaction. CoPs 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 CoP 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 (except as outside sponsors).

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

Importance of the community comes from increased 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.


CoPs are an important process that can add value to the extension discipline. They can help us form more effective groups for our clients that are learning centric. Being aware of the principles can help us better encourage and support groups, such as grower discussion groups, to be more effective.

They can also help us with our own learning and development, by our forming relevant communities of practice for our own work. They can focus on our technical discipline area (e.g. wine grape production, gully erosion control, or control of noxious weeds) or on our extension discipline (e.g. better use of focus groups or implementing a change management process).

Probably one of the most important roles is capturing and sharing the corporate memory so that when members move on, there isn’t a sudden corporate amnesia. This not only benefits us with our work, but it also directly benefits the clients with whom we work. So often a community group’s progress is stifled when the government representative changes for the third time in as many years.


CoPs play an important role in allowing knowledge to be created and shared within organisations and between them. They help us identify both tacit and explicit knowledge and share that within the group and the organisation. We need to incorporate these principles in our day-to-day extension work to benefit not only ourselves, but the communities with whom we work.


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

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

Nonaka, I 1991, The knowledge-creating company, Harvard Business Review, Nov-Dec 1991, Vol. 69 Issue 6, pp. 96-104.

O'Dell, C, Grayson, CJ Jr 1998, If only we knew what we know: the transfer of internal knowledge and best practice Free Press, 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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