Sunday, January 13, 2008

Communities of Practice (CoP) as a strategy for knowledge management in ICCO?

Electronic means as a tool in creating a communities of practise
During 2007 ICCO provided resources to organize two E-Conferences; one on ‘capacity development & assessment’ and one on ‘value chain development’. Both events took around 7 weeks, where participants shared their views and questions through e-mail discussions groups (called d-groups in combination with skype teleconferences. These electronic exchange events provided a platform for the ICCO development & business advisors to share experiences on their field of expertise. Before the events were initiated needs assessments were conducted under the advisors. Main motive for organizing such an event, is that many ICCO-advisors work in isolated areas and very much appreciate the fact that they can dialogue with colleagues who are in the same situation.

Out of the first E-Conference a core group of advisors was formed who provide each other advise and assistance on issues on capacity development. This group is what we call a ‘community of practice’. It is a key group of people who have a common domain (in this case capacity development) on which they share knowledge and through which they are encouraged to apply their lessons for their work practice. Each two months the advisors share key questions & case studies and facilitate themselves this peer-to-peer learning process.

Lessons on capacity development & benefits – human resource development dimension
The discussions between the capacity & assessment advisors generated a diverse number of case studies, which encouraged the group to discuss issues for continued exploration. Topics were related to “how to deal with authoritative leadership?”; “how to create conditions for ownership and what exit-strategy to apply as advisor?”; “how to improve the effectiveness of juniors towards their partner organizations?”; “how to strengthen partner organizations to do more effective fundraising and taking more ownership?”; “how to balance your own ambitions with the goals of your partner organization?”. Each of the members were encouraged to apply lessons at their work which helped their partners to strengthening their capacities and improved service delivery. Some members commented that they were encouraged to read books and publications, which were recommended by their colleagues. For example the “six thinking hats of Eduard de Bono”, publications about leadership from Intrac or toolboxes for strategic planning from Civicus and Tear Fund.

Individual advisors improved their knowledge and skills

The E-Conference on ‘value chain development’ provided more in-depth information about product & market development in five different countries (Philippines, Ghana, Ethiopia, Honduras, Burkina Faso) where ICCO is working. The variety of cases provided insight on the different roles ICCO business advisors are playing in the capacity development of partner organizations in and outside the value chain. The conference helped three advisors to redefine their roles and their capacity development interventions.

Summarized the two communities that were formed during the e-exchange events generated an ‘important spin-off’ which helped a number of participants to redefine their roles and strengthen their individual capacities.

Lessons for ICCO – Organizational development dimension
The e-events generated a lot of new and useful information which supports ICCO HQ to look critically at and redefine their strategies. The Value-Chain conference showed that ICCO’s programme on value chain development as a strategy for poverty alleviation is still in its early days. The case studies showed that ICCO is accomplishing considerable results in economic development, but there is still room for progress. Thinking on chain design, role of actors, the role of the business advisor, and evidence of impact is still under development.

The cases on capacity development provided insight that the ‘problem owner’ of the capacity building intervention is not always clear. Continuous dialogue & building trust in the partner relationships show to be the best ways to capacity development of the partner organizations and ICCO. Capacity development is a two-way process which strengthens both sides.

Input from advisors provided some important lessons for ICCO as a learning organization
The variety of case studies has also provided a lot of expertise and knowledge which can be shared with new advisors who join the ICCO-cad community of practice. It supports ICCO and its advisors to have a critical look at their capacity development interventions on how to assess and strengthen partner organizations. It also gives insight in the ‘best practices’ and ‘failures’ of interventions in the past and provides a rich resource centre for the ICCO Alliance to improve their quality of support and programmes. Communities of practice are not only a tool for continuous learning, they also provide a platform for developing new and creative ideas and building institutional memory.

Infrastructure for knowledge sharing
During this conference many resources were posted at the site of ICCO at: . All the documentation on value chain development was re-ordered and stored at the Chaincapacity wiki site at: and articles were published at

All resources (publications, books, toolboxes and case studies) on capacity development were compiled at and outcomes from the ICCO-cad group discussions were published at:

ICCO’s main challenge is now to build on the social capital (the people) and technological infrastructure to keep the knowledge and experience sharing alive. Each department within ICCO has a learning facilitator who will play an important role into this process.

The 6 roles of a community of practice
The Capacity Assessment and Development group initiated a core group of people who make the group move and get together regularly. This co-ordination group fullfills both internal and external roles to sustain the community;

Internal roles
To motivate and stimulate people in discussions (facilitation & moderation);
To identify the issues
Technical support to organize the exchange (d-group discussions and skype meetings)

External roles
External links with sponsors (financial support, but also knowledge/ expertise input for discussions);
Linking with others and public relations
To identify, find and store information (at wiki’s,, blogposts) and link with other networks.

Challenges: How to create and maintain ownership for keeping up a communities of practise
Sofar the e-exchange events have generated a lot of interest and response from the ICCO advisors in the field. However, the challenge is to keep the process of continuous learning going.

Most important conditions for success in sustaining a communities of practise are:

Keep and maintain the interest from the group members in continuous learning by regularly identifying their needs and involving them in the process;
Have a co-ordination group who is responsible for the community
Provide sufficient resources and involve sponsors who support the community. Sponsors should allocate time & money to fullfill key roles of the co-ordination group & provide input of new knowledge & expertise. Sponsors should see their role as an investment which can strengthen and build their area of expertise on a specific knowledge area or domain.
Build in a component of a face-to-face meeting somewhere in the process of e-exchange so that relationships between the group members can be strengthened;
Regularly recruit and add new members to the group who bring new perspectives and ideas to the group.

Finally, for an organization who is supporting or initiating a community of practice it is important to analyse whether it is an important strategy for capacity development of its staff, itself and its partner organizations. When it has decided to support such a CoP it should nurture and feed the ‘plant’ regularly so that everybody can enjoy the smell and the colours of the beautiful flowers for a long time! The experiments that were launched by ICCO in 2007 show that ‘communities of practice’ can be an investment worthwhile.

Simon Koolwijk

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