Connecting Communities of Practice

Connecting communities of practice        
by Thomas Theisohn and Tony Land, in 38,
        >>  you can download the article as pdf at the bottom of this page
Capacity development is high on the policy agenda. To enrich learning processes and improve practice, the capacity development community must interact more effectively with other communities of practice.

In the last decade, a vibrant community has grown up around capacity development, includingCapacity.Org, the United Nations Development Programme’s CDNet, the Learning Network on Capacity Development (LenCD), the UK Institute of Development Studies Capacity Collective, and others. This knowledge architecture reflects an emerging practice focusing on capacity development, particularly in the context of development cooperation, and from within which a body of conceptual and practical knowledge has developed.

Yet, some believe that the concept of capacity development is still too lofty, that it lacks operational relevance and that its practice is ill-defined. Indeed, in striving to develop its own concepts and operational frameworks, the capacity development community risks losing touch with other communities of practice that it needs to interact with and influence.

This article argues that the capacity development community needs to connect more effectively with other communities of practice to engage in dialogue and exchange, harness knowledge and gain insights. That capacity development today is recognised as a central and fundamental development challenge means that such engagement is all the more critical.

Reaching out in this way should not be regarded as one-way traffic but as mutually beneficial. Capacity development offers a powerful and critical perspective on development that can galvanise different communities to work together towards sustainable development. In appealing for more explicit interaction, this article recognises that an intricate network between communities of practice already exists, held together by individuals and groups active in several practice areas. It makes the case for more deliberate engagement and suggests ways to promote this. It also aims to encourage further discussion and exchange.

Explaining the terminology

To describe the capacity development knowledge architecture we use the following terms:

  • Capacity development community, or capacity development practice, refers to those for whom capacity development is a special interest area. It is a fairly loose term and does not necessarily link individuals within specific networks.
  • Community of practice (CoP) describes practitioners, researchers and policy makers who share an interest in exchanging information, learning and professional endeavour about a common issue. It is more specific – describing formal and informal networks, organisations, professional associations and practitioner learning groups that purposefully engage around a specific topic. They may operate at any level from the global down to the country or community levels.

We also draw a distinction between horizontal and vertical communities of practice.

  • Horizontal CoPs comprise professional disciplines that have influenced capacity development thinking and practice. Examples include public administration and organisational development, but there are many more (see diagram). While they do not necessarily embrace an explicit capacity development perspective, they underpin its theory and practice.
  • Vertical CoPs typically include groups such as civil servants, professionals and interest groups that come together around a specific sector or thematic development challenge, such as health, education or rural development. While capacity development may not be their main professional area or focus, it remains an important cross-cutting issue that cannot be ignored.

The web of connections to other communities, horizontally and vertically, is illustrated in the diagram on page 13).

Examples of horizontal CoPs

International Organisation Development Association

IODA is an international network of organisational development professionals, consultants, practitioners and social scientists. This not-for-profit association has members from many countries who are initiating and supporting organisational change processes all over the world. IODA is dedicated to supporting and strengthening organisational development principles at the international level through research, academic programmes, peer mentoring and coaching, networking and sharing of knowledge, international projects, and cultural exchange.


Horizontal CoPs

These are the building blocks of capacity development. Given their multidisciplinary character, many horizontal communities of practice contribute to capacity development.

The widely shared concept of capacity levels can help illustrate the range of horizontal communities that inform capacity development. These are the individual level (human capital), the organisational level (ranging from single organisations to complex networks), and the enabling environment (society or institutional level reflecting the context within which individuals and organisations function).

Individual level

If capacity development was seen strictly as skills development or training, there would be few horizontal communities of practice to identify. Capacity development work would be informed by communities of practice addressing issues related to human resources development and management in contexts such as government, the private sector and civil society. A more careful analysis might point to communities of practice in related disciplines and professional areas such as workforce planning, labour economics, the study of HIV/AIDS or even curriculum development.

Organisational level

For many people, the organisation is the natural entry point to address capacity development. An organisational focus brings capacity development in touch with a number of established communities of practice focusing, for example, on management and business sciences and their various offshoots including knowledge and change management. The language and conceptual tools of capacity development are often derived from these fields and many practitioners have their roots in the management consulting profession. Systems thinking (see 37) has also contributed to capacity development.

Capacity development in the public sector is close to the well-established fields of public administration and political science, including their own specialist areas such as decentralisation, health administration, leadership development, public finance management, accountability and public policy analysis. There are countless communities of practice built around these disciplines and sub-disciplines. Examples include the International Organisation Development Association and the African Community of Practice for Managing for Development Results (see box 2).

Capacity development work also focuses outside the formal public sector. Besides mainstream organisational development, there are offshoots focusing on capacity development in not-for-profit organisations and the informal or rural sectors. Work here is also related to participatory and community development and empowerment.

Enabling environment

There is growing interest in capacity development as a societal process, rather than as something that happens only within organisations. This coincides with an appreciation of the role of formal and informal institutions in establishing the rules of the game (laws, rules and regulations) within which individuals and organisations function. This societal level has the potential to facilitate or constrain the development of organisational and individual capacity.

This broader conceptualisation of capacity development has prompted thinkers and practitioners to draw inspiration from another set of professional areas: political science and political economy, new institutional economics and institutional development, law and governance, including cultural studies, sociology and anthropology. Again, each area has its own communities of practice and related knowledge architectures.

Organisations and institutional networks focusing on capacity development

Different organisations and institutional networks view capacity development in a variety of ways:

• UNDP concentrates on four strategic priorities: institutional arrangements and incentives, leadership, knowledge and accountability.

• NEPAD’s Capacity Development Strategic Framework has six cornerstones: leadership transformation; citizen transformation; knowledge and innovation; using African potential, skills, and resources; capacity of capacity builders; integrated planning and implementation.


Vertical CoPs

Vertical communities of practice constitute the application areas where capacity development needs to be integrated and made operationally relevant. This is where most development resources go and where capacity development is increasingly recognised as fundamental to the achievement of sustainable development results.

One important task involves adapting generic capacity development principles and guidance to specific sectors or thematic contexts. The challenges of delivering primary healthcare, for example, will be different from those involved in providing secondary education or agricultural extension services, so any capacity development support needs to be tailored accordingly. Similarly, what is needed to address capacity development in complex sectors, such as the environment or disaster management, may be different in magnitude from those needed to tackle capacity issues in simpler organisations such as tax or business licensing offices.

At the same time, some aspects of capacity development are cross-cutting. Strategies and approaches used for managing change can be relevant across different sectors. Lessons about the effective use of technical assistance may be carried over from one situation to another. Contextual factors relating to culture, power and politics may be relevant across all sectors in a particular country setting. Equally, lessons drawn from developing capacity in one sector, say the environment, can provide lessons for those working in another area. So opportunities exist for cross-fertilisation of experiences and joint learning.

Three examples of how capacity development knowledge can enter into a sector or thematic area are presented below.

  1. Direct uptake by sector professionals and practitioners, or via sector and thematic communities of practice, such as the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (see box 3).
  2. Organisational arrangements can help shape capacity development policy and operational guidance across an organisation. UNDP’s Capacity Development Group, for example, was set up recognising that capacity development ‘is everybody’s business but nobody’s responsibility’. Today, capacity development drives learning and mainstreaming in UNDP and the entire UN system. Similar relationships exist within the World Bank Institute and World Bank operations, which are very much sector based. Another example is the role of the senior coordinator for capacity development (see box 4) within the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee (OECD-DAC).
  3. A third approach involves structured learning events. For example, the Ethiopian government and the European Commission recently facilitated an event aimed at identifying capacity development challenges associated with implementing a transport sector programme. A similar event has just taken place in the education sector in Nepal.

Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture

Originally a programme of the Rockefeller Foundation, RUFORUM is a consortium of 12 African universities, established in 2004. RUFORUM’s mandate is to oversee graduate training and networks of specialisation within the member states of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA). RUFORUM recognises the important and largely unfulfilled role that universities play in contributing to the well-being of small-scale farmers and economic development of countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Strengthening the connections

Capacity development as a connecting, or matrix, concept, opens up opportunities to build bridges between practice areas. At one level, capacity development is a practice area of its own nurtured by horizontal communities of practice. At another, it becomes operational when applied within sector and thematic realities. Drawing generic knowledge from capacity development thinkers and practitioners, and contextualising this knowledge within sector and thematic realities can add to productive capacity development learning.

In turn, drawing experiences from across sectors and thematic areas is a practical way to cross-fertilise learning, exchange lessons learnt concerning effective practice, and promote a common understanding of capacity development. In practice, however, opportunities for cross-sector learning are easily overlooked. Sector and thematic practitioners and experts tend – as do others – to work in isolation and to have their own language. They might not always recognise opportunities for cross-learning. The operational value becomes clearer as these links become intentional and purposeful.

Reinforcing existing horizontal and vertical connections will be beneficial. Capacity development practice can be improved by engaging with horizontal communities of practice, including the body of evidence and instruments they offer. Vertically, capacity development practice becomes operationally relevant when applied to sector and thematic development areas, while learning builds on concrete experiences in these areas.

There are many ways in which these connections can be strengthened:

  • Individuals and organisations working across several communities of practice can function as ‘connectors’ to help crossfertilise and carry knowledge back and forth. At present, this happens in an informal way and is not easily recorded. More effort is needed to monitor what is going on in other communities of practice to enrich both capacity development dialogue and learning processes.
  • The capacity development knowledge architecture could be rationalised. Many capacity development initiatives are fragmented and scope exists for closer cooperation to close learning loops. Examples include joint analysis, maintaining resource corners on critical topics, documenting case materials and making them accessible, and sharing insights to inform policy and practice. The deliberate opening up to horizontal practice areas and vertical applications should be a defining feature of the capacity development community of practice.
  • Perhaps most important, all this should happen at the country level. Experience shows that it is through country level engagement that tangible insights are exposed. Bringing communities of practice together at the country level would promote learning and understanding around capacity development issues that are not easily tackled from within discrete sectors. Doing so would reinforce groups of champions who are able to make a real difference in a given context.
  • Connections can also be strengthened through the ways in which development practitioners approach their work. For university students learning professional skills, it is vital to give them opportunities to learn about technical disciplines as well as the horizontal skills reflected in capacity development practice, as discussed above. Similarly, sector specialists can keep abreast of the generic building blocks of capacity development through professional training courses and tailored learning events.

Senior coordinator for capacity development, OECD-DAC

Engaging with vertical work

streams Within development agencies the relationship between capacity development and sector and thematic groups needs to be strategically nurtured. The DAC’s senior coordinator for capacity development actively engages with practice areas and thematic groups within the DAC that have recognised the need to engage in capacity development issues within their respective work streams, such as tax policy, the environment or managing for development results.


The perceived loftiness of capacity development may in fact be a strength that can be harnessed to make connections between communities of practice more explicit and robust. For horizontal practice areas, capacity development offers a convenient platform to exchange ideas, complement knowledge and identify opportunities for synergy within a shared perspective. For sector and thematic communities of practice, capacity development is a fundamental challenge begging for operational responses. As a defined practice area, capacity development offers a sort of ‘one-stop shop’ where we can access a complex system of knowledge that underpins capacity development theory and practice.

Finally, a note of caution. An important message from the capacity development community is that there are no standard recipes for success, and that context matters enormously (see Capacity.org37). We hope that this article will both stimulate discussion and generate practical initiatives to connect the many communities of practice and achieve sustainable development results.