Stakeholder and community engagementSystems & complexity

Case Study: Knowledge transfer and sharing through collaborative learning and governance

This article is part of a series of articles on stakeholder and community engagement.

The Helidon Hills is located about 100km west of Brisbane, the capital city of the Australian state of Queensland. It is one of the largest areas of mostly continuous bushland left in the southeastern region of Queensland, and has a large number of rare and threatened flora and fauna species. This includes a large number of species that are found only in this area, for example Eucalyptus helidonica.

The Helidon Hills area is one-third National Park and two-thirds private freehold land. The approximately 250 freehold landholders are engaged in a range of pursuits including timber harvesting, sandstone mining, ecotourism, nature conservation, and farming. Some of these pursuits are competing or in direct conflict with each other. The area also has Aboriginal and European cultural heritage. Management policy for the area is the responsibility of three adjoining local governments and various state government agencies.

Recognising the values of the Helidon Hills and the need to conserve them through the sustainable management of the area’s various land uses, the regional local government organisation implemented the Sustainable Management of the Helidon Hills Project in 1998-1999.

The approach I took as Project Coordinator was one of collaborative learning and governance, as discussed in the book Environmental Decision-Making: Exploring complexity and context1. As discussed in the RealKM Magazine Taking responsibility for complexity series2, this approach is also described as decisions from deliberation and shared power in international development literature. A motivation for wanting to use such an approach was having previously experienced the significant benefits of collaborative co-creation in the Ipswich Heritage Program.

The collaborative learning and governance approach was responsive to the situational complexities and social context of the Helidon Hills area. Many people within the area or with an interest in the area had a lack of knowledge about its natural values and their conservation, and also about the activities and issues of concern of other people. Additionally, many of the freehold landholders wanted to make their own management decisions rather than have government agencies dictate policy.

Collaborative learning

At the commencement of the project, it was apparent that most stakeholders (that is, the people within the area or with an interest in the area) lacked important knowledge. Many stakeholders had a poor understanding of the natural values of the area and what needed to be done to conserve them, and a low awareness of the activities and issues of concern of  other stakeholders. My response to this was to implement a collaborative learning process which had two main elements.

First, I first spoke to as many people within the area and with an interest in the area that I could, both individually (for example, individual landholders and state and local government agency representatives) and collectively (for example, the sandstone miners and people with an interest in ecotourism). This had the purposes of educating stakeholders about the area and its values, informing them about the government policy intent and context for the area, and giving me an  understanding of their land use and management issues. To the greatest extent possible, I met people onsite – such as on their property, at their sandstone mine, or at their timber mill – because an adequate understanding can’t be obtained otherwise.

The second element involved investigating and developing win-win approaches to address the issues that were identified through the initial knowledge transfer and gathering step. This included bringing people with conflicting issues together to work through and resolve their concerns. A notable aspect of this knowledge sharing was that many people ended up having far more common ground than they had first expected.

Collaborative governance

Collaborative governance was a logical companion to the collaborative learning process. It was also responsive to the views of many of the freehold landholders who own two-thirds of the Helidon Hills area.

At the commencement of the project, some landholders expressed strong opposition to it. Particularly strong feelings were evident in regard to private land ownership, with the view expressed that people should have the right to manage their land as they see fit without any government influence, control or intervention.

This opposition was symptomatic of community disenchantment with mainstream government in the wider area and in some other parts of Australia at the time. The project coincided with the rise of the controversial One Nation political party. During the course of the project, the Lockyer State electorate, in which most of the Helidon Hills is located, elected a candidate from the One Nation political party as its local member.

A number of authors have attempted to explain the voter support received by One Nation3. However, from my own experiences and observations the support for One Nation in the Lockyer electorate and associated values position against government programs such as the Helidon Hills project was due to the declined emphasis on agriculture since the 1970s4, the impacts of the recession of the early 1990s, and government programs that had not adequately involved the community. Most of the farming families in the Lockyer were second or third generation, and adapting to the decline of agriculture from the heydays they had previously experienced was difficult. The recession of the early 1990s compounded the difficulties. Further compounding the pressure that the community was feeling were government programs such as the mid-1990s Regional Open Space Scheme.

In response to the landholder concerns, I made the decision that landholder rights needed to be recognised and respected in the Sustainable Management of the Helidon Hills project, and the management plan5 devotes an entire chapter to the issue (Chapter 3). I also decided to implement an inclusive decision-making process involving collaborative governance, as discussed in Chapters 1 and 2 of the management plan.

Collaborative governance has been continued beyond the Sustainable Management of the Helidon Hills project by the Helidon Hills / Murphy’s Creek Landcare Group, which was established in 1999 at the end of the project, and the regional natural resource management body Healthy Land and Water.

Effectiveness of collaborative learning and governance

As shown in the following excerpt from a newspaper article, collaborative learning and governance have been highly effective in assisting sustainable management of the Helidon Hills:

However, collaborative learning and governance are part of a range of available approaches, and what works well in one situation can fail in another6.

A suggested way forward is to investigate and understand the situational complexities and social context for any initiative or project, and to then identify and implement the most appropriate approaches in consideration of both that understanding and the intent of the initiative or project (including the policy context). A comprehensive toolkit of approaches can be found in the RealKM Magazine Taking responsibility for complexity series.

See also the follow-on article: Case Study: How to overcome resistance and denial when engaging stakeholders.

Image source: Knowledge sharing in the Helidon Hills. Photo by Bruce Boyes is licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0.


  1. Harding, R., Hendriks, C., & Faruqi, M. (2009). Environmental Decision-Making: Exploring complexity and context. Sydney: The Federation Press.
  2. Jones, H. (2011). Taking responsibility for complexity: How implementation can achieve results in the face of complex problems. Overseas Development Institute (ODI) Working Paper 330. London: ODI.
  3. Bean, C. (2000). Nationwide Electoral Support for One Nation in the 1998 Federal Election. In Leach, M., Stokes, G., & Ward, I. (eds.) The Rise and Fall of One Nation. St. Lucia, Queensland: University of Queensland Press.
  4. Reeve, I., Frost, L., Musgrave, W., & Stayner, R. (2002). Overview Report, Agriculture and Natural Resource Management in the Murray-Darling Basin: A Policy History and Analysis, Report to the Murray-Darling Basin Commission. Armidale NSW: Institute for Rural Futures, University of New England,
  5. Boyes B., Pope, S., & Mortimer, M. (1999). Sustainable Management of the Helidon Hills Draft Management Plan December 1999, as amended by Sharon Boyle & Associates under direction of the Interim Management Group. Ipswich Queensland: Western Subregional Organisation of Councils (WESROC).
  6. Leach, M., Scoones, I., & Stirling, A. (2010). Sustainability challenges in a dynamic world. In Dynamic sustainabilities: Technology, environment, social justice. London: Earthscan.
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Bruce Boyes

Bruce Boyes ( is editor, lead writer, and a director of the award-winning RealKM Magazine (, and a knowledge management (KM), environmental management, and project management professional. He is a PhD candidate in the Knowledge, Technology and Innovation Group at Wageningen University and Research, and holds a Master of Environmental Management with Distinction. His expertise and experience includes knowledge management (KM), environmental management, project management, stakeholder engagement, teaching and training, communications, research, and writing and editing. With a demonstrated ability to identify and implement innovative solutions to social and ecological complexity, Bruce's many career highlights include establishing RealKM Magazine as an award-winning resource, using agile and knowledge management approaches to oversee an award-winning $77.4 million western Sydney river recovery program, leading a knowledge strategy process for Australia's 56 natural resource management (NRM) regional organisations, pioneering collaborative learning and governance approaches to support the sustainable management of landscapes and catchments, and initiating and teaching two new knowledge management subjects at Shanxi University in China.

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