Systems and complexity

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

Over the Christmas and New Year holiday period, we’ll be republishing popular RealKM posts that you may have missed the first time around. Thank you for reading, and we’ll see you in 2016.

The Sustainable Management of the Helidon Hills Project is an example of how collaborative learning and governance can be used to facilitate effective knowledge sharing and transfer.

The Helidon Hills is a large area of high conservation value native forest located about 100km west of Brisbane, the capital city of the Australian state of Queensland. 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 by Harding, Hendriks and Faruqi in their book Environmental Decision-Making: Exploring complexity and context1. This 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 expressed about 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 Nation2. 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 1970s as discussed by Reeve, Frost, Musgrave and Stayner in the Overview Report, Agriculture and Natural Resource Management in the Murray-Darling Basin: A Policy History and Analysis3, 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 plan4 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. It was established in 1999 at the end of the project, and continues to facilitate stakeholder knowledge sharing. Collaboration with government agencies is assisted by the regional natural resource management body SEQ Catchments.

Will collaborative learning and governance work in any situation?

Collaborative learning and governance have been highly effective in assisting sustainable management of the Helidon Hills, but they won’t be the most effective or appropriate approach in all circumstances. As Leach, Scoones and Stirling alert in their book chapter ‘Sustainability challenges in a dynamic world’5, what works well in one situation can fail in another. A suggested approach 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 knowledge management activities in consideration of both that understanding and the intent of the initiative or project (including the policy context).

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, The Federation Press, Sydney.
  2. 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, University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia, Queensland.
  3. 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, Institute for Rural Futures, University of New England, Armidale NSW.
  4. 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, Western Subregional Organisation of Councils (WESROC), Ipswich Queensland.
  5. Leach, M, Scoones, I & Stirling, A 2010, ‘Sustainability challenges in a dynamic world’, chapter 1 pp.1-13. In Dynamic sustainabilities: Technology, environment, social justice, Earthscan, London.

Also published on Medium.

Bruce Boyes

Bruce Boyes ( is editor, lead writer, and a director of the award-winning RealKM Magazine ( and currently also teaches in the University of NSW (UNSW) Foundation Studies program in China. He has expertise and experience in a wide range of areas including knowledge management (KM), environmental management, program and project management, writing and editing, stakeholder engagement, communications, and research. Bruce holds a Master of Environmental Management with Distinction and a Certificate of Technology (Electronics). 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 for knowledge managers, using agile and knowledge management approaches to oversee the implementation of an award-winning $77.4 million river recovery program in western Sydney on time and under budget, leading a knowledge strategy process for Australia's 56 natural resource management (NRM) regional organisations, pioneering collaborative learning and governance approaches to support communities to sustainably manage landscapes and catchments, and initiating and teaching two new knowledge management subjects at Shanxi University in China.

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