Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture

About Value Chain Partnerships

Working groups - VCP resources - What is a community of practice? - Why the term 'working groups'? - Related resources

VCP Value Chain Partnerships (VCP), which operated from 2002-2012, was an Iowa-based network for food and agriculture working groups that brought together producers, businesses, and state and federal organizations. Its goal was to support new supply networks for farmer-led food, fiber and energy enterprises that follow sustainable practices.

VCP was funded primarily by the Leopold Center and Wallace Winrock International. Core leadership came from the Leopold Center's Marketing and Food Systems Initiative, ISU Extension and Outreach and Practical Farmers of Iowa.

The project organized working groups that operated as communities of practice to leverage funds and expertise to identify food and agriculture system chal­lenges, foster learning and innovation and implement solutions.

In 2011, working groups in the VCP program began the transition to be able to self-convene under new leadership.

Working groups

Working groups convened by VCP:

Value Chain Partnerships resources

What is a community of practice?

Communities of practice (CoPs) are groups of people in organizations who come together to share what they know, to learn from one another regarding some aspects of their work and to provide a social context for that work (Wegner et. al., Cultivating Communities of Practice, Harvard Business School Press 2002).

Through our work in Value Chain Partnerships, we have found that communities of practice (CoPs) function strategically as:

  1. Catalysts for cooperation of diverse interests to create solutions for food and fiber producers and businesses;
  2. Hubs which create, capture, document, and leverage knowledge and deploy this knowledge as technical assistance to assist value chain partners;
  3. Magnets to attract funding, and for leveraging, channeling, and distributing funding to research and development efforts for differentiated food and fiber products; and
  4. Scouts to identify emerging value chain opportunities with high potential to deliver economic benefit to sustainable agriculture stakeholders.

Knowledge management is a framework for designing an organization’s goals, structures and processes so that the organization can use what it knows to learn, and to create value for its customers and community (W.C. Choo, The FIS Knowledge Management Institute, session presentations, Faculty of Information Studies, University of Toronto).

Value chains are strings of companies or collaborating players who work together to satisfy market demands for specific products or services.

A value system is defined as follows: A connected series of organizations, resources, and knowledge streams involved in the creation and delivery of value to end customers. Value systems integrate supply chain activities, from determination of customer needs through product/service development, production/operations and distribution, including (as appropriate) first-, second-, and third-tier suppliers. The objective of value systems is to position organizations in the supply chain to achieve the highest levels of customer satisfaction and value while effectively exploiting the competencies of all organizations in the supply chain (Supply Chain Redesign, Handfield and Nichols, 2002 Financial Times Management).

The VCP project is most interested in adding sustainability to the value chain concept — sustainable value chains emphasize long-term, significant economic return to all firms in a chain, particularly producers who follow production practices using the highest standards of environmental and community stewardship.

In a value chain business arrangement, each actor in the chain must make a mental shift from simply “What is best for my firm and my firm now?” to “What can I do in my firm to maximize the economic, environmental and community benefit to all the members of this value chain?” A significant change often comes in the form of information sharing. In a value chain members need to share a great deal more business information with one another so that all can make better decisions that affect the group.

Why do we use the term "working group"?

When we began the Value Chain Partnerships project in 2002, we had not heard of the term communities of practice. All of our groups were called working groups. In 2006 we began our work with the Wallace Center for Sustainable Agriculture and were introduced to the terms communities of practice and knowledge management. The communities of practice definition seemed to fit well with the way we were running our working groups, but we continued to call them working groups to avoid confusing our participants. Within the Value Chain Partnerships team, we used the two terms working groups and communities of practice interchangeably.

In 2008 we hired Sue Honkamp to help us with branding and marketing Value Chain Partnerships. Sue helped us reflect on which term would be best to use in our branding message. After much discussion, we decided to stick with the descriptor "working group" rather than change the ending of each group’s name. That said, Value Chain Partnerships is a network of working groups that uses a communities of practice framework. Why is this framework so important? As communities of practice scholar Richard McDermott said in his March 2000 article "Knowing in Community: 10 Critical Success Factors in Building Communities of Practice":

"Communities of practice present an odd irony. They have always been part of the informal structure of organizations. They are organic. They grow and thrive as their focus and dynamics engage community members. But to make them really valuable, inclusive and vibrant, they need to nurtured, cared for and legitimated. They need a very human touch."

And so it is with the working groups in Value Chain Partnerships. Each of our working groups is very different, shaped by the working group leader and participants’ skills and expertise, yet all of the groups function in a collaborative atmosphere where everyone is both learner and teacher.

Related resources