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Cooperating to compete: turning toward a community of practice

Keith D. Harris (Department of Agricultural Economics, Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kansas, USA)
Harvey S. James (Department of Agriculture and Applied Economics, University of Missouri Columbia, Columbia, Missouri, USA)
Aramis Harris (Southern University Agricultural and Mechanical College, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA)

Journal of Business Strategy

ISSN: 0275-6668

Article publication date: 17 July 2017




Agribusiness managers oftentimes find it difficult to gain practical experience in an area they have had very little practice. Habitually, they rely on their own business acumen, and tacit knowledge to navigate unfamiliar territory. What does the manager do when the problem is ill-formed, fuzzy and messy? This paper aims to integrate societal stakeholders like agribusinesses and environmentalists by using the Community of Practice (CoP) framework to help analyze and effectively use knowledge and practical experiences on problems facing the food and agriculture industries.


The multi-disciplinary analytical framework suggests multiple research strategies and methods. Because environmentalist-agribusiness collaborations involve complex stakeholder, relationship and social processes, case research may be the most appropriate means for initial investigations of these issues. The authors applied an exploratory approach starting with a search of a water and land stakeholder collaborations followed by the selection of specific cases, the collection of secondary case data, and a systematic qualitative content analysis. For this paper, the authors focused on 13 initiatives in agribusiness involving water and land (e.g. the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative and Global Reporting Initiative Guidelines).


The argument is that firms that use elements of the CoP are better at working through the wicked problems than firms that do not. When elements of the CoP (community, domain and practice) play a significant role in addressing the wicked problem, best practices over a pre-determined time develop. Establishing policies and standards for education and research, technology and research, facilities and operations. More specifically, they relate, in an illustrative manner, how they could quantitatively measure the results that were generated through the use of a specific practice.

Research limitations/implications

This paper has focused only on the land and water constraint aspects. A variety of other stakeholder issues warrant consideration including motivations, contingencies facilitating partnership building, changes in production and consumption and collaborative learning processes. As stakeholder objectives are met, change or diverge, the stakeholders may become less willing to broker and negotiate linkages between the firm and other domain stakeholders, and potentially affect the firm’s competitive advantage. One should also be mindful of the methods of effective engagement, which are able to incorporate and integrate the knowledge, skills, resources and perspectives from many actors are needed to undertake these problems.

Practical implications

To facilitate the discussion on water sustainability between agribusiness firms and environmental groups, it is important for agribusinesses to have some basic understanding of how much water is consumed, evaporated and/or polluted in a given amount of time. Likewise, environmental organizations will need to have a basic understanding of associated physical (freshwater shortages in the supply chain) and financial risks (increase costs or reduced revenues). Both parties need to stay open to challenges and dilemmas of the wicked problem.

Social implications

Farmers, agribusiness firms and environmentalists are the de facto and principle managers of the most productive land and water resources on earth. Their decisions will shape the surface of the planet in the coming decades. Settling on a common strategy of quality of waters resources, potential land use and land management fundamentally involves the interests of all stakeholders. By considering the divergent values, different perspectives and lived experiences of stakeholders and the inextricable link to land, it is found that managing water resources sustainably is a wicked problem.


The effort it takes to find and implement solutions requires the engagement of internal and external stakeholders (relationships) and access to actionable research (knowledge) to manage through the industry’s prickly challenges. For some, ecological goals are foremost, whereas for others, profit and market objectives are paramount for survival. Their relationships may be a common means for the stakeholders to reach ultimately incompatible agendas. The authors characterize water and land constraints in agriculture as a wicked problem. The wicked problems require a new corporate mindset, involving multi-discipline approach of new collaborations and processes to address them.



Harris, K.D., James, H.S. and Harris, A. (2017), "Cooperating to compete: turning toward a community of practice", Journal of Business Strategy, Vol. 38 No. 4, pp. 30-37.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2017, Emerald Publishing Limited

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