The Wolanski Foundation Project


Paper no 14









List of papers








By Paul Bentley

14 April 2001

From round table to communities of practice

Information Specialists' round tables

Arts and Humanities Round Table [ARTHUR]

Round Table on the Information Economy [ROTIE]

Next Steps

The Information Specialists Division of the Australian Library and Information Association has established round tables to promote its interests, help shape strategy, generate information and build connections.


The round table was the place where the knights of Arthurian legend, seekers of the Holy Grail, held ‘sieges’. The table was round to remove a sense of hierarchy. Its non-adversarial roundness helped take the heat out of the sieges. A social dimension characterised the Knights of the Round Table Club, formed in 1721. More recently, problem solving has been the hallmark of political round table conferences.

In the 1920s and 1930s in the USA, precursors of the Music Library Association and the Theatre Library Association in the United States took the form of the Art Reference Round Table, Theatre and the Library Round Table (sub-groups of the American Library Association) and the Performing Arts Round Table (a sub group of the Society of American Archivists. Their roles were to bring together interested people, encourage the development of collections and provide support to the membership.  

Round tables and special interest networks are now common in professional associations. Webber and Van Vlack recommend them for their value in creating opportunities for member involvement, providing regular feedback and articulating direction. 

Their strategic value is underscored by Blanken and Liff. Planning has become the art of strategic dialogue and collaboration. Planning is an ongoing learning process that never ends. Environmental scanning is a systematic and continuous effort to search for important clues about how the world is changing and how these changes are likely to affect an organisation or association.

The Internet and the arrival of the virtual organisation - or virtual groups within real organisations - have created new non-hierarchical accessible spaces for constructive conversations. Wissema and Euser, among many others, outline the importance of communities of practice and innovation networks for research and development, problem solving, learning and skill development, product and service creation, best practice transfer, recruitment, talent retention and information activities. Wenger differentiates communities of practice from other types of groups as follows:






Communities of practice

Capability /exchange

Members who select themselves

Passion, commitment, identification

As long as interest lasts

Formal work group

Deliver product

Everyone who reports

Job requirements, common goal

Until next job

Project team

To accomplish task


Milestones, goals

Completion of project

Informal network

Collect, pass on business information

Friends, business acquaintances

Mutual needs

As long as people have reason to connect

To achieve success in the global economy, Rod Brown champions the importance of links - industry clusters - to rein in competitiveness, encourage collaboration, and off-set the lack of critical mass, a small population, vast continent and parochial attitudes. Past market failures in Australia, derived from its disposition for competitive rather than collaborative behaviour, underlined by a modest record in commercialising research, have been:

  • Insufficient information for the investor or potential investor. A lack of firm quantitative data and a lack of feel by institutional investors for initiatives outside their comfort zone.

  • Short-term focus among proponents.  Little appreciation (by proponents as well as governments) that investments and research alliances often have had gestations of three to five years. Long-term agendas have been frustrated by management reshuffles.

  • Weak feedback. Insufficient reality checks have harmed projects. Realistic feedback from government has not been forthcoming because officials have been  reluctant to say it as it is.

  • Inadequate skills. Academics often become project proponents, but have tended to lack commercial judgment.

  • Rivalry and low levels of trust. Australian companies have tended to view everyone in their field as competitors and rivalry among government departments has been institutionalised.

  • Inadequacy of supporting infrastructure. The 3 tiers of government and the lack of long-term planning have made it hard to coordinate hard and soft infrastructure gaps. Even when they are identified, there have been long delays in filling infrastructure gaps due to disputes as to who should pay.

  • Lack of connection between the participants. Many participants have been involved in making connections with overseas investors and researchers, but they are usually in direct competition with each other. 


ALIA’s Information Specialists Division, organiser of the biennial Australasian Information Online Conference and Exhibition, has over 2500 members or participants in its activities. It’s goals, developed during recent planning workshops,  include research, professional development and promotion of the role of the information specialists. A business plan is being developed to review and validate its initial assumptions and objectives.

Round tables have been established as part of its organisational structure to promote interests, increase member visibility, help shape strategy, build connections with kindred organisations and act as an information supplier to the national committee, e-list, newsletter and conference.

The term round table has been applied as a generic concept for contact officers, special interest networks, think links, think tanks, communities of practice, cluster triggers, expert teams or projects representing particular sectors, disciplines and topics. They may consist of an individual or assembly of individuals. Membership of ALIA is not mandatory. They may operate as a virtual unit or as one-off events such as breakfasts, luncheons and dinners with a guest speaker or facilitator or be part of a mini conference or the full Online Conference.


ARTHUR is primarily concerned with developing a better understanding of how arts information is managed and exploring the role of library, archive and museum associations in managing that information.

In its first month, ARTHUR attracted participants from NSW, the ACT and Victoria representing the library, archive, museum, arts marketing, multimedia, filmmaking and information technology industries. 

Potential links include

  • other library, archive and museum associations such as ARLIS/ANZ, ASRA, IAML, ALIA Music Libraries Special Interest Group, Museums Australia Performing Arts Special Interest Group;

  • industry bodies such as Artspeak, Music Council of Australia, National Association of Visual Arts and Currency House;

  • government bodies such as the Australia Council, DOCITA and state arts ministries;

  • academic bodies such as the Australian National Council for Creative Arts;

  • possible international bodies include the Arts and Humanities Data Service and National Initiative for a Networked Cultural Heritage.  

A ready made agenda is offered by recent international forums such as Humanities and the Arts on the Information Highways, Information Technology in Humanities Scholarship and Discovering Online Resources Across The Humanities. These identify information contexts, policy and infrastructure; education, technology; funding, knowledge management, digitisation standards and processes as areas requiring further attention by the information industry. Local reports that serve as a platform for review and analysis include Australia Council reports on the arts economy, its future role and technology. 


ROTIE is concerned with exploring the information industry, identifying the place of libraries and other information agencies on the information industry map and addressing issues arising from such research. 

Its members are currently drawn from NSW, ACT and Victoria and include information professionals with backgrounds and affiliations in government, employment, multimedia, film, information technology, public library and archive industries. 

Organisations that invite scrutiny or links include the Australian National Office of the Information Economy, Business Council of Australia, Australian Research Council,  Department of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, information technology groups such as the Australian Computer Society and various library, archive and museum groups with like-minded interests.

The agenda is likely to be formed from the following list: the value of information; form versus and content; information industry infrastructure; government policy and strategy; corporate information management, e-commerce and business systems; innovation, research and development; cross-sectoral issues; and professional development implications



Information Specialists invites people to join existing round tables and encourages the establishment of other round tables representing sectors, disciplines and topics. In addition to ARTHUR and ROTIE, round tables on knowledge management, web management and business information are in train and expressions of interest have been submitted on a number of other areas. 

Modus operandi

Information Specialists is considering operating frameworks that will take into account the views of round table members. Each type of innovation network may have its own specific requirements. Limerick, Cunningham and Crowther flag possible pitfalls:

  • Goal ambiguity and network boundaries. If there is no common hierarchy to support the parent organisation or when purpose is ill-defined or ambiguous, the network tends to fall apart or become ineffective.

  • Sovereignty. The existence of sovereign independent units may affect the survival of the organisation as a whole.

  • Asymmetry. Problems tend to arise in networks when the arrangement favours one partner more than others.

  • Creation of potential competitors. The transfer of technology and know-how creates potential competitors.

  • Focus on the short term. The difficulty of establishing trust can lead to problems of under-management and inadequate resourcing.

  • Communication and control. Networks demand intensive, fast, sophisticated communication between network operations.

  • Different cultures.

Critical success factors, according to Wissema and Euser, will be their ability to mobilise attention, time and money, sustain a common interest and avoid conflicts of interests.

Problem solving formulae are manifold. Knowledge management toolkits such as those offered by Tiwani provide guidance on analysing infrastructure, aligning information strategy with business needs, auditing knowledge assets and systems and developing solutions. The Coalition of Networked Information’s framework of common understanding for the analysis and description of institutional information strategies could serve as a model for presenting needs and opportunities. 


The agenda will very much depend on the interests and commitments of the people involved.

If you are interested in forming a round table or joining one, please contact Paul Bentley at


Blanken and Liff. Facing the future: preparing your association to thrive. Emerging trends from the American Society of Association Executive Foundation’s ongoing environmental scan research. <>

Brown, Rod. Clusters: Management Today March 2001:4-5

Coalition for Networked Information. Special section in Information Technology and Libraries June 1998: 82-108.

Evans, Ivor. Brewer’s Dictionary of phrase and fable. revised edition by Ivor Evans. London: Cassell, 1981.  

Limerick, David, Cunningham, Bert and Crowther, Frank. Managing the new organisation; collaboration and sustainability in the post-corporate world. 2nd ed. Warriewood: Business & Professional Publishing, 1998.

Sheehy, Carolyn A [editor]. Managing performing arts collections in academic and public libraries. Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1994.

Tiwana, Amrit. The knowledge management toolkit: practical techniques for building a knowledge management system. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000.

Webber, Fred and Van Vlack, Charlie. Association reorganisation: keeping ahead of the curve. Association Management, February 2000:51-59

Wenger, Etienne. Communities of Practice: the organizational frontier. Harvard Business Review, January-February 2000.

Wissema, J. G & Euser, L. Successful innovation through inter-company networks, Long Range Planning Vol 24 no 6, 1991:33-29



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