The Importance of Knowledge Transfer Between Social Enterprises and Communities

Knowledge transfer has always been somewhat of a challenge for organisations, and is more visible when continuity is necessary with new members joining. It is particularly important in the space of social enterprises that do development work in communities, as will be discussed in this article.

The events leading up to the strike action of 2012 at the Lonmin mine in Marikana take on a number of different dimensions including wage negotiations, union rivalries, quality of living conditions, and social investment initiatives that did not successfully meet the needs of the community, or met them with limited impact.
In concerns around addressing the needs of the community, the issue of communication and key understanding of basic living requirements, may have been misinterpreted or did not reach the right structures or corporate social investment (CSI) initiatives to address these needs.

Herein lies the importance of communication and how the needs of communities are communicated using the appropriate knowledge transfer methods in these environments. Using appropriate knowledge transfer methods, gives indication as to the key needs that need to be addressed as well as understanding the sustained impact it will have.

As a basic need of community members, access to clean water, sanitation, healthcare and nutrition were identified as a concern that needed to be addressed. A number of corporate initiatives with the aims of community upliftment were implemented but with limited impact, as this is primarily seen as a tick box exercise on the Black Economic Empowerment scorecard.

As the community grows, the needs of the community will change. The fact that some social initiatives managed the delivery of food parcels, met a community need at a point in time, but does not address the changing needs of the community, such as professional healthcare services. There is a corporate social responsibility (CSR) that is lacking in terms of the changing dynamics of communities and their needs.

Dealing with communities such as Bapong, Wonderkop and Segwaelane in the surrounding areas of Marikana, it can be said that there are no one size fits all approach to serving community needs. In some instances, certain communities were better off than others, for example: at least 80 percent of households in Marikana had taps in the house, while this figure was less than 10 percent in Bapong. As a basic need of community members, there is a vast discrepancy in terms of how certain community needs were addressed either by CSI initiatives, public sector, and of mine worker employers.

It is important to understand that different knowledge types (knowhow and know why), that exist in these communities, are not as easily transferable due to their complex, tacit and highly personal nature.

There have been many advancements that have significantly increased our ability to access information and knowledge in terms of volume and speed, and even more so in our ability to transfer it.

The key concern is that although these advancements provide positive benefit, the amount of information and knowledge that we have access to and are able to transfer, far exceeds our ability to meaningfully absorb and make sense of it. As a result, decisions are made that do not address the topic or concern as is evident in the community of and communities surrounding Marikana.

What is knowledge transfer all about?

Knowledge transfer is said to be a focused activity that promotes the sharing of ideas, experiences, skills and learnings to assist and influence decision making and problem solving.

The transfer activity takes place at two primary levels:

  • Group level – Knowledge resides within its organisational members, tools, tasks, networks and external communities, and sharing this knowledge and experience enables that group to achieve its goals; and
  • Individual level – Remains tacit in individuals which may be difficult to articulate and often occurs as a result of learning processes.

The primary objective of conducting knowledge transfer activities is to retain and manage various knowledge types that can be used to inform decision making and problem solving.

Key factors that would indicate successful knowledge transfer is its absorption and application. This is largely dependant on the receiver of that knowledge to have a cognitive understanding of the knowledge transferred/shared (absorption), and to have the ability to apply that knowledge within context (application).

How does the knowledge transfer activity differ in social enterprises?

Many of the same principles, practices and methods (storytelling, interviews, shadowing) for knowledge transfer found in commercial sectors can be applied in the social sector as well. The major difference is that social enterprises deal with a large amount of indigenous knowledge in the communities they work in.

Indigenous knowledge can be referred to as knowledge that is unique to a given culture or society, and resides in complex knowledge systems developed by those communities or groups. Unlike modern knowledge, such as scientific knowledge, research, and knowledge created in private companies, indigenous knowledge has developed over a number of generations and forms the basis for decision making and problem solving in many rural communities.

Main differences in the way indigenous knowledge is transferred is that it requires an understanding of the processes between knowledge systems. Focusing only on ‘scientific transfer’ prevents individuals form seeing the process of interactions between knowledge systems and does not offer any inclusion of indigenous knowledge from a cultural transfer point of view.

Example of mechanisms for indigenous knowledge transfer in social sectors include:

  • Community-based structures
    • Ward councillors
    • Local Municipal Representatives
  • Narrative
    • Storytelling
    • Anecdotes
  • Physical structures
    • South African Social Security Agency (SASSA) offices
    • Police stations (hubs or satellite offices)
    • Clinics

Case study: Lonmin mining communities

A prime example of how indigenous knowledge was not successfully transferred (absorbed and applied), internalised and understood, and could have potentially helped to avoid a major catastrophe, was the events surrounding the strike action of 2012 at the Lonmin mine in Marikana.

Sub-quality living conditions (which were known to Lonmin) are said to be a catalyst for the miners’ strike.

Concerns such as unsanitary conditions, lack of health care, low household income, and access to basic amenities (such as running water) were raised by the community ward councillors. These, however, were not effectively addressed as it is mentioned that a number of CSR projects failed in these areas.

Social enterprises need to be aware of this indigenous knowledge in communities in order to successfully understand and address community concerns. The ability to successfully transfer this indigenous knowledge allows social enterprises to create more significant and sustained impact in the communities in which they are involved.

What can be achieved with knowledge transfer activities in the social space?

Investing in effective knowledge transfer activities enables organisations to determine who knows what, who needs to know what, and how to transfer that knowledge which is critical for developing solutions to meet community needs. Social enterprises’ ability to access the right information and knowledge at the right time also assists in ensuring the long term sustainability of solutions implemented in the communities in which they work.

Additional benefits of knowledge transfer between social enterprises and communities may include:

  • Preservation of indigenous knowledge of the community;
  • Identifying and understanding community interdependencies; and
  • Better understanding community needs.


The importance of conducting knowledge transfer activities between social enterprises and communities cannot be overlooked. There are highly unique, challenging, and changing requirements that need to be understood in communities that social enterprises work with.

By understanding the knowledge that is used to drive community decision making and problem solving processes, this will add value to the work that social enterprises embark on when addressing the needs of the community.


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Corbett, I. 2010. KM and Corporate Social Investment. [Available online]. Accessed: 18 May 2016.
Evans, S. 2014. Marikana service delivery researchers spooked. [Available online]. Accessed: 18 August 2016.
Leon, P. 2012. Marikana, Mangaung and the SA mining industry. [Available online]. Accessed: 18 August 2016.
Lipphardt, V. & Ludwig, D. 2011. Knowledge Transfer and Science Transfer. [Available online]. Accessed: 08 June 2016.
Municipal Institute of Learning. 2015. Corporate Social Investment: What is the City's Role? [Available online]. Accessed: 18 May 2016.
Parker, F. 2012. Lonmin mining communities: A powder keg of inequality. [Available online]. Accessed: 28 June 2016.
Schutte, G. 2013. Marikana and the hypocrisy of corporate social responsibility. [Available online]. Accessed: 18 August 2016.
Semali, L. & Kincheleo, JL. 1999. What is Indigenous Knowledge? Voices from the Academy. Abingdon. Taylor & Francis.
Unesco. 2002. Best Practices using Indigenous Knowledge. [Available online]. Accessed: 02 June 2016.

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