Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The theory behind the research

This is part 2 of a series of posts discussing my dissertation research on the learning that takes place in nonprofit board meetings. Today, I share a bit about the theoretical perspectives and the governance texts that informed my work.

I entered this research in exploratory mode. I had some general ideas about the adult learning theories that might be useful, but I wanted to enter the journey completely open to what I might find (even/especially if it did not fit my general expectations about what would happen).

Because of that, I read widely from a variety of theoretical perspectives in advance of the work. In the end, there was a clear foundation from which I explained my findings. Theories of practice, particularly situated learning, ultimately provided the greatest explanatory power.

I believe that situated learning theory has a lot to teach the nonprofit sector about how people learn, and how we can be more conscious and more effective in understanding these processes. In a nutshell, situated learning theory says that

• Learning occurs in everyday life
• Learning is context-driven

Learning takes place in our informal interactions and activities. It is not confined to training, school and other formal events. Learning also cannot be separated from the context in which it takes place. Learning does take place in board work, and it is shaped by the environment, constraints, and other aspects of organizational life.

I was not surprised that situated learning theory would assist me in my analysis of data gathered during my research. That I would find such strong evidence of the centerpiece of situated learning theory, the community of practice, was surprising. In fact, the board I studied offered compelling evidence of a high-functioning example.

A community of practice has three core components, which will be explored in other parts of this series. They are:

• Domain of knowledge – a common ground and identity
• Community – a group of people who care about the domain
• Shared practice – a framework, routines, ideas, language, etc., from which they act on the domain

I was interested in the community of practice framework early, and I couldn’t escape reading about it in my immersion in situated learning theory. But I was smart enough to realize that exploring the concept in any depth could influence what I saw in data collection. I deliberately set it aside and, frankly, struggled early in the analysis process as I wrestled with two big themes that had emerged.

The first theme, mission, was surprisingly strong and pervasive. The second theme, which I initially called capacity, was big and unruly. I struggled to find meaningful ways to organize those factors (e.g., activities, structures and resources) that fueled governance. Frustrated, I returned to my literature review and was reminded of the community of practice. Within minutes, my dilemma was resolved.


The community of practice’s three components added missing clarity: the mission theme connected directly to the domain; the jumbled mess I called “capacity” easily organized between the other core components, community and practice.

The Nonprofit Foundation

While I also read broadly from the scholarly and practitioner nonprofit literature, one work in particular contributed to the framework for my research question. That work was Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards by Chait, Ryan and Taylor. The “generative governance” mentioned in my research question is the mode of the Governance as Leadership model with which most boards would be unfamiliar – and the most difficult to carry out in their work.

Generative governance is the most exciting and most potentially transformative idea emerging from the model, and perhaps from recent board thinking. Communicating generative governance in terms that boards could not only understand but upon which they could act was a personal challenge for me. Focusing my research on meeting processes that not only advanced learning but gave life to generative governance and provided an added incentive.

In a nutshell, generative governance

  • Is a creative, exploratory process
  • Spotlights the future – what may lie ahead, what might impact what lies ahead – where uncertainty is not only a given, it is embraced
  • Emphasizes meaning making – understanding what data, stories, etc., mean.
  • Focuses on setting the questions to be explored, not on answering them (defining the problem vs. seeking the solution)

While early opportunities to share my work with nonprofit scholars have been validating, I am most energized by the fact that I emerged from this research with a framework (communities of practice) for describing effective board practice. I have vivid ways of articulating how generative governance can be fostered within the routines and deliberations of these critical leadership bodies.

Next: I describe my findings on the first community of practice component, the domain.


(To access my bookmarks on situated learning theory, click here. To access my bookmarks on communities of practice, click here.)

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