Sunday, April 10, 2011

Board learning styles: Applying Kolb's model

Diversity that expands a board’s capacity to make effective, mission-centered decisions extends beyond the traditional demographic markers. Diversity in the way board members learn also contributes to a rich and thoughtful boardroom environment.

Adult learning theories offer multiple tools of value for identifying the way individual board members learn. I’ve already applied one such framework, multiple intelligences, to illustrate how moving beyond a one-size-fits-all approach enhances members’ capacity to learn and govern. In this post, I share another model that boards, and nonprofit educators, might find useful.

David Kolb has identified four learning styles, derived from his experiential learning model. What follows is a rough outline of how I am applying Kolb’s framework to the work of boards. It’s definitely a work in progress, one in which I welcome assistance in connecting the dots.

Several great, “plain English” overviews of Kolb’s model exist. I’ve bookmarked  a sampling of resources that have readers may find useful. Following is my attempt to describe Kolb’s four learning styles and offer basic examples of how each contributes something of potential value to board work.

Convergers. They prefer practical application and problem focus. They aren’t particularly enamored of the interpersonal ‘stuff’ of group work, preferring to get right to the task at hand. They ask the “how” questions. In the boardroom: Convergers will help you work through the tough “how to we make this work” questions. This is especially important in governance, where so many of the challenges being addressed are complex and defy straightforward, easy fixes. Convergers will dig in and look for ways to translate those abstract, tough ideas into something that can be reasonably resolved, or at least moved forward in some meaningful way. In an environment where mission progress is often measured in inches – if not centimeters – this is critical.

Divergers. They love generating ideas, brainstorming, and group work. Divergers are good at taking in different perspectives and seeing systems. They ask “why.” In the boardoom: Divergers will seek out – and create – a range of possibilities for the board to consider, not accepting the easy or the obvious or “the way we’ve always done it.” Divergers will be the board members who find commonalities between seemingly disparate interests and emerge with a better solution.

Assimilators. They like logical, practical approaches to decisions. Assimilators “prefer lectures, reading and time to think.” Expert knowledge carries greater weight with them, as they ask “What is there to know?” In the boardroom: Assimilators won’t let boards make snap decisions. They will push boards to seek out all of the information needed to make a quality decision, think through the consequences, and dig deeper.

Accommodators.  They are the doers and the risk takers. Accommodators are action-oriented. They like new challenges and set ambitious goals. They ask “What would happen if I did this?” In the boardroom: Accommodators ensure that boards don’t succumb to the “paralysis by analysis” that plagues so many governing bodies. They will hold the board and executive director accountable for carrying through on decisions made. Accommodators are more inclined than others to encourage us to learn from what worked and what doesn’t, and to not shy away from trying again because of the latter.

Can you see how having all four types of learners in the boardroom might lead to higher-quality governance, when everyone is allowed to bring what comes naturally to the table? Kolb’s model offers some potential for thinking more expansively about those we recruit to the board (diversity of learning style is a legitimate criterion to consider). It also creates value in helping us to engage individual members by drawing out their preferred ways of thinking and expanding the group’s decision-making capacity.

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