Saturday, June 18, 2011

The challenge of board organizational learning

Well, I warned you that I'd be writing about Katie Smith Milway and Amy Saxton's great article about nonprofit organizational learning...

As an adult educator specializing in nonprofit learning generally, and board learning specifically, seeing their article on organizational learning in the sector was a welcome contribution to the conversation. The authors do a great job of exploring learning at the organizational level. I'd like to apply their framework to the board. I'd encourage you to read Milway and Saxton's article for context and for more detail on the model itself.

This particular model of organizational learning spotlights four elements: supportive leaders, a culture of continuous improvements, defining learning structure and intuitive knowledge processes. I'll address each piece from a board perspective. Some of the ideas will be familiar to regular readers. It's healthy to explore board learning through different lenses.

Supportive leaders.  Milway and Saxton's descriptors include "clear vision and goals for organizational learning" and "champions and role models." A nonprofit board needs both. It needs to set learning goals for itself. It needs someone to realize the value of board learning, who will push the board to expand - and use - its collective knowledge. The executive director has a role in supporting this process; but it is not his/her job alone, nor is it that person's leadership responsibility. A board member (or, better yet, members) needs to take up the learning banner and carry it forward to help them serve the mission and vision better.

Culture of continuous improvements. We can't overestimate the power of board organizational culture. Nor can we minimize its impact in nonprofit life generally, especially given the meaning-driven nature of its mission-based work. Milway and Saxton describe this element as a culture that "values organizational learning" via "aligned beliefs and values," "reinforcing incentives," and "commitment to measurement of results." In the boardroom, I see this culture represented when members regularly discuss the importance of continuous board learning in all forms. I see it in the incentives provided, for example, funding for board members to participate in formal learning events (with the expectation that they will share what they learn with their fellow members).

In a culture of continuous board learning, members share their individual expertise to help the group govern better, and value that shared wisdom even more than retreats and "training" events. In a culture of continuous board improvement, members and staff would "catch" each other learning - identifying, acknowledging, and rewarding those situations when an individual member expands the group's capacity in some way. In this culture, the board recognizes that learning takes place all the time and calls it learning.

Defining learning structure. Yes, structure is important. The authors describe learning structure as "aligned to support organizational learning" through "defined roles and responsibilities for capturing, distilling, applying and sharing knowledge" and "networks and coordination." As I think about learning structure in a board setting, a few thoughts come to mind.

First, create awareness for what knowledge is shared, how it is shared, who is sharing it, with what impact. Second, have someone (or a group of someones - at minimum, the committee chairpersons) responsible for identifying the board's ongoing learning needs. What do we need to know? Where will we find it? How will we use it? Hold that person(s) accountable for ensuring that the board can access needed information, use it effectively, and evaluate the process. Because learning is so often invisible, and because boards are a transient lot, err on the side of explicitness. Third, seek opportunities to build networks that help you advance your organization's work; value and nurture the networks that are already serving you well. Bring that collective wisdom into the governance process, when appropriate, to enhance your understanding and help you make the most effective and creative decisions possible.

Intuitive knowledge processes. I got a little excited about this one, because this is where the action lies. Milway and Saxton describe this as "organizational learning processes...embedded into daily workflows," that include "defined processes" and "technology platforms." Boards can't leave their learning to chance. They also can't confine it to annual retreats or infrequent board development events. Learning goals should be part of the board's annual planning process. Beyond topics outlined there, boards should be always alert to other learning needs that emerge in the routine work and in the inevitable challenges that arise.

Boards should create regular opportunities to draw upon their own expertise in governance work (the 7x7 board member briefing that Jan Masaoka described in this post is one good, workable way to institutionalize that). They should build learning into board and committee meetings, not confine it to a formal training event.  If possible, find ways to capture what is shared - via audio or video or, at minimum, via notes - and saved in ways that are available to current and future members (organizational history can be a fragile thing in a transient group like a nonprofit board).

This brings me to my final point about this learning element: the need for a platform, online or not, to capture board knowledge that can be retained and shared. I've written about this before; Milway and Saxton's model provides space for it, and confirmation that such a need exists. Much of what boards know remain stored in individual people's heads, which is a problem in a fluid membership environment. As members come and go, boards need a way for capturing organizational and decision-making history, so that new editions of the group are not perpetually plowing the same ground. In some important ways, they can - and should - have available to them resources that provide context and history, allowing them to move forward in ways that make sense for the organization.

I'd encourage you to share Milway and Saxton's article with your board. Use it to spark a discussion about how members learn as a group and how they can be more conscious of defining and facilitating learning that helps them move you closer to your vision and mission.

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