Sunday, November 6, 2011

So, what do boards experience?

Really, what kinds of learning occurs in the routine experiences of the typical nonprofit board?

The 'big news' of last week's post applying the 70:20:10 model to board learning was that most of what we adults learn comes from experience, not formal training events. I offered up some general thoughts about what experiential learning in a nonprofit boardroom might look like in that post, but the adult educator in me is feeling the need to dig a little deeper on the question you may be asking:

What IS experiential learning?

To give myself a frame for responding, I turned to one of my favorite thinkers on the topic, Tara Fenwick, who offers six types of experience where learning occurs.*

Direct embodied experience - The right now, right before us experiences that make up our daily lives. Fenwick reminds us that those experiences can impact us physically, emotionally, spiritually, mentally, etc. As I reflected on this one, I couldn't help thinking that so much of board work - and our approach to it - is treated as an intellectual endeavor. The fact is, as human beings, our experiences involve more than our heads - even/especially in the meaning-driven nature of the visionary work of governance. Those of us who come to boards because we care deeply about the issues do not treat future-focused discussions as essentially academic exercises. We engage our hearts, spirits and minds.

Vicarious experience - What happens when we hear others describe their experiences; the ways in which their stories impact us, inform us, and resonate with us personally. I often struggle with how to provide board members with real connections to the mission of the organization when direct experience might result in one of two very inappropriate responses: wandering into micromanagement territory or breaking client confidentiality. Providing them with ample opportunity for vicarious experience brings them to that mission while respecting boundaries. Board members need to hear stories from front-line staff and volunteers. They need to hear client stories - delivered in appropriate and sensitive ways. They need to listen to what the senior executive shares as a co-leader and as the day-to-day manager. Boards can learn, and derive their own meaning, from the stories that others tell about your mission.

Simulated experience - Set up to resemble real-life scenarios, but provided in an artificial and controlled environment. I'll admit, I'm stretching for a good example of what this might look like in a board setting (I'm hoping one or more readers might be able to share one with us.). It does summon to mind my first board assignments, for agencies providing crisis intervention services to victims of family violence and sexual assault. I often was appalled by my peers' lack of understanding of victims' experiences and fears, and the challenges crisis line volunteers and staff face in addressing their urgent needs. In that setting, role playing - taking a hypothetical (but typical) crisis call or simulating a shelter intake process - might have gone a long way to clarifying those issues for my board friends.

Relived experience - Recalling previous experiences, with the benefit of having time and perspective to assist with assessing and learning from them. There is value in organizational history. Not only does it help boards avoid reinventing the wheel, but it also fosters reflection that creates the chance to learn something new/different from our experiences. Boards benefit when they revisit their successes and their failures - especially the former. Why were we successful? What were the conditions that facilitated that success? What conditions are in place today, and how can we leverage those conditions in this situation?

Collaborative experience - Working together, experiencing something together. Collective experience includes both discussion and action. Governance is the ultimate collective experience. Conversation makes up a significant percentage of that experience, but boards can/should/do learn when they act together. In fact, getting out of their seats (and their heads) more often would be a healthy thing for our boards.

Introspective experience - Engaging the quiet voice within. Boards need to reflect. They need space to sit back, collectively and individually, and listen to what their hearts tell them, just as they listen to their heads. Resisting the urge to act quickly and decisively is a practice that would benefit more boards. If they need time to reflect on an important decision, they need to take it.

How is your board already learning through experience? Which of these experience sources surprised you? Which has the potential to expand your board's capacity if it acknowledged and focused on its value in its practice? What kinds of examples could you share with fellow readers, to help them expand their understanding of how boards learn?

* from Fenwick's 2003 book, Learning through Experience: Troubling Orthodoxies and Interesting Questions, p. 13.

2 comments: said...

Great overview, DB! As for the simulated experience, this is often useful when brushing up a skill such as "making the ask" of a donor, or doing legislative education or lobbying. Role-plays can feel hokey to adult learners, but we all can use some practice now and again!

Debra Beck, EdD said...

Excellent example, Liz! Role play can be incredibly powerful (even though, as you note, they aren't always an adult learner favorite). Their value comes, not only for the participants, but for those who are observing and learning in the process. Thanks!