How do we accommodate board members' preferences as adult learners to their governance responsibilities? How do we shape their work, and the knowledge they need to accomplish it, with those preferences in mind? How might we rethink board development knowing those preferences?
Jane Hart's recent post, 5 characteristics of how knowledge workers like to learn at work, begs for a nonprofit board twist.
Hart's characteristics don't surprise: they represent what decades of research and endless anecdotal evidence tell us about how adults really learn in their daily lives. While they're individually embedded in much of what I've shared here (It's a blog on board learning, after all), the publication of this particular post - and the international attention it received - provides a fresh opportunity to revisit them within a nonprofit board context.
In the flow of work
There are multiple reasons why this is good to acknowledge about - and incorporate into - board learning. Leading those reasons is the fact that it fits what we know about how adults really learn. It's in the day-to-day experiences that we all have: our actions, our interactions and our experiences. Also a practical factor for nonprofit boards: members are part-time volunteers. The work of governance itself demands much of our lead volunteers. Relying on formal training experiences that occur outside of the already significant time commitments that we ask our boards to make is unrealistic.
Besides the obvious - that we're already learning in virtually everything we do - recognizing that board work is filled with the same continuous stream of learning opportunities makes us accountable for ensuring that those experiences are high quality and directed toward enhancing their effectiveness. How do we structure our meetings to enhance learning? What resources do we share? What do we ask them to do to contribute to the group's collective capacity to govern?
This is the piece that I'm continually thinking about as I explore alternative approaches to board development. Board members need information and support when they need it - in the moment - not days, weeks or months later, when they can get to a training session. Board members need ready access to access information and resources, so that they can act appropriately and effectively. The most obvious example: a board portal where all relevant sources of information (e.g., bylaws, minutes, committee reports) are available to members 24/7. But there also is a need for access to more universal information and inspiration about governance. I'm perpetually working on ways to accomplish this (and am open to your thoughts or examples for making that happen).
We also learn from and with others. Some of us prefer to learn collaboratively and via interaction with peers and experts. We can accomplish that inside our boardrooms by ensuring that we give members ample opportunity - and responsibility - for sharing their experience and expertise in ways that are germane to the work that we share. We also learn from others outside of our boards, and we bring that to the boardroom with us. But there's another social learning opportunity, that some have already successfully addressed: connecting local boards to create peer networks and peer learning communities. The challenge is to make those community efforts convenient, stimulating and a source of energy, not another obligation to add to the calendar. Another option: creating that community online - if local board members are open to interacting in that environment. (Lesson learned the hard way: That's not an assumption we can readily make.)
Recognizing that adult learners are capable of learning independently (and often prefer it) means that we work to ensure that our board members know where to go to find the information they need, whether from us or external resources. It also can involve introducing expectations that board members exercise their intellectual curiosity, and that they see that as part of their responsibility to the group.