Monday, January 5, 2015

Providing some context for the year: Why nonprofit board learning environments?

Why is the notion of board learning environments worthy of a year's focus here? What does expanding the concept of nonprofit board learning promise to offer the sector and the volunteer leaders who govern its organizations?

As I've asked myself those same questions, I keep coming back to one simple fact: the individuals serving on our boards are multidimensional human beings with varied interests, knowledge bases, learning preferences, and resources from which to draw. To the extent that we can inspire and support them as learners and leaders, we expand their capacity to govern effectively and increase their satisfaction while doing so.

The unique nature of the nonprofit setting, and the work of governance, require "environments" tailored to those specific needs. Simply dropping a board into one of the emerging "learning environment" frameworks isn't the answer. But we can learn from those perspectives and models as we expand our thinking about how board members really learn.

One of the frameworks that inspires me most at this point comes from Catherine Lombardozzi. As I re-read a sneak peek from her coming book, Learning Environments by Design, last week, I occasionally toyed with saying "Here. Read this." and calling a wrap on the year's theme. It's that good. Instead, I'll launch this adventure by sharing one of the most critical ideas from that preview, her "Learning Environment Components."

These components break down common learning sources available to adults into five key areas:

  • Resources - e.g., books, articles, performance support, pod- and vodcasts, job aids, online databases, wikis, whitepapers.
  • People - e.g., peer networks, expert directories, mentors, social media networks and connections, conferences, personal networks, professional organizations.
  • Training and education - e.g., face-to-face training sessions, online courses, webinars, formal coaching, follow-up activities to reinforce what was learned.
  • Development practices - e.g., action learning, assessment processes and feedback, job rotation and other experiential learning activities.
  • Experiential learning practices - e.g., learning by doing, collaboration, creating notes and job aids, critical reflection.

As you ponder that list, it is important to remember that many of the sources available to your board members right now exist in other areas of their lives. That's both a blessing and a challenge for us: helping members draw from, and share, their existing sources of applicable knowledge while also acknowledging the need for common understandings of what that knowledge means in the specific setting of their work on our boards.

The larger challenge is finding ways to offer that bridge while creating resources and experiences tailored to their specific responsibilities and the context of our missions.

Adult learning is more than the sources available to us. But Catherine does such a marvelous job of reminding us that it's also more than formal learning experiences that I couldn't help opening the year with this core part of her work.

There's a sixth element that I want to point out here: learner motivation. You'll find that underlying the five components, reinforcing the foundational nature that motivation plays in our learning as adults.  We can provide the richest, broadest, most perfect environment and resources to support it; but if we fail to motivate the adults who serve on our boards, we will fall short.

Board members' motivations in this volunteer role likely will vary somewhat from their learning needs as professionals and employees. But their motivations are real nonetheless. We cannot - and will not - neglect board learner motivation in what unfolds from here.

To help start the conversation, and to begin building a sense of what already is available to many of our boards, I invite you to share examples of what these components can/should look like in the context of nonprofit governance.

What types of resources exist for your boards that illustrate Lombardozzi's learning components? What doesn't yet exist but offers transformative potential for board learning? How can Lombardozzi's list help us think as expansively as possible about the needs and opportunities to build our boards' capacities to govern?

NOTE: As I advance the "Building Environments for Board Learning and Leadership" theme, I'll be creating sets of resources for readers who are interested in exploring the topic on their own. One is a new Pinterest board, devoted to posts that address this theme. A set of bookmarks also will continue to grow with the series. At the moment, those resource lists are predictably small, but they will expand over time. For more general resources on both learning environments and performance support, visit my Pinterest board dedicated to those topics.

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