Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Learning theory to governance practice: People (on boards) learning in community


How do nonprofit boards actually learn? What factors facilitate conditions to generative thinking and governance? Those were the bottom-line questions driving my doctoral dissertation.

I deliberately took a broad approach to reading the adult learning literature and preparing for the research, because I wanted to remain open to whatever the case study would reveal. I didn't want to miss something important because I was too busy looking for something else. Still, even as I studied a wide range of topics, including transformative learning, organizational learning, and reflective practice, there was something about the social theories - especially situated and sociocultural learning - that resonated deeply.

I wouldn't know how or why until months later, when I sat down to analyze the data; but the work of Etienne Wenger, on situated learning theory and communities of practice, ultimately would provide the key to unlocking the mysteries within (and the foundation for pretty much everything I know and practice regarding nonprofit board learning).

This quote, in Wenger and William Snyder's 2000 article, "Learning in Communities," sums up the premise perfectly. The message is embedded in pretty much everything Wenger-Trayner (he has since married and continued his work with wife Beverly) has written on the topic of situated learning (including the book he and Snyder wrote with Richard McDermott, Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge). You'll see more on this topic, from more traditional sources, later in this series.

I chose this specific quote for second in the series, because it offers the theoretical foundation for everything else that follows. It's a step before the cornerstone of my research - communities of practice - situating the larger context as embedded in the everyday work that adults do with others.

Service on nonprofit boards is one of those work environments where adults gather and learn. This quote, the article containing it, and other readings on situated learning theory, helped to affirm that I would find value in studying one board closely, over time, to gain some insight into how learning takes place in that routine setting. The community of practice component filled in the gaps. But this larger framework spoke to what was in my gut going into the research: that board development is more than formal training events. We just don't (generally) know or recognize it.

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