Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Learning theory to governance practice: Power in everyday nonprofit board life

Learning is embedded in group social life. It's inevitable. It's powerful. It happens - whether or not we realize or acknowledge it.

Yes, I really did read and draw from traditional scholarly sources in preparation for my research. But I return to Etienne Wenger and William Snyder's online article, "Learning in Communities," this week because it provides the perfect next step from last week's post as I recreated the path that I followed in that research process.

It also describes perfectly the motivation for choosing a case study, conducted over months, instead of more expedient research methods (e.g., a survey). To truly reveal, and understand, the full range of adult learning as it takes place in governance work, I had to observe and inquire about the processes that drive it. Most of those processes evolve not in formal training but in everyday board social life. Many of those processes are invisible to the participants creating and perpetuating them. That certainly was what I found in my time with the exemplar nonprofit board I studied.

I didn't know for certain, or how it might be enacted in that real life setting. But even as I came into the boardroom from a traditional training background, I sensed that I would discover something useful in the mundane work that high-functioning boards do. That was the case. Actually, what I found was somewhat miraculous to this board veteran. It changed my perspective completely as a board educator and consultant. It transformed my entire thinking of, and understanding about, how boards build their knowledge and capacity to govern.

Oh, and by the way, I also saw how that work created a natural environment for generative thinking and governing that I'm always calling for here. It required nothing heroic or extraordinary. Just an openness to learn and engage and explore.

I'm revisiting that research this summer, as part of my 2015 blog theme, "Building Environments for Board Learning and Leadership." (This "lit review" series is another part of that reflection process.) In the meantime, if you're interested in an overview written shortly after I completed the initial research and writing process, I invite you to download my white paper overview. While the larger messages and foundational components will remain the same, I anticipate that time and additional research and experience working with boards will add new layers of insight to the case.

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