Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Learning theory to governance practice: Boards as communities (of practice)


Effective nonprofit boards have the essential characteristics of a high-functioning community of practice.

While I can't officially generalize findings from the case study that informed my dissertation - or any qualitative research - that is the message I took away from the experience. What I can ethically do is share the key concepts behind the big news of that work and suggest we explore ways to apply it to nonprofit boards.

Strictly speaking, nonprofit boards don't align perfectly with the community of practice framework. Whereas communities of practice generally emerge in informal gatherings of peers sharing a common knowledge base or purposes, nonprofit boards exist as clear legal and organizational entities with specific roles and responsibilities not directly related to learning. A more traditional example of a COP in a nonprofit setting might be a local group of CEOs getting together discuss common concerns and share resources, development directors from sister organizations networking via email, or an online peer learning and support community for board chairpersons (On my horizon. Contact me if you're interested in exploring how we might make this happen.). Their real ties are informal and focused on learning and mutual support.

Still, the more I explore communities of practice as rich organizational learning environments, the more parallels I see between what they make possible and what nonprofit boards need to govern effectively.


I encountered the community of practice notion early in my preparation for research, originally through Lave and Wenger's writings on situated learning - especially their seminal book, Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Intrigued by what I found there, I followed the COP trail to other resources, including books that Wenger wrote with others.

I continued to explore situated learning and related practice theories, but I eventually set the COP material aside because the parallels to nonprofit boards were pretty compelling. I didn't want to "see" something that didn't exist because I was primed to do so, since my research was intended to be an exploratory study of how nonprofit boards learn in routine settings. (An aside: I was so successful in avoiding that trap that I wallowed for weeks in data analysis, stuck on how to interpret a big ol' mess o' something, until I returned to my lit review and rediscovered the community of practice. Suddenly, everything sorted out. Beautifully.)

I chose these specific quotes, because they capture the essence of communities of practice well. At the center of both is learning: people in these communities come together to not only share existing information but generate new knowledge. That collaborative element is another hallmark of a COP: there is a synergy and a generative learning potential that emerges in their interactions.

It's not about simply rounding up a random mix of people, though. Community of practice members organize and work around a common purpose or interest. They have, and build, individual knowledge and capacity in the collective effort.

What those quotes don't capture as succinctly as Lave and Wenger is a concise description of the three core components of a community of practice, which I will use to frame the short series that starts on Monday. Those three elements are:

Domain: The common purpose/topic/interest around which the community gathers. Its common focus and foundation for the work that it does.

Community: The environment in which the community works. For success, that environment requires a minimal level of trust, sharing, collaboration, and mutual support. It is the canvas upon which the work can happen.

Practice. The routines, discussions, tools, stories, processes, traditions, etc., that form the work of the community.

As I said, while researcher me can't officially say "I found this to be true of one board. Apply this to all nonprofit boards," I trust that you can already anticipate some parallels from both the examples I will share and your own experiences.

I'll admit here that I was so excited about the evidence provided in the domain area and fascinated by the practices that emerged as critical to my subject board's success that I originally discounted the community component. It was what it was, and what it wasn't was sexy in the larger context. One goal for revisiting the data in this series will be to step back and review that portion of my findings with fresh eyes. Continuing experience certainly has reinforced for me the impact of group culture and dynamics on potential board success.

I don't know exactly how my (re)visit of this research will unfold, except that it will happen over a few Monday posts. I suspect there also may be one or two new related sources shared in this mid-week series to expand understanding of communities of practice. What I do know for sure is that the time is right for me to review, articulate, and apply anew the research that has utterly changed my thinking about nonprofit boards and their work. Until Monday...

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