Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Learning theory to governance practice: Centering power in informal board activities

Michael Eraut's work on informal and workplace learning ended up taking a back seat to sources describing the major findings in my research as I wrote the literature review for my dissertation. But in the months leading up to the study, his voice was one that kept resonating. It still speaks to me as I continue my professional adult educator journey.

I read broadly from a range of theoretical adult learning perspectives as I prepared for my research. Quite frankly, I wasn't sure what I would find as I studied learning in the context of routine board work. Not having a strong sense of direction in this exploratory study led me into a familiar scholarly trap - finding interesting possibilities everywhere I looked - but it also opened my eyes to a wider potential pool of potential evidence and explanations.

I found Eraut's work on informal learning and, specifically, informal workplace learning, to be a logical fit to what happens in nonprofit boardrooms. While pretty much every note captured in my reading and reflection on this article resonated, there were at least three major ideas that caused a pause.

One was Eraut's four types of work activity that facilitate learning:

  • “participation in group activities
  • “working alongside others
  • “tackling challenging tasks
  • “working with clients” (p. 266-267)

Boards may not generally work with "clients," but they do engage community stakeholders, policymakers, donors and potential donors, and myriad others who might join them in support of advancing their mission. All of these activities are essential aspects of board service.

Also important to the nonprofit board setting was the three types of knowledge that he outlined:

  • Codified: primarily textual (e.g., correspondence, plans, manuals, etc.)
  • Cultural (non-codified): most work-based practices and activities – acquired through participation in a social setting
  • Personal: what we bring to the situation that facilitates thinking,  interaction and performance (p. 263)
Whether we acknowledge them or not, whether we see them or not, board members - individually and collectively - work with all three types of knowing in their governance work.

Finally, I found his four types of professional activity to be germane to the work that boards do:

  1. “assessing clients and situations…and continuing to monitor their condition;
  2. “deciding what, if any, action to take, both immediately and over a longer period (either one’s own or as a leader or member of a team);
  3. “pursuing an agreed course of action, modifying, consulting and reassessing as and when necessary;
  4. “managing oneself, one’s job and one’s continuing learning in a context of constrained time and resources, conflicting priorities and complex inter- and intra-professional relationships.” (p. 259)

Nonprofit board members both bring their versions of these workplace learning and interactions to the table and create governance-specific iterations in the course of their work as a leadership body. To the extent that they are willing and able to recognize, articulate, and consciously adapt those routines to maximize their learning potential, our boards can enhance the richness and value of their collective efforts.

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