Monday, August 3, 2015

The community of practice as effective governance site: A (revisited) case study

The essential elements of a healthy community of practice also provide an environment for healthy generative governance and board learning.

While last week's official caveat against generalizing qualitative data to all nonprofit boards still applies, the evidence that the exemplary nonprofit board at the center of my dissertation case study offers provides familiar illustrations for discussion about whether and how we create environments and processes that embed learning and feed generative thinking and governance.

Today, in this first post of a series revisiting the takeaways from this case study, I offer some context for the research and the biggest news of all: evidence of a thriving community of practice.

The research questions

How do nonprofit board members really learn? What kinds of learning takes place in the routine activities of governance? What types of learning and processes create an environment where generative thinking and governance can take place? As I hope the summer "literature review" posts are showing, I read broadly from adult learning theories and kept an open mind as I entered the multi-month research experience. I had my own experiences and stories shared by others but, frankly, I had no idea what I would find. Not entering with preconceived notions was critical to uncovering authentic answers.

While "how boards learn" was the foundational question driving the research, another part of me hoped to encounter evidence of generative governance in the wild. I had just discovered Chait, Ryan and Taylor's revolutionary Governance as Leadership model and had begun to struggle with two questions: how do we make the generative mode accessible to boards in the field; and what does generative governance/thinking actually look like, whether or not boards are aware they are doing it? I hoped to see an example during my months of boardroom observation but would not be crushed if that didn't happen.

The board

I chose my Plan A board carefully. If had any chance of seeing quality examples of board learning, I knew I couldn't spend months observing a board that struggled with the basics of governance. I needed a board where members understood their essential responsibilities and made good-faith efforts to truly lead their organization into a future where community needs are met because they existed.

Luckily, my Plan A board said yes. The significant insights that unfolded, and laid the foundation for how I reconceptualized nonprofit governance, emerged from the rich evidence members provided along the way. In some key ways, they were an exemplary board - a term my dissertation committee and I agreed I could use in this qualitative setting. It may not represent all boards, but it can offer a high-quality example for others.

In some ways this board was extraordinary. In many more, it was utterly ordinary, functioning as any other competent group of community leaders would in a nonprofit governance setting. They weren't perfect, but they managed to carry out the essential leadership work of a board in effective and productive ways. In doing so, they showed me - and I hope you - what is possible when board members have a chance to work, think, and govern in an environment that supports learning and leading.

The research mode

My research questions drove the decision to do a case study. I needed to be able to see examples of learning in the field, examples that might be mostly unconscious to someone in the middle of them (or who would not automatically identify them as "learning"). I also needed to probe members for interpretation of what I saw and for their insights into their board experiences and responsibilities. All of that required a qualitative methodology. Choosing a case study was pretty obvious.

The research process involved multiple parts:

  • Observation of meetings over several months
  • Individual interviews with board members and the CEO
  • Focus groups that both provided context for the observations and group discussion that added layers to the interpretation (for them and for a few of the participants)
  • Content analysis of board meeting documents (e.g., minutes, CEO reports, other supportive materials)

The case study offered a richness that would not have been possible without a qualitative approach. It was impossible to survey board learning and come anywhere close to the evidence and insights gained from spending quality time with a board that understood and accepted the full range of governance responsibilities.

The big news

I mentioned in last week's "lit review" post that I found Lave and Wenger's community of practice pretty compelling, so much so that I set it aside as I continued to explore a wide range of adult learning theories. I didn't want to risk seeing something that didn't really exist, because I had primed myself to do so.

As I also reported last week, I successfully avoided that research trap. I sat with my data -- electronic recordings and hundreds of pages of transcripts from them - for a few weeks, wallowing and wondering (my favorite part of qualitative research, if I'm honest). One major theme arose, strong and clear, from the beginning: a central focus on the nonprofit's mission that was enacted in multiple ways. Then there was this big ball of "stuff" that fed that mission focus but was proving hard to organize into ways that made sense.

Frustrated, I returned to the literature that prepared me for the study and, ultimately, the community of practice.

While I found elements of value in other adult learning theories in that review, the community of practice provided the framework that allowed me to make sense of the evidence and the themes represented within. That major mission theme that was so clear became the domain of the board community, the central purpose around which the board organized. That big old basket of "stuff" that challenged suddenly sorted clearly into functions of community and of practice.

The next series of Monday posts will explore the evidence that unfolded in studying this board, for each of the three community of practice elements. While I offered an initial summary shortly after completing the research and resulting dissertation, I anticipate finding personal value in exploring these ideas and the evidence behind them with fresh eyes and additional informed experience.

Next week, I share the domain/mission evidence that emerged early and in pretty compelling ways.

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