Monday, October 5, 2015

The board as community of practice: Reflecting on research lessons learned

What value can we derive from conceptualizing nonprofit boards as communities of practice? How can understanding the interplay of domain, practice and community shape and strengthen the work of our governing bodies?

I knew that revisiting my dissertation research would be an essential part of choosing nonprofit board learning environments as a 2015 theme for this blog. I carry what I learned in that qualitative research daily. Its evidence is everywhere in my writing - here and elsewhere - and in my consulting and teaching.

Would the process of revisiting the data yield anything new for me? To be honest, I wasn't sure that it would end up being anything but a nice memory lane moment and a chance to share what I learned in that process with an expanded readership. But I was pleasantly surprised by the number of insights and personal aha moments that occurred along the way.

Some of those new dot-connecting moments took place in the mid-week "Learning Theory to Governance Practice" series, where I shared some the the key scholarly and practitioner resources that informed my thinking (and discovering the big news that emerged in data analysis: evidence of a strong community of practice in the board studied).

That series also gave me a chance to return to my adult education theoretical roots, which I don't do as often as I should (my natural tendency is to hone in on the content where I practice as an adult educator, nonprofit governance). That was a healthy thing for me personally and professionally. It also is critically important as I continue to develop a model nonprofit board learning environment.

As I review the series again today, and bring personal closure to the process, a few core ideas still ring true.

The research. While one can never officially generalize to broader populations from qualitative research, I affirmed that my decision to choose a case study to explore my research questions regarding routine nonprofit board learning was a solid one. What I witnessed within the routine activity of this high-functioning board could not have been surveyed or predicted. It had to be discovered, observed, queried and compared over time.

The Community of Practice components

I mentioned in the series, multiple times, that the community of practice framework found me in data analysis. I didn't enter the study looking for evidence of this framework. But using it to sort and explain key findings in analysis made everything fit and offered tremendous explanatory power.

Domain. For someone who harps on the critical necessity to ground everything a board does to their organization's mission, finding endless evidence of domain (mission) focus was both heartening and inspiring. It proved - in clear and compelling ways - that consistent, authentic mission focus in board work is not only possible but productive and stimulating. Seeing that mission focus not only inform but transform board decisions was shocking. That individual members also could describe in vivid ways how that mission fit their personal interests and values was an incredible bonus.

Practice. From an adult learning - and a practitioner/consultant - perspective, this was the community of practice component that most excited me. Discovering the practices that helped this board govern effectively was a revelation. Literally. I didn't know what I would find in this area when I embarked on this research. I would never claim that these specific practices will single-handedly equip all nonprofit boards for success. But they are powerful. As a researcher, I can't officially say "do these things and you'll govern well." But as a practitioner, I offer evidence from this board of what is possible when members are clear about their roles, learn from and with each other, have access to learning resources that inform their discussions and decisions, and ask pointed and powerful questions.

At the time, I was wowed by the way this board posed and used questions in meetings. I'm almost ashamed to admit that one of the biggest revelations of this revisiting process was realizing (in one of the last posts of the series) that the questions themselves weren't what made what unfolded from them exceptional. It was the capacity and the willingness of members to use them as springboards for creative, multidimensional, transformative discussions and decisions. I was generally aware, but providing and reflecting on specific examples this summer really brought this message home to me. I come away from this work with a renewed commitment to promoting and creating capacity for rich board inquiry.

Community. My one big regret - even more so today - is lack of attention to capturing detailed evidence of community building within the board that I studied. At the time, the great value of applying the community of practice framework to my data was the opportunity it provided to sort the big ol' mess o' something that taunted me into neat "practice" and "community" categories. But my research attention was elsewhere. Community components seemed obvious and necessary, but they were not particularly sexy or as germane to my adult learning focus as the other two elements.

It's also, I believe, a matter of "community" being largely invisible in healthy organizations (unless you're specifically studying it - which would have been the case if I'd entered this using a community of practice lens up front). Frankly, they gave me nothing juicy to discuss in this area. I know in my gut, if not my researcher's notebooks, that the board's attention to creating a collegial and productive environment for working contributed to their success. I've come to appreciate the importance of tending to factors that create working space that is not only safe but intellectually stimulating.

Finding solid and compelling evidence of a community of practice was the "big news" of my research and all that followed from it. That's still the theoretical focal point and the foundation for my connecting to the adult learning scholarly community.

From a practitioner standpoint, this process has reminded me that effective governance, where generative thinking and leadership is embedded in the work and outcomes, requires more than a magic mix of the right structures, job descriptions and many of the other elements so often held up as the keys to board effectiveness.

The fact is, we need all three of the community of practice elements - domain, practice and community - for that nonprofit governance to reach its full potential. Specifics may end up looking different in your board than what I saw in my case study. But the essential factors represented in the three COP components are, well, essential.

  • Without individual and collective commitment on the domain/mission, our work will wander and fail to fulfill what our organizations and communities require of our governing bodies.
  • Without practices that facilitate that mission focus and work, we fall short of our full leadership potential and likely waste time and energy in ways that challenge board member engagement.
  • Without a community that is not only safe and respectful but also stimulating and generative, we will fail to take full advantage of members' wisdom and talents.

When one of these is missing or weak, our boards - and their full governance potential - are impacted. When they are present, our boards have what they need to succeed and lead.

I look forward to embarking on the next chapter of this blog and the next phase of the board learning theme. I do so with renewed clarity about, and appreciation for, the research that launched my ongoing commitment to rethinking and reshaping the way we prepare our boards for their significant responsibilities and expand their capacity for leadership.

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