Monday, April 11, 2016

Facilitating tacit board knowledge transfer

(Purchased from Bigstock Photo)

"How can we possibly lose all the wisdom and knowledge that our retiring board members take with them when they leave?"

"What can we do to capture all that knowledge and share it with others?"

Finding ways to facilitate collaborative learning, where everyone benefits from what individuals know, is a natural and appropriate goal for nonprofit board development. After all, we recruit members (in part, at least) for what they know about topics that matter to us - our mission area, our communities, professional expertise areas, etc. If we are engaging them fully, our board members understand that expanding collective governance capacity by sharing their individual gifts - facilitating peer learning - is part of the job.

But it's not as easy as the illustration above suggests (and so many hope, especially when they schedule formal learning events).  Unfortunately. So how do we foster knowledge sharing and transfer? How do we avoid hanging onto veteran members too long out of fear of losing what they know? Those are two of my personal "eternal questions" as a nonprofit board educator. The ultimate answer still feels just slightly out of reach. But a recent reading on a related topic offered a bit of helpful insight that is helping bring that answer into clearer view.

I was reading Mitch Ditkoff's Storytelling at Work: How Moments of Truth on the Job Reveal the Real Business of Life when a four-point list caught my eye.

"Four ways to facilitate tacit learning transfer:"
  1. "Conduct and distribute interviews with your organization's tacit knowledge keepers."
  2. "Create opportunities for people to observe and apprentice with your organization's tacit knowledge keepers."
  3. "Record, distribute and tell organizational stories that communicate key insights."
  4. "Initiate more hands-on action learning (where doing replaces rote learning)." (loc 2784)

The part-time nature of a nonprofit board's work might not fit Ditkoff's conceptualization perfectly - vs., say, the day-to-day nature of the nonprofit organization itself. But parallels exist that I find useful for our purposes here.

In some respects, sharing explicit knowledge (know what) - the knowledge we can see and discuss and put into a PowerPoint slideshow - can be (almost) as easy as the illustration above. Ask me to explain how to create a social media plan for your event, open a video app on your phone, and record the knowledge I share. Post it somewhere other current and future board members can access and you essentially have my knowledge on the subject captured forever. (Actually, that's more or less Ditkoff's first bullet point. More on that in a moment.)

But the tacit knowledge (know how) that we all carry within can be more challenging to access consciously and share with others. Tacit knowledge is carried within and is largely invisible to us. Ask us to describe how we do something that is now second nature to us, and we'll generally draw a blank. That information lies somewhere under the surface and can be hard to impossible to retrieve.

I believe it's also the knowledge we really fear losing when we anticipate ending our formal relationship with retiring board members. If we can find ways to tease out that more invisible pool of what we know, everyone benefits. That's where storytelling - and Ditkoff's recommendations above - come in. He calls stories "know how's closest surrogate."

I won't claim I can read Ditkoff's mind and predict exactly how he envisioned the four actions playing out, especially in a nonprofit board setting. But they do spark a few ideas for me, and I suspect readers have not only your own ideas but examples to share. Here are my initial thoughts about each of his recommendations:

1. "Conduct and distribute interviews with your organization's tacit knowledge keepers."

Technology really does make this one as easy as the quick scenario I described earlier. Look for big and small opportunities to sit down with board members and ask them to talk about their experiences working and serving with you. What were their motivations for that service? What was most rewarding? What was the most challenging experience and how did it shape their thinking and service that followed? How did they come to make the decisions that drive your organization today.

Capture their stories, via video or audio, for sharing with others in the organization. Create a written narrative or upload the original media files to a space that can be accessed by board members - perhaps your board portal or your YouTube channel (Unlisted URLs can keep them in-house, though some stories may be worthy of sharing publicly.).

2. "Create opportunities for people to observe and apprentice with your organization's tacit knowledge keepers."

Some of the more obvious scenarios for this one take place early in a board member's life, as that individual learns more about the organization and becomes immersed in the board's work. Having a mentor who can help pave the way and provide context helps, too. But we also can create opportunities, especially leadership development opportunities, to expose members to new ways to learn and serve. Just as some boards have chair-elect positions to prepare their next peer leader, we can develop similar experiences that provide mentoring and experiential learning opportunities for other leadership roles. We can encourage cross-pollination with staff experts in committee work. We can encourage appropriate visitation and volunteerism experiences that deepen their understanding of your organization and its mission.

3. "Record, distribute and tell organizational stories that communicate key insights."

This one isn't board-specific, but the stories captured definitely can inform board understanding and decision making. Our nonprofits are full of stories needing to be told, including:

  • Current and former service recipients (the latter easier to share in some settings than the former)
  • Volunteers who can talk about their work and motivations
  • Current and former board members
  • Donors
  • Staff members

Routine board work should be filled with stories, shared formally and informally, by members of all of these stakeholder groups.  To the extent that some of them can be recorded for later reference - and for sharing publicly where appropriate - we create additional vehicles for informing and enriching the experiences and governance capacity of all of our board members.

4. "Initiate more hands-on action learning (where doing replaces rote learning)."

We can listen to, and learn from, others' experiences. But we also can become the active subjects of our own experiences. Both have a role to play in board member learning. Guess which is the most powerful and meaningful. Meetings that engage their brains and hearts play a role. So does committee work that creates peer expertise in more focused aspects of the board's responsibilities. Facilitating other appropriate experiences that bring members into the organization's work expands the direct learning potential. On the flip side, board members who come from your volunteer ranks bring those direct experiences with them to the boardroom with them.

I knew that this might raise as many questions as answers when I decided to write about Ditkoff's recommendations. Still, I hope that one or more of these might spark a thought about the wisdom within your board and the ways in which you might begin to preserve at least some of their knowledge and make it available while they are with you and after they leave.

What questions or ideas does this raise for you? What examples can you offer from your organization? What stories and wisdom do your want to capture from your board members before they retire? What one step can you take in the next month to start making that happen?

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