Monday, October 3, 2016

The board chair experience: Applying the 70:20:10 framework to preparation data

Can we find evidence of the 70:20:10 adult learning framework in the Alliance for Nonprofit Management board chair survey preparation data? As I begin to wrap up this series highlighting that portion of our research, I can't help but notice some pretty clear connections between participants' responses and that model of describing how adults learn.

I'll acknowledge up front that this is a big stretch, one out of the bounds of my role as a member of the survey research team. But the adult educator in me can't help exploring how the findings - including comments - end up aligning with this framework. I began noticing the intersections as I revisited the data during the series. As I started capturing some of those observations, the connections were clear. I won't overstate or pretend that this was something we sought as we designed the survey. It just is. And, for me, what it "is" is somewhat interesting.

A quick recap of the 70:20:10 framework:

  • 70 percent of learning comes via experience - doing, engaging in stretch assignments, making and learning from mistakes, etc.
  • 20 percent comes from working with and under others - collaborative assignments, mentoring relationships, engaging in personal learning networks, etc.
  • 10 percent happens in formal learning experiences - primarily training.

The model also is expressed this way: experience, exposure, education.

Following are some of the noteworthy elements that I identified while writing the series. These are my observations and mine alone. They are merely observations.


Experiential learning (Experience)

One thing should have been clear from my series: evidence of "experience" - reported where we asked about it and even where we didn't - was everywhere. In some cases, we asked directly. But even when we didn't, many respondents volunteered experiences to describe what they found helpful in the context of the question posed. Experience was a common theme in "other" comments for questions about helpful information sources and helpful people - a strong theme, in both cases, even when experience wasn't necessarily the point.

The dominance of experience references was fascinating. One of the reasons for that fascination is precisely what I cannot tell from that dominance. Why was that experience shared germane to their work or preparation as board chair? How did that experience inform their thinking and practice in that role? Was this a quality experience, especially as it relates to nonprofit board service?

Looking back at the "experience" data now, I can say that I'm not surprised that it was so common - especially as I bring 70:20:10 into the picture. In the larger context, though, particularly when offered as "other" resources in lieu of things like reading books or exploring Internet resources about boards and board leadership or participating in webinars or conferences designed to prepare them for the role, researcher me finds it, well, interesting.

Practitioner me finds it a bit troubling, to be honest.  Not all experience is created equal, and not all experience fits perfectly to the unique setting of nonprofit governance. And experience replicated over and over again within a board, or between boards, without pausing to reflect on why we do it that way or introducing different perspectives on how to govern, simply reproduces more of the same - whether or not it's functional or effective. When experience is the only pool in which we dip our toes, we miss significant opportunities to learn and grow as leaders. That is what I am seeing in the data.

Social learning (Exposure)

How this unfolded in survey data surprised me the most. It blew me away, frankly. Yes, there were the expected places where social preparation support emerged, both in the design of the question and the responses offered within it. That was especially true of our "most helpful people" question, where identifying social learning sources was the point of the query.

The epicenter of my "ahas" regarding social learning interests and needs, though, was the open-ended, "in hindsight, I wish I'd had..." question. As I prepared for my post analyzing that question, I must admit that I was shocked by the fact that two of the four dominant themes that emerged were social learning-related. In hindsight, many respondents wanted access to two common social learning resources: mentors and peer networks.  The "wow" moment for me remains that they offered those needs independently, in a setting that offered no suggestion or prompt, and that the threads leading to the themes were pretty strong.

When offered the opportunity to share what they really wanted and needed to enhance their board chair experience after the fact, many described social learning resources.

Formal learning (Education)

I'm not sure what I expected to find here, to be honest. We included formal learning options in the "helpful information resources" question, but responses show that chairs simply did not access them in their preparation for the role.  Now, especially when viewed within the 70:20:10 lens, that makes sense. Formal learning experiences account for a comparatively small source of how adults actually learn. However, in an environment where training frequently is the default learning mode or the perceived solution to all of our board problems, I maybe expected to see more evidence that they turned to formal learning sources to prepare for this new leadership responsibility (at least among those who said they prepared).

But formal learning experiences popped up in comments in two surprising places. One was in the "hindsight" question, where desires for different kinds of training experiences formed one of the four big themes I found. Where that became surprising for me was in the context of the reported lack of access taken in the "information" question. So many of the types of formal learning experiences many sought in hindsight were the very resources that they said they did not access in preparation for the role.

The other surprise, which I acknowledged in the post reflecting on "other" responses to the "people" and "information" questions," was a small but notable minority of respondents who described participating in not only formal learning experiences but courses offered in academic settings. Whether a part of a formal degree program or a certification, they took part in, and drew value from, courses on nonprofit board/leadership-related topics. I teach in both settings. A small part of me took great pleasure  in those references.

Thinking about how the data fit 70:20:10 may be a creative stretch, one too far from a formal research analysis standpoint. But I'm finding that this process is helping me to expand my understanding of the preparation numbers from a practical standpoint. It's also an attempt to apply one adult/workplace learning framework to data that we have so far viewed only through governance lenses. There is more to learn about board chairs' preparation when adult learning theories and models are applied. That is part of my process as a researcher tied to this work.

I have at least one, maybe two, more posts on the preparation side of our survey data. I'm debating whether I want to proceed with analysis of the other section of the survey. In the meantime, I'm interested in your thoughts, suggestions, etc., on what I have laid out here.

NOTE: This post is part of a brief series reflecting on the findings from the recently released Alliance for Nonprofit Management board chair survey that I found most noteworthy. While I'm generally not alone in my interpretations of these findings, observations conveyed in these posts officially represent my own and not necessarily those of my research team colleagues of the ANM. Posts in the series, as well as other resources of potential value to board chairs, are pinned to my Pinterest board on the topic.


Gayle L Gifford, ACFRE said...

what I love about the internet... getting to hang out with really thoughtful and knowledgeable folks who live 2/3 of the way across the country.

I Love this Debra: "Not all experience is created equal, and not all experience fits perfectly to the unique setting of nonprofit governance. And experience replicated over and over again within a board, or between boards, without pausing to reflect on why we do it that way or introducing different perspectives on how to govern, simply reproduces more of the same - whether or not it's functional or effective. When experience is the only pool in which we dip our toes, we miss significant opportunities to learn and grow as leaders."

I was just reflecting on a retreat I facilitated Saturday. The board member who said "I've never been on a board before so I don't know what to do." My response... there's some basic stuff you need to fulfill as a fiduciary, but the rest you get to create.Just because something might be common practice, doesn't make it a good practice.
So let's look at what makes for highly effective teams. What are the big questions facing this organization at this time? Big questions for the future? What culture do you want to create?

Debra Beck, EdD said...

Your description of your retreat experience definitely rings familiar, Gayle. So many of the boards and board members I've encountered over the years have described operating from roughly the same place: not really knowing or understanding what it *really* means to govern a nonprofit (or, at best, replicating what they've seen and done in other boards). It's probably no surprise that board leaders begin in that same basic place - and look to experience, whatever it may be, for some of the guidance they seek. Or they assume that what works in one setting will apply just as well here. Sometimes, it might work out that way. But not always.

I keep coming back to two survey questions - the 'did you do something to prepare' and the 'helpful information sources' - and wishing I had the opportunity to sit down with some of the respondents to ask for more detail. For those who did prepare, what did they do (how do *they* define "prepare?")? For those who didn't, why? And you know, as much as I'm interested in the specific sources of information that they found helpful or not, I'm even more interested in those who responded N/A to things like attend a webinar, visit the local library, or even read a book.

The researcher side finds that of interest, clearly. But the practitioner side desperately wants to understand the disconnects so that we can find ways to address them that ultimately enhance board - and board leadership - effectiveness.

I'm also right there with you on the conviction that we need to be tending even more diligently to effective team dynamics and plain old communication 101. That's a make-or-break point for so many boards.