The most significant sign of this shift is the decline of the academic board, once the key agency for communication between management and staff, and a training ground for lecturers aspiring to management posts.
Only just over one in three principals and senior managers responding to the survey said they used the boards in any formal sense. Many said this channel of communication was no longer relevant to the running of the college.
There is no formal requirement for governing boards to put items to the academic boards, although 40 per cent of the 134 colleges in the survey said they did use them for some communications.
The study, which is the first national survey into the work of governing bodies, shows serious weaknesses in the procedures used by most colleges to keep their work under review.
The lack of adequate self-assessment was recently criticised by the Further Education Funding Council Chief inspector, Terry Melia, who accused many of "complacency". Such shortcomings have set back plans to lighten the inspection load and give colleges a freer hand at self-assessment by up to four years.
The CEF survey shows that six out of 10 managers think that the performance of the boards is "poor".
Roger Ward, chief executive of the CEF, blamed the very heavy workload and "growing numbers of clarion calls for public accountability". Members of boards - more than half of whom were from industry - were busy people who gave freely of their valuable time, he said.
Principals were shown to be the most influential members of the board, while students and trade union members were viewed as being of only marginal importance. The survey is to be followed up with a report to colleges on model working practices for boards.